This four-part series appeared in the Ottawa Citizen October 30 – November 2.
Part 1: Across the Desert.
Esmak Asahr Khaled is a 24-year-old from Homs who made his way to Jordan. Photo by Terry Glavin.
TOWER 22, the Great Syrian Desert — It doesn’t get any more remote than this, and yet since 1 a.m., roughly 250 Syrian refugees had found their way to this most isolated outpost of the Jordanian Border Security Forces in the empty and forbidding northeastern corner of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
A woman accompanied by her husband and eight children was nine months pregnant and just going into labour. She’d slept on the ground the night before. Another woman had brought with her the five children of her sister-in-law who was killed by the Baathist regime’s bombing of civilian neighbourhoods in Homs five months ago.
“To get here we were travelling in farm trucks for days, stacked like sheep,” she said.
Tower 22 is just a stone’s throw south of the Syrian border, Iraq is only a few kilometres to the east, and to the far horizon in every direction there is nothing but dust and gravel and low, rolling hills. It would seem the last place you’d expect refugees to choose to sneak out of the human abattoir Syria has become — but that’s exactly why Syrian refugees are increasingly choosing places like Tower 22 to make their escape.
The Baathist regime has lately established a much tighter grip on the western border areas, so for now, fleeing refugees have a greater chance of avoiding slaughter out here in the eastern desert. The refugees’ allegations of Syrian regime soldiers gunning down groups of unarmed civilians as they flee towards the Jordanian border — three out of four Syrian refugees are children and women — were confirmed for me by a senior officer with the Jordanian border force here.
“Yes, they do this. We have seen it. The regime is trying to prevent people from leaving the country,” Brigadier-General R. Al-zyoud Hussein, commander of the Jordanian Border Security Forces’ Sixth Brigade, told me.
Just three weeks before, two Syrian regime military vehicles were seen giving chase to three freight trucks packed with refugees and headed toward the border near Tower 22. When the Syrian regime vehicles fired on the trucks, Hussein ordered a Sixth Brigade patrol to return fire across the border in a series of warning volleys, a move permitted by the Border Security Forces’ rules of engagement. The refugees got through.
Jordanian border authorities have established working relationships with the rebels of the Free Syria Army — border force trucks are situated near safe crossing points and leave their headlights on at night to guide the way for FSA-escorted refugee groups. But encounters with the Syrian regime are becoming more violent and commonplace, especially out here in the remote northeastern deserts.
Tower 22 consists of an old radio beacon and some rudimentary accommodation for Sixth Brigade patrols that stop here on their routine runs along the frontier. Less than a kilometre away is one of 45 illegal crossing points along the 378-kilometre Jordanian-Syrian border. The station has lately been augmented with some Atco-type trailers and a sprawling Bedouin-style tent to accommodate refugees.
I’d come here with a fact-finding delegation from the Canadian embassy in Amman, led by Ambassador Bruno Saccomani. Of the roughly $340 million in humanitarian and infrastructure support that Canada has allocated to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, about $25 million is helping the Jordanian Armed Forces safely transport refugees to registration centres from remote border areas.
Just getting to Tower 22 meant roughly 90 minutes in a Royal Jordanian Air Force helicopter to the Sixth Brigade’s desert headquarters and then another 90 minutes overland in Canadian-donated Mistubishi 4x4s — five vehicles, three flat tires.
We happened to arrive at Tower 22 at exactly the moment a group of refugees was being assisted out of the back of a Jordanian army truck. They were ragged and hungry, dehydrated and dazed. Many were crying from happiness. An old man in a red-checked kaffiyeh ran up to me and kissed my face several times, believing me to be a Jordanian official of some kind.
After being given water and food and treated for their immediate ailments, the refugees will be transported to the closest refugee reception centres, in the villages of Ar Ruwayshid and Trebil, both about 80 kilometres away. From there, most will be taken to the United Nations’ Za’atari refugee camp, on the other side of the country, joining as many as 140,000 Syrian refugees interned there already.
