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Syrian refugees find compassion in Jordan

30 January 2015


World Vision's acting chief executive, Tim Pilkington, meets Akram, at school in Zarqa, where the charity is running remedial classes

World Vision's acting chief executive, Tim Pilkington, meets Akram, at school in Zarqa, where the charity is running remedial classes

MOHAMMED, who is 15, and from Homs, gets up at seven o'clock every morning. He tries to bring his mother "whatever she needs", including bread from the bakery. Once, during this journey, some children decided to pick on him, but the family's Jordanian neighbour intervened to stand up for him. By day, Mohammed goes to school; at night, he spends about three and a half hours collecting junk for money. He is also trying to devote time to memorising the Qur'an.

"I'm exhausted," he admits. "But I feel happy when I serve my family."

Mohammed's mother needs the money earned by her eldest son to pay the rent on the small second-floor flat she occupies with her four children in Zarqa, a dusty, hilly city of narrow streets, here in Jordan. Weighing on her mind is the cost of the medical device needed by her second son, Hassan, a beautiful boy with big, doleful eyes, whose hair she strokes softly throughout our interview.

Hassan, who walks on crutches, was born with a condition that means that the bones of his feet are calcifying. Doctors in Jordan have told her that the device costs 350 Jordanian dinars (£330) - more than twice the monthly rent. Mohammed earns about five or six dinars a day. 

THE family is among more than half a million Syrian refugees living in the towns and cities of Jordan. While much attention has been paid to the sprawling city of caravans at Zaatari refugee camp - now the fourth largest population centre in the country - the vast majority (85 per cent) are living in towns such as Zarqa. Smoke from shisha pipes hangs above balconies strewn with flags.

There are 52,000 Syrian refugees registered here: 8.5 per cent of the population. Officially, to leave Zaatari they need a Jordanian sponsor, but some, including Mohammed's family, have defied the requirement.

Mohammed's aunt describes the camp as "more like a death experience". They rarely leave the flat now, fearing discovery. Once, en route to Zarqa, they noticed a police car following them, and feared that they would come under fire. The driver laughed, and reminded them that they were not in Syria now.

Places such as Zarqa are described by the Jordanian government and NGOs as "host communities", a term that emphasises the hospitality of existing residents. The UN has repeatedly praised Jordan for its generosity towards the Syrian arrivals: the latest wave in a tide of migration which means that the country's population has increased fivefold since the 1960s. A safe harbour in a stormy region, it is already host to 450,000 Iraqis, and two million Palestinian refugees.

Since the first Syrian refugees started arriving four years ago, the health, education, and water systems have all been generously opened up. Double shifts have been introduced in 98 schools, so that more than half of all children are now enrolled in formal education. Last year, more than nine million polio vaccinations were administered in eight months; and 350,000 refugees received psycho-social support.

But resources are severely over-stretched. The government's 2015 response plan warns that public services "threaten to buckle", and that the impact of refugees on inflation, employment, and access is fuelling local tensions. 

JORDAN is not a wealthy country, and the host communities are already some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. Now, they are competing with Syrians for the low-paid casual work that props up an economy dogged by chronic unemployment, while dealing with soaring food prices, and a housing market that is attempting to accommodate an extra 120,000 households.

In Mafraq, ten miles from Syria, where 30 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, there are 90,000 Syrians to 70,000 Jordanians.

"Before the crisis, I would say that Syria and Jordan were like brothers," World Vision's communications officer in Jordan, Elias Abu Ata, says. "There is definitely a lot of good will towards Syrians. But Jordan is a poor country. We have limited resources, and we are in constant need of aid and assistance from the international community. For the time being, there is still good will. We are just worried about the agencies if they run out of funds and are not able to help these refugees."

It is a concern shared by the government, which, besides spending an estimated $3000 a year on each Syrian refugee, has lost its main trade routes through Syria and Iraq. Last year's plan for Syrian refugees was only 56 per cent funded, and, in November, access to free medical treatment was withdrawn.

Its ambitious plan for 2015 would cost an estimated $2 billion to implement. Ensuring access to primary health care alone will require $25 million. The alternative, it warns, is that tensions spill over into unrest, and that even more Syrians resort to "negative coping strategies" - skipping food, and marrying off their children, or sending them to work instead of school. Already, two out of three live below the country's absolute poverty line of $96 a month.


