Amman, the calmest of Arab capitals in the region, is busy receiving Syrian refugees. Despite the confusion of official statements about Syria and leaks reporting that Saudi intelligence agencies were managing the Syrian crisis in the north of Jordan, and despite that the Syrian government forces insinuated they knew what was going on, Jordan has tried to balance its official positions regarding the Syrian crisis. The Hashemite Kingdom kept silent and limited its role to only providing a “shelter" for people.
After the performance of the Syrian regime and its allies in the battle of Qusair and the subsequent events, Jordan's officials saw that the best option was to provide shelter for Syrians, without engaging in the "wave of explosions" sweeping the north of the country.
On a social level and away from politics, refugees in general leave their trace on the land where they seek shelter. Previously, the streets of Amman were affected by Iraqi refugees, where many Iraqi restaurants opened in the downtown area. Moreover, during the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, Iraqi neighborhoods were established. What trace will the Syrians leave in the capital, Amman?
We offer the best asylum
Before addressing the effect Syrian refugees will have on Amman, writer and anthropological researcher Ahmed Abu Khalil first wanted to share the roots of things, in an interview with As-Safir. He referred to his article titled "We offer the best asylum," which he wrote after discovering that Syrian refugees would rather return home, while the media was preoccupied with their increasing numbers.
"Asylum for Syrians was initially forced," he said. He paused for a moment and then said, "Of course, we do not wish to generalize. There are some real humanitarian situations. However, I am talking about the origin of the asylum phenomenon, i.e., in the very first months of the Syrian crisis."
Abu Khalil believes that the Jordanian government and other international organizations have developed programs to encourage asylum in a suspicious manner. He also addressed the process of making it more difficult for Syrians to return to Syria, by documenting some aspects of this phenomenon.
The situation in the north of Jordan is a perfect example of how providing asylum is being encouraged. "Years after the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the asylum business is booming," he said.
He added, "There is a company in Irbid that proposes to the owners of incomplete buildings to finish the construction at its own expense, provided that Syrian refugees are allowed to live in these buildings for 18 months. It seems that this company is receiving financial profits from international parties concerned with housing Syrian refugees."
Abu Khalil asked us to omit this example, which has nothing to do with the asylum services, stressing that there is a link between the revolution supporters and the asylum advocates. He considered that this is one of the ugly international games and recalled the media campaign that aimed at gathering the largest number of refugees.
According to his article, "A reporter for the most famous Arab news channel said that the number of refugees was 'less than we had hoped for,' and noted that this would not end the programs promoting the idea of a better asylum in Jordan, knowing that these promotions increased in recent months."
Even humanitarian asylum has entailed political connotations in one way or another, reflecting implicit political visions regarding the axis of "Syria, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and sometimes China."
Amman: a shelter formed by refugees
Amman will not only be a mere shelter. But in the longer term, the capital will be shaped according to what refugees want it to be. This matter is worth discussing in detail, but one must first examine the characteristics of Syrian refugees in general.
Activist Mahmoud Sadaka told As-Safir that Syrians are manufacturers. He saw a Syrian refugee in the Zaatari camp build a washing machine by using a bicycle to power its engine. He also saw an old man gathering discarded wood pieces and turning them into a beautiful piece [of furniture]. This is not to mention the culinary skills of Syrian women.
These are nothing but simple examples that illustrate the culture of productivity among Syrians, whose presence is not limited to the Zaatari camp. "The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan exceeded 1,200,000 according to the figures of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Zaatari camp includes 140,000 Syrians at the highest estimate, and the rest are distributed in the provinces of the kingdom," Sadaka said.
Given his familiarity and knowledge about the town of Ramtha, located on the border with Syria, Abu Khalil said, "The relationship between Ramtha and Syrians is special. In the past, Syrians had connections with the town in terms of trade and kinship. Therefore, the people of Ramtha were able to manage the process of receiving Syrian refugees according to their own personal rules."
In the past, Iraqi refugees left their mark on the Jordanian capital, Amman. Nowadays, it is expected that Syrians will leave their own trail, notably in downtown, just as the Iraqis did.
