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