In a series of blogs, Vatican Radio’s Tracey McClure looks at the challenges facing Jordanian society and the toll that the Syrian war is exacting on some of the region’s most vulnerable.
There are more than 1.5 million of them in a foreign land: Syrians who have fled the conflict raging in their country, seeking refuge in neighbouring Jordan. Most are Muslim; most are women and children.
Crossing over the border from southern Syria into north Jordan’s barren desert, they’ve filled two refugee camps to the brim. The first, Zaatari, is a mega tent city in the sand and dirt, with markets, schools and health facilities. So many Syrians had crowded into Zaatari, the United Nations Refugee agency, UNHCR, had to set up a second camp, Azrak, but the refugees there have the luxury – if you can call it that – of living in containers. Some 200 international aid agencies work alongside UNHCR in the camps.
Conditions are hard: freezing temperatures and flooding in winter and sizzling in summer. Crime, violence, prostitution and trafficking make for a precarious life.
Most of the refugees in the camps are from Syria’s rural areas; they were already poor before they arrived in Jordan. They have nothing now.
We are in the car, driving to Zarqa, an industrial town north of Amman, not far from the Syrian border. We are on our way to see how Caritas Jordan is helping to respond to the refugee crisis. Paola Pazienti, an Italian Caritas volunteer, and Nash, our driver, are telling us what to expect. I am somewhat surprised to hear that Caritas Jordan is not among the other aid agencies helping out in the camps. Later I discover why.
When they arrive in Jordan, Paola is explaining, refugees without documents are directed to the camps where they are registered. But – some figures say as many as 90 percent – end up fleeing the camps: paying a bribe or otherwise escaping to Jordan’s towns or cities.
Life in Jordan is costly but an average salary can be around 400 euros or about US$ 520 per month. The prices of goods have risen steadily since the Iraqi war in 2003 sent a first wave of refugees into Jordan. Schools and healthcare are expensive.
The Jordanian dinar is a strong currency, so by the time refugees come across the border, their Syrian cash has lost half its value. Over the past two years, the influx of Syrian refugees, and most recently, thousands of Christians fleeing Islamic State extremists in Iraq, has increased the demand for housing. Rents have doubled in many places in this country of more than 8 million.
Jordan has a very serious water shortage and the refugee camps alone consume truckloads of the precious resource every day. Trash collection is a also a problem.
Egyptian workers have for years offered cheap labour to Jordanians but now even their meagre wages are in jeopardy. Syrians, skilled in manual labour like farming, construction, carpentry and other trades, are willing to work for less. Though foreigners are expected to pay 500 dinars per year for a work permit, no one does. Authorities close an eye.
But while Jordan has been welcoming the region’s refugees for decades, there are beginning to be signs of fatigue and resentment towards Syrians.
As we arrive in Zarqa, we pass a municipal building where some enterprising men sit leisurely at tables on the sidewalk offering help – for a fee – to passersby who need to fill out bureaucratic documents. Many of the poorer people here are illiterate.
We find Caritas Jordan’s office down an unassuming street in one of Zarqa’s more impoverished neighborhoods. Here, I discover why Caritas is not working in the camps. It’s because Caritas, with a staff of 34 in Zarqa, is assisting thousands of Syrian refugees dotted around the city and suburbs in rented, often decrepit lodgings. They’re also the only aid agency helping hundreds of Iraqi Christians who arrived last August after Islamic State overran Mosul and the Ninevah Plains, threatening to kill them if they did not leave.
The Iraqis literally fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Now, they are living in Zarqa’s churches and parish halls: dozens of families sharing a room the size of my apartment, with just one or maybe two bathrooms. Caritas provides them with everything to live, to cope, to wait – for a better tomorrow.