Ambassador Saccomani said it was worthwhile to have made it all the way to Tower 22, to a get a precise understanding of the Border Security Force’s transportation needs. To witness something of the experience of the more than two million Syrians who have fled their country over the past two years is worthwhile, too, he said: “Although you do feel like you’re heartbroken when you see this. It’s hard to imagine that this could be happening in 2013, especially to children and women.”
Najim Denden, a 26-year-old dairy farmer from the village of Sirja in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, said he’d been on the run for about three months, travelling with four brothers and sisters and 16 cousins. “During the day we can’t walk, because we are targeted by the planes,” he said. “They fire rockets at us, and helicopters drop barrels of fuel. Sometimes, we carried our relatives on our shoulders.
“We took back roads. There were snipers all over the place — sometimes we couldn’t move, even at night. The Free Syrian Army helped us and guided us by the hidden routes. They worked as scouts. They have motorcycles on the roads,” Denden said. “I am thankful to the Free Syrian Army, and I ask God to protect them, and to protect the King of Jordan.”
Another refugee, 24-year-old Esmak Ashar Khaled, said he is thankful to countries like Canada and grateful to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for its generosity in taking in well more than half a million displaced Syrians. But there is something wrong, he said.
“I am asking for help only from God now,” said Khaled, who described himself as a revolutionary activist from the besieged city of Homs. “We are fed up with the international community. They have been giving us promises, but nothing on the ground. If only they would put on a no fly-zone, because the regime targets people, animals, crops, everything. They set fire to our harvests. Why is there no help? We have been killed not just with chemical weapons but with knives, by mercenaries from Hezbollah, by bombs and guns. Still the international community does nothing to help us.
Part 2: Amman, City of Refugees
AMMAN, Jordan — Jihad Saleh is a fastidiously-groomed and smartly-dressed 54-year-old Syrian English teacher and business consultant. He doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of a refugee. I didn’t find him limping across the desert or clamouring for relief outside a United Nations compound. But Saleh’s predicament is so typical for a Syrian refugee as to be utterly mundane.
“Of course, we are beggars now,” Saleh told me over coffee at a roadside bistro in Amman’s Shmeisani business district. “I brought my wife and five children here from Damascus because I had to, for their safety. Now, all our savings are gone, and I do not know what we are going to do.”
The number of Syrians who are either “internally displaced persons,” homeless but stuck inside the Baathist charnel house, or “refugees,” whether they’re registered with the UN or not, now exceeds seven million. This is a mass of traumatized humanity roughly 10 times as numerous as the original Palestinian exodus from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
In the little Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — population roughly 6.3 million — nearly one in 10 people is now a Syrian refugee, maybe one in nine. If the UN High Commission on Refugees is correct, something like 550,000 Syrian refugees now live in Jordan, but Jordanian media affairs minister Mohammad al-Momani puts the number of Syrians in Jordan at more than a million.
In any case, nearly four out of every five of these Syrians have settled here in Amman, a mostly sparkling and modern city of about two million people. At Care International’s Syrian Support Field Office in the Jabal Nuzha neighbourhood of East Amman, centre director Matt Sugrue says he’s constantly surprised at how hospitable and welcoming the Jordanians are.
“The Syrians we work with, they talk to us about their neighbours and they tell us how helpful and friendly they are,” said Sugrue, a graduate in Middle Easter history from Dalhousie University in Halifax. “The attitude seems to be, ‘What else can we do but be hospitable?’ It’s amazing, really.”
That hospitality is perhaps a function of Jordan’s history as a haven for refugees going back to the Ottoman Empire’s 19th century settlement of Muslim Circassians and Chechens fleeing the expansionist depredations of Tsarist Russia. Roughly half the Jordanian people nowadays count themselves as Palestinians, and 700,000 or so Iraqi refugees still call Jordan home after having fled the First Gulf War and then the tumults following the 2003 overthrow of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.
But while the Iraqi refugees were mainly people of means, the Syrians tend to be poor or at least close to broke, so they end up in East Amman or in Old Amman, a district also known as the “balad,” a confusing maze of soukhs, dark alleys and twisting narrow streets and staircases that climb up and down nine steep-sided hills with houses hanging from their sides.
