Analysis

In Jordan, Massive Refugee Influx and Inequality Raise Questions of Identity

When the student body of Amman University includes Syrians and Palestinians from the West Bank, and the only ones who can afford to shop at the mall are Iraqis, who is a Jordanian?

Syrian refugee children pose at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan near the border with Syria, February 12, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

Ismail indicates his small but spreading bald spot and mustache and asks if I know his uncle, formerly a high-ranking figure in Palestinian security. “He looks just like me, the same baldness and mustache, but he earns a lot more,” says Ismail, who’s been living in Jordan before it even existed as such, he says – since 1948, when the Nakba forced his family to leave their village of Dawima (today Amatzia) in southern Israel. He studied social sciences in Amman, completed a master’s degree and worked for the government. During the good times before the first Gulf War, he worked for some years in Bahrain until being forced out together with thousands of Jordanians as punishment for Jordan’s support of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

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Still, he managed to come back flush. Ismail bought an apartment in a good part of Amman and today works for a Kuwaiti bank, he says. He hasn’t visited “inside.” He uses the term to mean pre-1948 Palestine, just as Israeli Arabs are sometimes dubbed Inside Arabs or ’48 Arabs.

“I didn’t even try,” says Ismail. “I settle for memories, not actually mine but my parents’. Maybe these stories never happened and are a mix of reality and fantasy ... I was told that anybody with a relative in the Palestinian Authority armed forces can’t get an entry permit to Israel. I didn’t check if it’s true or just a rumor, but that’s how it’s stayed.”

People stand in line to buy bread at a bakery in Amman, Jordan, January 26, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

At noon, sitting with three of Ismail’s friends – Samir, Ratav and Azz-a-Din, all middle to upper class and in their 60s – at a fabled Labenese restaurant in Amman, we could chat quietly. If a few years ago I would have had to reserve a lunch table, this time it was almost empty. We walked in from the street and were happily welcomed by the bored waiters. That’s how it is throughout Jordan, says Azz-a-Din: “There’s no movement. There’s no money. There’s no spirit. Even people who have money hesitate to spend it. People are worried.”

Until three months ago, Ismail adds, the banks were packed with people asking for loans, to buy a new car, for instance “Look at the roads. They’re full of new cars – it’s like it was raining money. But it was all borrowed,” he says. “Go figure how people will find the money to repay it.”

Everything changed in January, he says. “The new budget jacked up the price of gasoline. Bread rose by 30 percent. University tuition costs about 800 dinars per semester ($1,125) but salaries haven’t increased: The average mid-level clerk earns 400 dinars a month, 200 dinars goes for rent and 50 for electricity and water, which also rose. What’s left for people to live on?”

Only one community in Jordan is doing well, says Ratav: Syrian refugees. “They lack for nothing,” he says. “They get help from the UN and aid organizations. They study for free. People living in the refugee camps don’t pay for water or electricity. There’s no rent and they get to use the state’s services at the expense of the citizens.”

A short drive to the Taj Mall, the biggest and most modern in Jordan, shows he’s right. The stores are full of brand names, with discounts reaching 70 percent, and there are more guards and cleaners than customers. “People come to window-shop, maybe have a coffee at Starbucks, which costs 2 dinars, but they buy in the second-hand market,” says the saleswoman at a clothing store. “Only the refugees from Iraq can afford to shop here.”

Syrian refugee children stand in front of their home in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, February 12, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

From Iraq? “Yes, the ones who came here during the second Gulf War brought a lot of money and stayed in Jordan,” she answers. “They opened businesses, bought stores, invested. Half the stores here are owned by refugees from Iraq,” she explains at leisure. Indeed, there is no rush here.

Maybe Sweden

“It’s a mistake to build malls in Amman,” says Azz-a-Din, analyzing the situation. “People don’t have the money to buy brands and the rich go overseas and buy there. Tourists don’t need the brands. They hardly buy souvenirs, and when they do, it’s in Petra or Aqaba. So what good does the investment do? Look at the Amman skyline. You don’t see cranes building foundations or pillars. There is huge demand for affordable housing but it isn’t being built. They build hotels on every street corner but there’s nobody to stay there. Believe me, I don’t know how this country survives. Every one of us would love to live abroad. My kids studied engineering and electronics. One works at a hotel and one as a graphic artist at an engineering firm. I bent over backward to get them work permits in Canada. It didn’t happen, but maybe we’ll try Sweden this year.”

It’s not that his children want that, he admits, noting the weather and the foreign language, but as for himself, it’s too late. “I don’t want to be a refugee again,” he says. “My family already fled once, from the village of al-Walaja near Jerusalem. We lived in a refugee camp, then moved to the city. That’s it, I don’t have the energy to run around again.”

