Syrians refugees struggle to integrate in Jordan
Many Syrians in Jordan insist that they are only temporary residents and will soon return home. However, most have begun to acclimatise to their new environment, and some have considered extending their stay due to developments in Syria.
At the beginning of 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan had risen to 1.3 million.
Local media have been largely hostile to their presence, accusing them of stealing jobs from Jordanians and creating a financial burden for a government already dealing with poverty, unemployment and price hikes.
“I often hear anti-Syrian sentiment when I take public transport, such as accusations that we are the cause of the destruction of our own country and the best place for us – as punishment – is the Zaatari camp,” says Rahaf Ibrahim, 40, who has been in Jordan for nine months with her husband and children. “I have no choice but to ignore them, because at the end of the day we are guests in this country.”
Rahaf and her family moved between the suburbs of Homs and Damascus for an entire year. During that time, she lived in constant terror at the possibility that her 19-year-old son Mazen, who had been called up for military service, would be arrested.
She decided to seek refuge in Jordan, hoping to find a more secure life and that her children would be able to continue their education. Their house in Darayya had been shelled and they lost everything.
Rahaf and her family entered Jordan legally through the Nasib border crossing. She decided to live close to her relatives in Amman.
Those who enter illegally are not permitted to leave the camps without a Jordanian sponsor, while those with money to invest are given special privileges.
Rahaf and her family live in a popular area in downtown Amman. She was able to find work preparing food for the Syrian Women Across Borders initiative.
She told Damascus Bureau that the cost of living in the city was very high, and it was often difficult for her and her husband to make ends meet between the rent, utility bills and school tuition, which amount to 500 US dollars per month. She is able to pay for only part of that through her work.
“I prepare Syrian dishes, and the money from that goes to support 30 Syrian women. My 300-dollar salary covers basic costs for my family. My husband and I both contribute to securing the basic necessities, but most of the time we cannot cover everything,” she said.
Leila Naffaa, director of the Arab Women’s Organisation, said Jordanians were growing more resentful of Syrians, especially in border villages in the north of the kingdom.
She said Jordanians believed the Syrian crisis would be resolved quickly, and they initially welcomed the refugees when they arrived.
However, in the absence of any solution, Jordanians began to feel the burden of economic hardship, particularly in terms of youth unemployment. This pitted Syrian refugees against young Jordanians in cities, villages and towns because of the scarcity of jobs in the private sector and employers’ desire to hire cheap labour.
Bayan al-Adawi, 27, a Syrian woman living in Jordan, says that the high cost of living and the difficulty of finding work have bred resentment towards Syrians, pointing out that the jobs available usually involve long hours for little pay. The Jordanian government requires refugees to obtain a work permit in order to work legally in the country. The permit is difficult to acquire, so those who work without it risk arrest or deportation.
Work permits are granted to non-Jordanians under conditions laid out in article 12 of Labour Law No. 8 of 1996, which prohibits non-Jordanians from being employed without the approval of the minister of labour or his deputies. Permits are usually only granted on the condition that the work requires expertise that cannot be found among Jordanian nationals. Most Syrians work for salaries below the 282 dollar minimum monthly wage.
The Arab Women’s Organisation in Zarqa province offers psychological, social and legal services to female Syrian refugees through two centres in the cities of Daleel and Rasefah. These centres attempt to mitigate some of the legal difficulties women face.
Naffaa says that denial of psychological problems is still commonplace, as is a culture of silence because fear of stigmatisation prevents women from talking about social problems like domestic violence. This hampers the assistance that the organisation can offer for overcoming trauma associated with such violence.
Hussam Hamidi, 25, does not believe there are any social obstacles to Syrians integrating into Jordanian society, because of the similarity in culture and traditions of the two peoples, as well as their geographical proximity. What impedes integration, he says, are discriminatory legal practices.
“My mother’s side of the family is Jordanian, which has eased the burden of being away from Syria for three years,” he said. “While I have not felt alienated, I cannot say the same for all Syrians here. My biggest concern currently is to find work.”
The United Nations recently launched a plan to expand humanitarian responses for those affected by the Syrian conflict with a budget of 4.3 billion dollars covering six countries, including 1.2 billion dollars earmarked for Jordan.
Mohammad al-Moumny, the Jordanian minister of media and communication, told a press conference that the amount of aid received by the Jordanian government to deal with the Syrian refugees was not enough, and that if more was not allocated, the shortfall would have to be paid by the government.
“The presence of Syrian refugees creates pressure on different sectors in Jordan, but the government is committed to abiding by international law and accommodating refugees from Syria,” he added.
Syrian journalist Nariman Othman, 27, agreed with Hamidi that having Jordanian relatives eases the sense of alienation.
“I was lucky that I came to Jordan a year-and-a-half ago with my family, since we have relatives here as well as plenty of acquaintances and neighbours who have left Syria to come to Jordan,” she said.
She said she was content to be in this changing environment, and had gravitated towards journalism because the fear of arrest and persecution by the Syrian security forces was no longer present.
“Many of my previous fears have dissipated,” she said. “In the end, we speak the same language and we are culturally similar. While some details may differ, it is similar to regional differences within Syria.”
But Othman admits that like millions of other Syrians, she still misses the feeling of stability.
Sabah Halsa, the director of the Centre for Social Education at the Organisation of East Amman, added that awareness campaigns on refugee rights and the improved distribution of aid, including to some Jordanians, has helped alleviate some of the tensions between Syrians and Jordanians.