This is “downtown Amman,” the capital of the ancient Ammonites who were conquered by the biblical King David. Amman was later a Greek city of the Ptolemies, then it was a Roman city — at the top of the Citadel of Jabal al Qala’a there is what’s left of the Temple of Hercules, larger than any temple in Rome. Then Amman was a Byzantine Christian city until Islam arrived with the Umayyads in the eighth century.
On top of all this rubble, a century of intermittently explosive population growth has produced a country that is strangely stable and relatively healthy. The ruling Hashemite dynasty of King Abdullah II runs a nearly total autocracy, but the king commands a deeply loyal following. One of the kingdom’s best friends is Canada.
The way a senior Foreign Affairs official put it to me was that apart from Israel, Jordan is Canada’s strongest and most resolute ally in this part of the world. “The Jordanians have gone shoulder to shoulder with us in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, and our relationship contains all the bells and whistles that you wouldn’t normally associate with such a small country.”
Among the bells and whistles: A Canada-Jordan Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, a Canada-Jordan Free Trade Agreement and a Canada-Jordan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Since the Syrian refugee crisis erupted two years ago, Canada has invested about $130 million in direct bilateral support to Jordan to assist with everything from budget relief for overloaded maternity wards to school districts that have had to go to double shifts to accommodate all the newly arrived Syrian kids.
Jihad Saleh, the Syrian refugee in the sharp suit, says he is resigned to seeing matters turn for the worst. He says he suspects his country will continue to degenerate, refugee numbers will continue to grow and Jordanians will chafe under the pressure.
“Our treatment here is already starting to be awful,” Saleh said. “It is because we are considered people who are taking away people’s jobs, and taking away their needs. Rents are going up, and people blame us. People need work, and clothes, and they are getting into debt.
“There is a pain in our hearts. We were peacefully living. Now our country is being torn apart,” Saleh said, “and there is nothing we can do.”
Part 3: “The trust is lost.”
Oways Eshami, 24, Free Syrian Army: “Everybody knows that the western world will do nothing to help us.” Phot by Terry Glavin.
AMMAN — U.S. President Barack Obama is an active accomplice and collaborator with the Syrian mass murderer and war criminal Bashar al-Assad. NATO countries like Canada are complicit in the Baathist regime’s ongoing atrocities. Jabhat al Nusra, a Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, is a true friend of the Syrian people. The western world is the enemy.
These are just a few of the assertions you will hear from an otherwise pleasant and passionately engaging Oways Eshami, a 24-year-old organizer with the revolutionary Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized military arm of Syria’s broadly recognized National Opposition Coalition.
“In the Syrian reality, people know who is against us and who is for us. Jabhat al Nusra is helpful to us,” Eshami told me during a conversation at an out-of-the-way coffee house here the other day. “I have met with them personally to find the truth. The United States says they are terrorists, but the truth is different. Everybody knows that the western world will do nothing to help us. The people of Syria are sure now that the western world is of no use to them at all.”
While this dismal prognosis may seem hard line in the extreme, the far greater pity is that Eshami’s point of view is commonplace not only among the “radicalized” vanguard of Syria’s young revolutionaries, but among ordinary Syrian refugees of all stripes in Jordan. It is also an analysis that is far more difficult to dislodge by resort to actual evidence than you might think.
Syria’s ongoing convulsions have resulted in 115,000 deaths. At least seven million people — roughly a third of the Syrian population — are now refugees or “internally displaced persons.” People are starving to death in the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital. Residents of regime-besieged neighbourhoods have been reduced to eating house cats and the leaves from the trees.
Syrians are convinced that the only power on Earth capable of coming to their rescue is the United States and its NATO alliance, but for all the talk about “red lines” and Barack Obama’s stirring speeches about how the Baathist regime “must go,” no help comes, Eshami said.
These are dangerous ideas, especially here in Amman. The tiny Hashemite kingdom lives in Syria’s shadow, and while King Abdullah is nominally supportive of the Syrian opposition coalition, Damascus still runs an open embassy here and Baathist spies are engaged in elaborate intelligence-gathering operations within Jordan’s Syrian refugee community.