In comparison, the roughly 800,000 Syrians who fled to Jordan to escape the civil war in their country have only recently started their refugeehood. A tenth of them live in the Zaatari refugee camp near the city of Mafraq, about 80 kilometers north of Amman. Six people, five of them men, cram into a minivan that transports us to the camp’s entrance. Long lines of caravan-like structures house tens of thousands of refugees in the scorching summers and biting winters of the desert.

The good life

“Life is good,” says Hiyat Alian, gripping the hand of her grandson Ibrahim. “There is something to eat and drink. The Jordanian police keep guard. Stores and businesses opened in the camp, schools with teachers, some Jordanian and some Syrian. Students can go to study at the Jordanian universities and get money for basic groceries. Everything’s good. No complaints.”

Syrian refugees listen during a news conference of the UN high commissioner for refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, February 12, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

She’s lived in the camp for six years, along with 50 of her relatives. Some still live in Daraa in Syria. They talk by phone.

The border between Lebanon and Syria is closed and Jordan isn’t accepting any further refugees. Alian’s husband received a Jordanian work permit, which helps the family manage. It doesn’t cross her mind to return to Daraa – she knows it won’t happen. “We’re better off than the half-million Syrians who have been killed,” she says. “Now Jordan is our homeland.”

Three men with red kaffiyehs eye Alian. Asked how long they’ve been there, one answers, “From the day we were fooled into rebelling against [Syrian President Bashar] Assad.”

Who would fool them? “Somebody who wanted to exploit Syria and us,” he replies. “Everybody lied. America, the militias, Europe. Everybody said it would be better if we got rid of Assad. Now we’ve been shattered. Assad is the enemy, but with him at least we knew who the enemy was. Today everybody in Syria is your enemy. We have been left with nothing.”

A row of Bedouin encampments has been set up across the street from Zaatari, as well as some tin shacks for Bedouin families from Syria. Their occupants would rather dwell outside the camp. One of them, a woman named Halla, says it’s hard to live in a refugee camp, where there is constant supervision, a card to get in and out and an unreliable electricity supply. They take electricity from the neighbors and can move about freely, she says.

Halla misses Syria. “There we knew who we were, who our tribe was, who runs things,” she says. “Everything’s been destroyed. The men are gone. Some fled elsewhere. Some moved south to look for work.” The kids run around the streets and have turned into beggars, she says, adding: “There’s no dignity left.”

Who’s the local?

“We can’t tell any more who’s Jordanian and who’s a refugee,” says a lecturer at Amman University who had also lived in Israel and the U.S. “The state has lost its identity. It’s true that economically, the refugees contribute to Jordan. Some work, bringing a valuable contribution. But if until the Gulf War, which loaded about a million Iraqi refugees into Jordan, it had battled against being identified as a nation of Palestinians because they were the majority, after the Iraqi flood and the addition of Syrian refugees, original Jordanians have become like an endangered species.

“Who is Jordanian? Back during my university days, an Israeli lecturer would call it an artificial construct and say there was such thing as a Jordanian nation,” the lecturer continues. “I always found that irritating. If the test is the cultural identity of its people, then Israel is an artificial construct too, I would argue. What do Israelis of Ethiopian and Russian origin have in common other than religion?

“Today I find it harder and harder to identify the Jordanian essence within us. For example, Jordanians are using Iraqi or Syrian dialects because that’s the natural thing to do when you live in a multicultural environment of this kind.”

The university has students from Iraq and Syria, Palestinians from the West Bank and Jordanians. While the Jordanians pay full tuition, the Syrians study for free and the Iraqis get aid from international agencies. The Iraqis and Jordanians earn the highest marks, followed by the Palestinians, and the Syrians lag far behind. “If I used uniform academic criteria, all the Syrians would fail,” the lecturer admits. “But you can’t do that to them. They lost their homes and families. How can you take their future, too?”

The conversation comes to a halt when it reaches the royal court and the king. “The king is fine, but the people around him are rotten,” says a former deputy minister now working in real estate. “The prime minister, Hani al-Mulki, is a Syrian. What does he care about Jordanians? Look at the political elite, with their fancy dress and their fancy cars. What have they done for the state? Every one of them knows they could be out of power tomorrow, in a heartbeat, and exploits his status to ensure his future. To tell the truth, I had been one of them. You get sucked into a culture.”

Jordan has had 12 governments since King Abdullah II was crowned. Initially the young king vowed that cabinets would only change after parliamentary elections, but this promise could not be kept. Governmental change, like it was under his father King Hussein, is a tranquilizer for the restless people. However, an official who gets kicked out one day may be invited back the next, or the one after. “When my minister was fired, he was told, ‘sorry, it’s the order of the king’s office. But don’t worry. Another round or two and you’ll be back in government,’” says the ex-deputy minister. “Maybe I’ll regain a government job. All it takes is patience. Nothing really changes here.”