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Middle East stories

Don't forget the Jordanians

June 20, 2013

By J. Daryl Byler

When Cindy and I arrived in Amman six years ago, many international aid agencies were focused on Iraqi refugees in Jordan – families who had fled the unstable aftermath of the 1991 and 2003 wars in Iraq. 

Today, while tens of thousands of Iraqis remain in Jordan, it is Syrian refugees who are creating the biggest footprint in this small country of 6.5 million people.     

Some 560,000 refugees have flooded into Jordan since the fighting began in Syria in March 2011.  The United Nations estimates that the numbers could swell to more than 1 million by the end of 2013.

While a quarter of the Syrians live in the sprawling Za’atri refugee camp in northern Jordan, the majority are “urban refugees.”  Syrian-plated cars dot the streets of most major cities in Jordan, where Syrian families like our neighbors in the Jabal Webdah neighborhood of Amman try to survive in a new country.

The Syrians are arriving even as Jordan muddles through its own version of the so-called Arab Spring. 

Long-simmering tensions between the minority Bedouin tribes of Jordan and the majority Palestinian population, which arrived as refugees in Jordan after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, are now threatening to split the country apart.

Tension between the Syrian refugees and host Jordanian communities is on the rise as well, as new immigrants compete with Jordanians for scarce jobs, housing, water, medical care and other resources. 

The generosity of MCC constituents in responding to the refugee crisis has been extraordinary.

In the past two years, MCC has shipped 8,413 relief kits, 19,560 hygiene kits, 61,381 school kits and 39,546 blankets to MCC partners Caritas Jordan and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.*

But this crisis is in its third year, with no end in sight. Can MCC expect such generosity to continue if this conflict wears on for several more years? 

And distributing blankets and relief kits is far more complicated than we first imagined. International assistance can do more harm than good if delivery is seen to favor one vulnerable group over another.

At a recent visit to a Caritas Jordan distribution site in Huson, a Jordanian woman demanded to know why the international community was responding only to the needs of Syrian refugees, while ignoring the impact of this crisis on Jordanian families.

Fortunately, MCC partners in Jordan understand this dynamic and distribute items to vulnerable Jordanian refugees as well as to Syrian refugees.

As we leave Jordan to return to the United States, our hearts have been warmed by the generosity of Jordanians in welcoming so many refugees in their country. 

But our hearts also feel heavy as we observe a society and infrastructure that seems strained to the breaking point by wave after wave of refugee arrivals.

What will happen next in Jordan as the country seeks to simultaneously manage a growing internal tension between its Bedouin and Palestinian communities, while absorbing an influx of Syrian refugees?  

“Nobody knows!” one member of MCC Jordan’s advisory committee admitted at a recent meeting.

As MCC seeks to navigate this volatile situation, how can we work without making matters worse?

“Help the Syrians but don’t forget the Jordanians!” counseled another member of MCC Jordan’s advisory committee. “Don’t forget the Jordanians!”