Over the past two years, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate has rooted out dozens of regime spies posing as defectors from Syria’s military and security apparatus. Last month, a military court sentenced five Jordanians to jail terms after they were convicted of planning to cross into Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra’s jihad. But while the GID has a well-earned global reputation for competence and efficiency, and actively co-operates with Israel’s Mossad and the CIA, it is not always easy for Jordanian authorities to distinguish between patriotic Syrian revolutionaries and jihadist groups linked with al-Qaida.
Eshami is not a radical ideologue whose ideas have percolated from some Middle Eastern Studies curriculum. Like most of Syria’s young rebels, he started out three years ago happily disposed to western-style democracy and fully committed to the non-violence of Syria’s youthful uprising. Eshami joined the Free Syrian Army only after participating in peaceful demonstrations that were attacked by Baathist gunfire. He “went underground” after he was picked up by regime forces and beaten within an inch of his life last August.
Eshami ended up in hospital here in Amman in February after he was severely wounded and lost the sight in his right eye while escorting a group of journalists to the scene of a bomb-demolished neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus. Targeted by a regime rocket, three of the journalists died on the spot. Eshami now works for a modest salary on various above-ground assignments with the Syrian opposition coalition and the FSA.
“I am patient and I am doing this job because I believe in the Syrian revolution. I did not come here to be a refugee,” Eshami said. “I don’t want to be a refugee here. No way.”
Eshami says he is convinced that the Syrian revolution will eventually triumph, but he has given up waiting for help from the “war-weary” western world.
No help came from the NATO capitals even after the Assad regime’s Aug. 21 sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta resulted in a body count the U.S. State Department put at 1,429 people. Instead, Barack Obama ended up entering into a long-term partnership with Bashar al Assad in a Moscow-sponsored, Khomeinist-backed UN-overseen chemical weapons disposal program that guarantees the Baathist regime’s persistence.
“What this means is the western world is not a friend of the Syrian people,” Eshami said. “The Syrian people know this now.”
Even among the most pro-democracy, anti-jihadist and secularist of the Syrian revolutionaries, Eshami’s ideas about the United States and the NATO countries are now uncontroversial.
“The trust is lost now, it is true,” 34-year-old FSA organizer Abu Alaa told me. “The trust is lost.”
Eshami and Alaa agree that there can be no cooperation at all with the fanatical and brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the direct al-Qaida proxy that has lately insinuated itself into the Syrian opposition forces (despite the regime’s propaganda, the overwhelming majority of the Syria’s opposition forces violently oppose al-Qaida). But unlike Eshami, Alaa takes a view of Jabhat al-Nusra that is more in line with that of the FSA leadership: Jabhat al Nusra is simply not to be trusted. “No. Nusra is no friend of the Syrian people.”
Apart from that, there is little to distinguish Oways Eshami’s views from those of the more “moderate” Abu Alaa.
Alaa’s work with the FSA mainly involves insuring that money raised by the Syrian-Canadian community for the humanitarian relief of the people of Ghouta gets spent properly on food, medicine, and other necessities.
“We are glad the Canadian government is helping the refugees in Jordan, but it would be better if Canada and other countries would stop the killing in Syria first,” Alaa said. “We are friends with Canada. If something horrible was happening to Canadians, we would stand up for you. We are part of the same humanity. What we are asking is to stop the killing in Syria. This is the first thing.
“The United States could help,” Alaa said. “We don’t need foreign troops to help. We need to have the Syrian air force destroyed. Make the skies empty. This would be the end of the regime. We know that America could do this, but America does not help us. It is because of hidden policies, and because they think all Arabs are terrorists.”
Part 4: Into The Unknown.
ZA’ATARI REFUGEE CAMP — At night, you can sometimes hear the fighting. It’s the roar of artillery, the sound of rockets, or the explosion of missiles fired from airplanes. It is a mere 40 kilometres from the centre of this sprawling refugee camp in Jordan to what is left of the town of Dara’a, on the Syrian side of the border. Dara’a is where the Syrian revolution began.
It started on March 6, 2011, when some schoolboys were arrested for painting “The people want to topple the regime” on a wall in Dara’a. More than a dozen boys were arrested. In the following days, crowds began to assemble, demanding the children’s release. By March 18, 2011, the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad was firing live rounds into groups of protesters. The slaughter has not stopped.
