North Africa, West Asia

“We are all brothers in the end”. Three conflicts, three generations; Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Jordan

Madaba is a large town in central Jordan and host to many of its neighbours' refugees. There has been some tension between Syrian refugees, Palestinians and Jordanians. But what is the current situation between the new Syrian arrivals and the local people?

Ben Benas
16 April 2014
Madaba Camp

Semi-permanent Palestinian Refugee Camp in Madaba. It now houses a considerable Syrian population. Image: BenGe Photography The Syrian conflict enters its fourth year and 600 Syrians arrive in Jordan every day, according to UN estimates. The relationship between Jordanians and its varied refugees is tested out in the town of Madaba - Jordan’s fourth largest ‘city’ - 30km south-west of Amman and 100km of the Zaatari refugee camp. Established in 1956 for the Palestinians, Madaba refugee camp, together with the town of Madaba itself, now shelters close to 9,000 Syrian refugees according to figures by the UNRWA. Its newest arrivals are from Damascus, Homs and Daraa.

Following the sharp increase in Syrian refugees, CARE reported in April 2013, “a rise of community tensions due to the large number of poor Jordanian households with whom Syrian refugees compete for access to assistance and other services." An Iraqi-Kurd begging outside Madaba’s central bus terminal alludes to Jordan’s refugee-stricken past. The Iraqi refugees – of which 25,000 were to stay – fled the fighting in 1991 and again in the mid-2000s. Previously, it was the Palestinians. Now it is the turn of the Syrians.

Economist Khalid Wazani reckons “the cost on the budget is $3,500 per year for each refugee.” The claim of additional burden on the treasury is echoed by the World Bank: “[The Kingdom’s fiscal strains] have been deepened by the influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan.”

The struggle for employment and a rare case of integration

Tariq, a shopkeeper originally from Damascus, has experienced firsthand deteriorating relations between Jordanians and Syrian refugees in Madaba. “At first, people helped me with money for rent. But refugees kept coming; it was impossible for Jordanians here to keep giving.” Tariq’s is a success story; after struggling for over one year, he is now the proud owner of a Kanafeh shop. Splitting the business’ proceeds with a Jordanian owner, Tariq is building a sustainable living in Jordan.

However, the majority of Syrians who actually work - “about 160,000” according to Ministry of Labour – are doing so illegally. “I tried to get a work permit, but was refused. Everyone here works illegally,” explains Tariq. “I worked when I got here, but in the end, didn’t get paid,” Tariq smiles, his hands open. According to a report published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in June, 2013, “a work permit is required which in practice is not granted to Syrians.”

An UNRWA worker at Zaatari elaborated on Tariq’s experience. “Many Syrians are skilled professionals. Some find work in their field. In the end, their employers often choose not to pay them. What can the refugees do?” Without work permits, refugees are not subject to Jordan’s employment rights and are held hostage in the bureaucratic tangle.

Tariq and his employees

Tariq between two of his Syrian employees. He splits the ownership of the shop with a local Jordanian. Image: BenGe Photography

Inability to find work is one of the reasons forcing Syrians into isolated communities. Relying on each other’s support, friends and family connections, contributes to refugees clustering in the same area. On a street in Madaba Refugee Camp - previously a Palestinian-only area of Madaba - a Syrian refugee shrugs his shoulders: “Why come here? I already had some of my family come here before me.”

Inside Madaba

Nail Al-Mulhan is a Bedouin originally from Al Lubban in Jordan. Even with a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Engineering, Nail is finding it increasingly difficult to feed his family of five. “There is increasing competition for jobs, housing, and resources.” Nail’s family occupies one of nine apartments in a building, the other eight are rented by Syrian refugees.

Visiting Tariq’s Kanafeh shop with Nail, Tariq reiterates Nail’s estimates: “All the workers here are from Syria”, says the Damascene shopkeeper, while Nail throws a quick glance at me. However, according to CARE’s report published in April, 2013, 61% of Syrians in Madaba are unemployed.

Nail Salameh Al-Mulhan, holding his master’s thesis

Nail Salameh Al-Mulhan, holding his master’s thesis. He is considering a move to the USA. Image: BenGe Photography

Conflicting values

Tariq is sceptical that Syrian refugees can culturally integrate into Jordanian society. The contrast between community norms means that, “not all Jordanians respect or accept Syrians.” The more progressive communities of Syria and Jordan are seen as a threat to the traditional and conservative way of living in the region - the cultural divisions permeate the society regardless of nationality. However, Nail is quick to conclude: “The Syrian community is open-minded (more than the Jordanian); the culture is different. The relationship between women and men is not the same. I don’t like it; many Jordanians think the same.”

As with many stereotypes, views tends to be formed by Syrian cultural exports and media portrayal. Mohammed Dawabsheh, a Palestinian living in Amman, is more critical about such perceptions. “Jordanians’ view of Syrian culture and society is based on films and television dramas like Bab Al-Hara or Al Eshq Al Haram.” Raduan, a Syrian from a traditional family in the south of Damascus, adds: “In fact, the culture in the southern areas of Syria is also conservative.

From the Palestinian diaspora to the Syrian conflict

Palestinian and Syrian children by the Madaba Camp

Palestinian and Syrian children run among the ankle deep grass and knee high heaps of trash. Image: BenGe Photography

Abu Khalil, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, remembers coming to Madaba in 1967. “It was hard back then; we lived in tents and we didn’t get much help. But it was easier to integrate. Jordanians and Palestinians are the same people.” Jordan controlled the West Bank, one of the Palestinian territories, until 1967. But Abu Khalil appreciates the challenges Syrians experience today. “They have all come with big families, so it’s hard to survive.”

Living on the outskirts of the Palestinian’s semi-permanent refugee camp, he voices the concerns of local Palestinians. “Everything has become more expensive here because of the Syrian refugees - the food, the accommodation. Everyone is complaining. But in the end, we just have to live with it.” Motioning to his son sitting by his side, “my son wants to marry, but can’t afford to rent an apartment here any more.”

Remembering the time when people helped the Syrians to find food and shelter, he now shakes his head. “It’s stopped now. There are too many.”

Syian man and his daughter

Syrian man with his daughter in Madaba Camp. He has reported chemical attacks by Assad’s forces. Image: BenGe Photography

“We are all brothers”

A Jordanian shopkeeper, surrounded by businesses owned by Palestinians and Syrians in Madaba is quick to dismiss any disagreement: “we are all brothers here.” A recent survey, conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), concluded that only “seven per cent cited the Syrian refugee influx” as the cause for Jordan “heading in the wrong direction.”

Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians shake hands over plates of Kanafeh and regional sweets in the shop in the far corner of Madaba. “Problems?” laugh the people inside, “there are absolutely no problems between us”.

If the Syrian communities do become more isolated as some signs indicate, Jordan faces a new problem. Unable to access wider distribution of services and opportunities, many will remain confined to such self-formed enclaves.

Naji Al-Roahma, a Jordanian police man serving in Amman and living in Madaba, smiles, “everything is OK between us. We are all poor”.

Naji Al Roahma with his two children and Syrian neighbors

Naji Al Roahma, who lives on the outskirts of Madaba Camp, with his two children and Syrian neighbours. Image: BenGe Photography

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