At the corner grocery in our Jabal al-Webdah neighbourhood of Amman, a Syrian man in his early 20s now runs the meat and cheese counter. Ahmed (not his real name) is one of more than 150,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan since his country’s violence began in March 2011.
Young males seeking to avoid mandatory military service are one of the largest groups leaving Syria.
Ahmed wires his wages to his family in Syria and calls them each evening to be sure they are still safe. “The situation inside Syria is even worse than reported in the news,” he laments.
A recent Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report notes that, increasingly, Syrians are arriving in Jordan with only the clothes they are wearing and with few economic resources after months of unemployment.
I met Salwa, a Syrian woman from Homs, at a Caritas Jordan centre in the northern city of Mafraq. It is one of several sites where young Jordanian volunteers are distributing Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) material resources shipped from Canada and the United States—thousands of relief kits, hygiene kits, school kits and blankets.
Salwa came to Jordan with her husband and four small children in early 2012, after two neighbours were killed and her husband’s grocery store was taken over by Syrian security forces.
In Mafraq, they are renting a small flat for $140 per month. “Everything is more expensive in Jordan than in Homs,” Salwa observed. Her husband has not been able to find work in Mafraq. She said her family’s most urgent needs are security, milk and mattresses.
Jordan has a long history of welcoming the stranger. Because of the harsh desert climate, the Bedouin offered three days of hospitality to anyone who passed by their tents. Amazingly, this hospitality was to be extended even to one’s enemies.
Well over half the population of Jordan is made up of newcomers who have arrived during the past 60 years. With a total population of only 6.5 million, Jordan has opened its arms to 2.7 million Palestinians (the original refugees from 1948 and 1967 wars, and their descendants); half a million Iraqis; thousands of Somalis, Sudanese and Libyans; and now to more than 150,000 Syrians.
This hospitality is remarkable given Jordan’s current economic (unemployment rate above 13 per cent), political (weekly demonstrations demanding government reforms) and infrastructure (among top 10 countries globally for water scarcity) challenges.
Such generosity is not without risks. Jordan has long had a reputation as one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. But some analysts say ferment is growing. They fear that the new influx of Syrian refugees might push Jordan’s tottering social stability over the edge. Indeed, many Jordanians have begun to complain about rising food and housing costs which they believe are linked to yet another wave of refugees. Others fear that groups like al-Qaeda will infiltrate the refugees and attack targets in Jordan. There are also reports of skirmishes on the Syrian-Jordanian border, as Jordanian forces help refugees enter the country and the Syrian regime responds.
Still, Jordan continues to follow an open-door policy and provides health care and access to public education for Syrians who register with UNHCR. But the Jordanian government and U.N. agencies cannot meet all the needs. The U.N. has received only 10 per cent of the $40 million needed for Syrian refugees in Jordan through the end of September. Local charities like Caritas Jordan, an MCC partner organization, have become key players in extending hospitality to Syrian refugees.
Remembering our own stories of vulnerability is the key to extending generosity and justice to strangers. As Western Christians, we have much to learn from the Bedouin of Jordan.
J. Daryl Byler of Washington, D.C., is a representative in the Middle East with his spouse Cindy for Mennonite Central Committee, based in Amman. This piece was first published on sojo.net, the website of Sojourners. Used with permission.