Za’atari is an immense and shambling bedlam of tents and “living containers” laid out on a grid pattern and enclosed by chain link and barbed wire where only two years ago there was nothing but an expanse of weeds and scorpions and dust-devils. The UN High Commission on Refugees doesn’t claim to know exactly how many people live here but this past summer the UNHCR’s best guess put the camp’s population at 140,000.
This would make Za’atari about equal in size to Barrie, Ont., and bigger than Kelowna, B.C. or Saint John’s, Nfld. Almost everyone here at Za’atari comes from Dara’a. On one of several demographic maps in a UNHCR office here, the distribution of refugee families throughout the camp is colour-coded by the families’ place of origin. Yellow means Damascus. Blue means Homs. Green is Dara’a. The map is almost entirely green. More than 90 per cent of the people here are from Dara’a.
“It is a kind of psychological warfare for us,” 33-year-old refugee Sawsan Hamadi, who worked as a nurse back in Dara’a, told me. Hamadi fled here with her husband and two children six months ago. She wasn’t talking about the sound of the fighting at night.
“It is that we have been abandoned,” Hamadi said.
“One day we hear that there may be an intervention in Syria, and then there is not. We get our hopes up at one point, and then they break our spirits.”
“One day we have our hopes up, the next day we are let down, and this is impacting our mentality. It is like psychological torture. That is how we feel.”
Hamadi said she didn’t mean to sound ungrateful for the help from the UNHCR and its donor countries. “But we didn’t want this kind of material support, this food and these things. We wanted someone to get rid of Bashar al-Assad.”
Abdul Mujid Mohammad is a 64-year-old former truckdriver, a Dara’a patriarch with two sons and five daughters with his current wife, another three sons and four daughters from an earlier wife who died of cancer several years ago, “40 or 50” grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. Most of Abdul Mujid’s clan now lives here at Za’atari. They arrived here in March.
They fled Dara’a for fear of the “shabiha,” the notorious, plainclothes Baathist militiamen who roam the streets looking for regime opponents to terrorize. “The shabiha will slit the throats of young men. They tie their hands, they bind them to trees, they shoot the parents in front of their children,” Abdul Majid told me.
Lately, Abdul Majid and some of his sons have found work picking olives for Jordanian farmers in the vicinity of Za’atari — the UNHCR system of food packages and bare-necessity supports is not enough, he said. Like Hamadi — indeed like every refugee who touched on the subject during my 10 days on the Syrian frontier, here at Za’atari, in the capital Amman and in the industrial city of Zarqa — Abdul Majid would rather the international community oust Assad instead.
“We have been abandoned by the international community, and by the Arab world, just as Bashar al-Assad has abandoned the Syrian people, too,” Abdul Majid said. “For 43 years the Assad family has been in power. This is longer even than the Prophet Muhammad was alive. This is enough. He should be made to leave.”
For Kilian Tobias Kleinschmidt, Za’atari’s famously eccentric 52-year-old German camp commandante, these perfectly understandable, deeply entrenched sentiments have been something of a nightmare. “People are angry with the international community,” Kleinschmidt told me. “People are furious because the world hasn’t done anything, and then there is a sense we are about to do something, then we didn’t do anything.”
The psychological torture of these on-again, off-again, raised and dashed hopes was most evident in Za’atari this past summer, Kleinschmidt said. That was when U.S. President Barack Obama gave every impression that the Baathist regime’s Aug. 21 sarin gas attack on civilian neighbourhoods in Ghouta had clinched his decision to launch an attack on regime targets in Damascus — and then the attack was called off.
Said Kleinschmidt: “The people here were saying, ‘Where are your missiles? The money you are spending here is peanuts. You should be firing tomahawk missiles at Damascus, but you are not.’” Understandably, the refugees’ anger gets taken out on the UNHCR.
“We have saved lives. We have achieved all our standards, and that is something for the UN that is very rare,” said Kleinschmidt, who is formally the UNHCR’s senior field co-ordinator in Syria. The camp now boasts 18,000 “living containers” (known here as caravans) at $2,000 a piece, and an uncounted number of full-sized tents with cooking verandas (the tents cost close to $500 each). Everyone gets about 34 litres of water a day, and nobody goes hungry. “Za’atari is a success story, and yet we have had thousands of refugees screaming at us every day telling us we haven’t achieved anything.”