THERE are signs of hope, however. At a school in Zarqa, more than 700 Syrian children have been accommodated in double shifts. Although the new term has yet to start, the bright-yellow metal desks in three classrooms are occupied by Syrian boys receiving remedial lessons in English, maths, and Arabic.

For three hours every morning, five days a week, they have the undivided attention of teachers who are funded by World Vision, with a grant from the aid organisation Japan Platform. Some of the boys are small and childlike, but there are others with incipient moustaches; all are attempting to catch up on what is often many months of missed lessons. The atmosphere is calm. In an English lesson, they take their turn to stand up and solemnly pronounce their ages.

"At the beginning, I felt aggression from the children," the English teacher says. "I felt that they were lonely, and afraid to raise their hands, or speak up, or make friends among themselves. Now, I feel their motivation is changing. They want to learn, and to make friends."

In the classroom next door, the Arabic teacher has also noticed a change. Drawings that once depicted bodies in the street have been replaced by renderings of playgrounds, gardens - and even the flag of Jordan. "At first, it was not just that they were behind educationally," he explains. "They were psychologically traumatised. This environment is a safe place, where they can learn and have fun, too."

Outside the classroom, the walls are plastered with posters urging parents not to accept marriage proposals made to their children, or to offer money for aid, which is free; and alerting them to the provision of individual counselling and support.


THE longing for home is never far from the surface for these children, and, despite some of the disturbing sights that they recall, to ask them whether they miss Syria starts to feel like a foolish question. It is the theme of the songs they sing, when asked whether they know any by heart.

"He is saying, 'Our home town is paradise, whatever happens,'" the translator given the task of interpreting the first offering says. "He is saying: 'Thank you, you are my home town. You raised us, and we are still your sons and daughters.'" "To be frank with you, I prefer my school in Syria, because everyone feels more comfortable at home," Abed Raouf, aged 11, says. He hopes - "Insha'Allah" - to return in the summer.

Mohammed remembers hiding under his desk, and seeing two of his classmates shot dead. When asked about his dreams for the future, he replies: "Nothing. I just want to go back to Syria, and guide people back to their homes and houses."

It is a room of little patriots, happy to draw the Jordanian flag, and philosophical about losing football games against the hosts with whom they share a playground ("they had more players than us"). They are, however, fully expectant that this is just a temporary home.

The Jordanian government, reflecting on its history in the region, perhaps, is circumspect about its burgeoning population. The four-year anniversary of the conflict is on the horizon, but its 2015 plan notes that there is "no prospect of a resolution in the near future", leaving the refugees "in limbo".

It is eager to replace the current response with one that will "build resilience and reduce the need for humanitarian assistance over time". It is a plan based on equal support for both the refugees, and those hosting them - and on the assumption that the international community will make good on its promises to help.

The suspension of the World Food Programme's food vouchers in December was a wake-up call for donors who assumed that someone, somewhere, was picking up the tab. The UN warned this month that many of those living in Jordan have used up the few assets that they brought with them, and, with a bar on work permits still in place, are now reliant on assistance, or working illegally. Almost half are in living conditions assessed as bad or urgent.

Suzy Sainovski, acting Syria crisis regional communications director, reports that it is proving difficult to raise funds, especially because there is no end to the conflict in sight.

Part of the answer, perhaps, lies in the classrooms of Jordan, where thousands of Syrian children are being helped back into a stream that might flow into a future of work, prosperity, and, eventually, rebuilding. Akram, who is 13, remembers seeing a sniper trained on his school, and feeling "terrified". But he is undeterred in his desire to go back. "I was born in Syria. How can I forget it?"

For now, though, Jordan has one overwhelming draw. For Akram, who studied under the shadow of a sniper; for Um Muhammed, who fled with Hassan and her three other children in a bus that came under gunfire; and for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who stayed at at home until the shots finally came too close, safety trumps every other consideration, including the pull of home.

Madeleine Davies travelled to Jordan with World Vision. For details of the Syria appeal, visit www.worldvision.org.uk/Syria or phone 01908 84 10 10.

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