There are now more than 420,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, according to the Jordanian government. More than 100,000 are in the Zaatari refugee camp on the border. The balance has largely settled in Jordanian towns and villages.
Recently I visited Mafraq, a border town that used to have a population of 60,000 people. Over the past 18 months, some 25,000 refugees have sought safety here. Most of them rent tiny rooms in the poor sections of Mafraq or squat in abandoned buildings. Whole families, or multiple families, move into rooms together, often without toilets or hot water.
Mercy Corps works to repair these shelters, supply gas heaters and fuel, warm clothes and cooking utensils.
Jordanian host communities stretched thin
The Jordanians, who are known for their hospitality, have nevertheless felt the effects of the sudden burden. Jordan is a small country of 6.5 million people with limited natural resources and a severe shortage of water. They have always looked to Syria as their wealthier, oil-rich, and state-supported neighbor to the north. Now they are host to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled their war-torn country.
The arrival of so many refugees has put an enormous stress on competition for low-wage jobs; prices are steeply rising for commodities and housing; and there has been a dangerous draw on their limited water supply. Syrian children are accepted into the schools, and many schools have had to move to double shifts to accommodate the sudden surge in students.
For their part, many Syrians have lost everything in their flight to the border. Most have crossed over illegally and have no official status or rights, and no way to earn money outside of working as minimally paid day laborers. Almost all are suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Getting to the border
I spent an afternoon with Wasfyeh, a 33-year-old mother of five, who fled to Mafraq eight months ago. She and her family had lived in Homs in central Syria. A year ago, her husband left for Jordan out of fear of being detained or conscripted by the Syrian army. Shortly after her husband left, her neighborhood in Homs was shelled. During the shelling, Wasfyeh and her children fled to her in-laws’ home, where they stayed for a number of weeks.
When Wasfyeh returned, she found her home robbed and burned. She and her children spent three months living between her parents and in-laws. As her desperation and fear grew, she decided to take the chance to get to the border and join her husband, who was already in Mafraq.
Wasfyeh had no money and her children had no passports. She borrowed 11,000 Syrian pounds, about $150, from her in-laws to hire a guide who could smuggle them across the border. It took them eight hours, driving only at night, to reach the border area. They were in a small caravan of cars with other women and children.
The guides took them within a couple of kilometers of the border and told them they had to walk the rest of the way. As Wasfyeh, her children, and other families were walking, they were ambushed by the Syrian army. They tried to hide but Wasfyeh’s 14-year-old son, Ali, was shot through the skull. He was still alive, but she couldn’t move him.
The Syrian army detained the entire group of women and children, put them all in a small detention room, and took Wasfyeh’s son separately to a local clinic. Wasfyeh and her other children were detained for three days.
Wasfyeh was able to contact a friend of her husband, who was a member of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel military. This man was able to grab Ali, who was lying unattended in the clinic. They made another attempt to walk across the border at night, this time with the FSA soldier carrying Ali on his back. This time they eluded attack.
Once they got to the border, the Jordanian army sympathized with the family. They sent Ali to a hospital in Amman and transported the rest of the family to Ramtha refugee camp. A Jordanian friend of Wasfyeh’s husband sponsored the family’s release from the refugee camp. He brought them to Mafraq and gave them money to rent a few rooms. Meanwhile, in Amman, an anonymous donor from the Gulf paid for Ali’s lifesaving surgery.
Eight months later, Ali is alive, but still recovering.
Greater assistance is crucial
Wasfyeh shared her story with me in the sitting room of a small Christian church in downtown Mafraq. Pastor Nour, who presides over this humble but generous church, has been working in partnership with Mercy Corps to help attend to the basic needs of families like Wasfyeh. We have distributed warm clothing, mattresses, blankets and other needed supplies, as well as made home improvements to the neglected apartments and houses where many have been forced to live.
“Without Mercy Corps, Pastor Nour and the Church, and all the help they are giving us, life would be impossible,” said Wasfyeh. “Thank you.”
The number of stories of incredible generosity and hospitality in Jordan is impressive. But it is hard to foresee how Jordan will continue to cope without greater assistance. Their economy is fragile and there is no end in sight in the flood of refugees. The Syrian country is being decimated; many Syrian refugees have lost everything and don’t foresee going back anytime soon.