There has been more than just screaming, too.
In April, Jordanian police intercepted what they took to be a human trafficking operation of some kind involving young Syrian women in the camp. Two of the women later claimed they had been molested while in police custody. A riot broke out. A platoon of a dozen members of the Jordanian gendarmerie was ambushed. One young officer was pulled from his vehicle and sustained severe head injuries that required multiple surgeries.
Seen from one angle, Za’atari bears a striking resemblance to the setting of the 2009 South African science fiction thriller District 9 — a lawless and dystopian camp of castaway space aliens (the comparison is that much more tempting because last April’s riot broke out in Za’atari’s very own District 9). From another point of view, Za’atari can almost be seen as an anarchist ideal of spontaneous, fervently anti-authoritarian social cohesion, or even as a testament to the genius and vitality of unregulated buccaneer capitalism.
In trying to sort it all out, Kleinschmidt has undertaken the most elaborate, inch-by-inch analyses of the camp’s social structures and dynamics, but to show where everything is and explain how it all fits together he usually prefers a table-sized map of his own design and a collection of Lego figures, Smurfs and toddlers’ toys.
To properly understand the phenomenon of Za’atari, says Kleinschmidt, it’s necessary to fully appreciate just how certain the refugees were, when Za’atari was being conjured out of the desert here in the summer of 2012, that their revolution’s triumph was just around the corner.
“Everybody came here to stay for a few months because Bashar was going to go, and the revolutionaries were going to win — this was the psychology of the people,” Kleinschmidt said. “But it didn’t happen.
The Free Syrian Army started taking terrible hits and the opposition started fracturing. Pretty soon people started realizing that this wasn’t just a camping holiday down in Jordan. It had become the grim reality — ‘we’re going to stay.’”
As that realization was setting in, a vast, quasi-legal underground economy began to bloom.
There are roughly 350 self-employed Syrian electricians in Za’atari working under the authority of three unofficial “electricity ministers.” They’ve managed to tap into the UNHCR’s electrical grid and sell electrical hookups to several thousand households in tents and “caravans” throughout the camp.
There are 688 shops in the camp’s impromptu business district, known as the Champs Élysées.
There are Internet cafés, beauty parlours, electrical-appliance stores, video-game stores, grocery stores and shawarma joints. Scores of tents and caravans are fitted out with satellite dishes.
The UNHCR’s voucher system has been converted into a kind of currency that can be traded around for a wide variety of goods and services or accumulated for investment in one’s own small business, or somebody else’s. It’s gotten so out of control that the UNHCR and the Jordanian police are instituting a biometric identification system with iris recognition software in order to combat fraud and multiple-dipping from the World Food Program ration system.
Za’atari has a fleet of illegal taxis, an illegal trucking system moving goods in and out of the camp and a small army of teenage boys roaring around the camp with wheelbarrows full of pilfered or illegally traded goods for sale at a markup. There are entrepreneurs who have entered into contracts with Coca-Cola to run soft-drink supply companies.
Down at the southern tip of Jordan at the Gulf of Aqaba, you can camp on the beach in rented UNHCR tents that have been smuggled out of Zaatari.
UN officials have turned a blind eye to much of this.
“Supporting initiative is something that is very important,” Lucio Melandri, UNICEF’s humanitarian affairs specialist in Syria, told me. “These are not traditional refugees, sitting and waiting for assistance. These people are moving. They are very energetic and innovative. The problem is to channel the energy in a good way, otherwise it becomes vandalism, stealing, whatever.”
It becomes child labour, for one thing (for a variety of reasons, most of the children in the camp are still not attending the camp’s schools). It can even become a matter akin to slavery, as when 13-year-old Syrian girls are “sold” by their families as brides to wealthy Jordanians and Emiratis.
After last April’s riot, camp administrators decided to get serious. “That’s when we realized it couldn’t continue,” Kleinschmidt said. “We had to do something. We had very little influence inside the camp itself, no real control, no real influence.”