In this context, a question must be asked: Why is Amman lacking the ability to absorb newcomers and mold them according to its own nature?
Abu Khalil attributed this to Amman having yet to form its final identity. The city comprises various dialects and affiliations. Also, the way its residents disown the heart of the city — the downtown area — leads partly to the instability of Amman’s identity.
The downtown was the heart of Amman. It was home to politicians, opposition members, craftsmen and traders. When they moved to the suburbs, however, condescension was felt toward the downtown. Lately, the people have become aware again of the beauty of the place. Yet, condescension has reinforced the idea of emotional non-belongingness to the place. Downtown was a space for Iraqis, who gave the area an Iraqi twist, as Egyptians did before, and as Syrians will do.
“Nothing in Amman is permanent and rooted deeply enough to compel newcomers to blend in,” added Abu Khalil. He noted that contrary to the capital, there are areas in the Badia region where Syrians cannot easily integrate unless they already have ties with its people.
Despite the aforementioned, Abu Khalil affirmed that the phenomenon of Syrians in Jordan is not yet completed and is still on the way to being fully formed. Yet, he ruled out the possibility of Syrians leaving a literary or artistic impact on Jordan, because the majority [of Syrian writers and artists] were seeking refuge in Gulf countries. He affirmed the mark that would be left was related to production, noting that many investors have chosen Egypt over Jordan.
Despite all these facts, Sadaka notes that the capital is witnessing the rise of Syrian restaurants such as “Bakdash Ice cream,” “Sitt al-Sham Restaurant” and many more.
Syrians: refugees with privilege
The aforementioned facts confirm that there is tension in the relationship between Jordanians and Syrians. Some are voicing their complaints, be it individually or over the media, about the presence of Syrians who are taking jobs amid increased unemployment in the country. According to the Jordanian Labor Watch, last year the youth unemployment rate in Jordan was among the Arab world’s highest.
When one acknowledges that Syrians have more technical skills than Jordanians, what is happening on the ground can be explained. Mohammad al-Zoabi, the owner of a restaurant chain in Irbid, said that his staff is made up of Syrians, explaining that he hired them three years prior to the Syrian crisis. He justifies this by saying, “They are skillful and show hard workmanship,” since they have good taste in food and are friendly with customers.
As-Safir toured textile and tailor shops in downtown, and met with one of the owners, Abdullah Hajjo, a Syrian from Aleppo living in Jordan since 1997. Before talking about the Syrian labor force, he mentioned that Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine are all part of the historical Levant. “Then, borders came and divided us.”
While talking about the love Arabs have for one another, he said, in a Syrian dialect, that the reason why some Jordanians are bothered by the presence of Syrians is that “when you stay too long at your parent’s house, some repulsion is bound to happen. When you are a visitor, you are a light traveler. Yet, when you stay too long, you become unbearable.” He said so in a bid to find a justification for the repulsion felt by Jordanians, without forgetting to mention, “We all have [the responsibility] of looking after each other.”
What furthers the tension between Syrians and Jordanians is that Syrians opt for lower salaries, in addition to “refugee incentives” given by international organizations to Syrian refugees. The latter receive food coupons on a monthly basis, allowing them to cover a part of their expenses and subsequently accept salaries that are lower than those required by Jordanians. This creates tensions between both parties.
Abu Khalil affirmed that job opportunities have contributed to creating rifts between the two peoples, although the political dispute in Jordan over the Syrian crisis did not affect the compassion toward Syrians.
At the other end of the high demand for Syrian craftsmen, Jordanians refrain from hiring university degree-holders. Young Syrian Adib Hamami is still looking, in vain, for a job in accounting in a Jordanian company. Even when he feels that Jordanians are fed up with Syrians, he looks at things from a different perspective and notes that the rest of Jordanians know for a fact that the unemployment crisis is not a result of the presence of Syrians, but attributed to the economic policies that are unpopular among people, such as the privatization of state institutions.
Hamami affirmed that the Jordanian market welcomes Syrian craftsmen only. Degree-holders, however, are having a hard time finding a job.
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