On the one hand, the refugees’ growing resignation to something resembling permanence at Za’atari is a good thing for the UNHCR. People have started cementing their courtyards and putting in their own kitchens and “taking ownership” of the place. “There is a readiness to talk now, a readiness to negotiate. The UN is no longer a temporary nuisance.”
On the other hand, all this talk about permanence is leaving Jordanian authorities feeling nervous. In just one telling example, the maternity wing of the hospital in nearby Mafraq has 10 incubators, and five of them have premature Syrian refugee babies in them.
This is the sort of thing Canada is concentrating on — helping Jordan with added infrastructure costs associated with the influx of so many refugees. At Za’atari, Canada has already invested in policing infrastructure as part of a $125-million bilateral aid package and is now embarking upon a “joint venture” with the UNHCR, Britain and the United States in a decentralized community-policing and “neighbourhood watch” style initiative.
But Za’atari is not the typical experience for Syria’s refugees — it’s just a microcosm of the calamity. Since March 2011, more than two million Syrians have poured out of their country into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Za’atari is home to only about one-fifteenth of the region’s Syrian refugees. Za’atari’s population has stabilized and may even be shrinking.
Roughly three out of every four Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas like Zarqa, an industrial city less than an hour’s drive from downtown Amman. It’s in places like Zarqa that the fate of Syria’s refugees can be more readily glimpsed — along with perhaps the fate of Syria itself. It’s not an especially encouraging picture.
Every morning, about 100 Syrians can be found waiting at the doors of Care International’s refugee centre in Zarqa. Every day, the refugees are subjected to a grim but necessary process of triage that assigns a numerical value to each of a variety of criteria: documented risk of eviction, more than one family in a household with no income or only one source of income, demonstrated severe medical condition, and so on.
Most cases result in referrals to other agencies, government departments or UN bodies. You need to “score” 15 points before you’re eligible for direct help, which usually comes in the form of a cash payment, but sometimes it just means you qualify for a followup appointment. Care International has managed to provide some form of assistance to 150,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan in these ways.
One family in Zarqa that was waiting for a followup appointment — they scored 28 — was the Mohammad family. Lena, 39, is the mother of eight children ranging in age from two-and-a-half to 18. There is also an aunt and a mother-in-law in the household. The family lives in the Hashmia district of Zarqa, on a steep and rutted street overlooking a belching oil refinery, in a cold house of high ceilings and no furniture. None of the children attend school — there are no local schools, and there are no buses.
They have been in Jordan for nine months. They are originally from Dara’a.
Lena’s husband is a fighter with the Free Syrian Army, back in Syria. He usually calls every week. He hasn’t been heard from in a month. A middle child, Khaled, is what you could call the man of the house now.
Khaled has been in Jordan for nine months. He works six days a week for 14 hours a day at a coffee shop. He earns about $5 a day. Photo by Terry Glavin.
Khaled works six days a week for 14 hours a day, at a coffee shop. He earns three Jordanian dinars, about $5, a day. He doesn’t get tips. Khaled walks with a limp. He was shot through the leg by a regime sniper. It happened after the family was burned out of their village — the whole neighbourhood was burned out by the regime. It was a few weeks after the burnings, when the family came back to try to rebuild their house, that Khaled was shot. He doesn’t like to talk about his leg: “It makes me feel like I’m a cripple, and I am ashamed.”
Khaled said there are things he likes to remember about Dara’a, like playing soccer and riding his bike. He also likes remembering his school chums, but he doesn’t know what has become of any of them. He also has fond memories of the wheat harvest — his father was a farmer — and the complicated teamwork involved in it.
He has only a dim memory of the days of early 2011, when those schoolboys in Dara’a were arrested for painting a slogan on a wall, and the protests began, and the killings followed. Khaled said he doesn’t like to think about Syria very much at all. “One of my friends had all his fingernails pulled out by the shabiha. I saw it myself.”
Khaled says he has no friends in Jordan, his leg hurts all the time because he is standing and walking all day at work, and he doesn’t have dreams. He has no ideas about his future. He misses his father.
Khaled is 14.