While visiting family and friends in Amman, Jordan last week after being away for over two years, I was constantly being asked about my observations on Amman, and whether it had changed since I was last there in October 2010.
During the first couple of days, I would usually respond saying I noticed more traffic, and new construction here and there. A few days into my visit, things got clearer (I'm blaming the jetlag for my delayed observation). I noticed a change, a big one. Somehow, politically-divided Ammanites were united on one issue: Syrians.
Last time I visited Jordan, the annoying term the "Arab Spring" was not even coined. So, fast forward two years, I would have expected to see change along these lines, but what I saw instead was not youth marching in the streets asking for reform (to the dismay of many D.C. think tanks), but rather Jordanian citizens who are increasingly becoming concerned about the influx of refugees from their war-ravaged next door neighbor.
According to the United Nations' refugees agency, UNHCR, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan as of May 22 is 401,869, and this number is expected to triple to 1.2 million by the end of the year.
For a country with a population of 6 millions, this is huge!
The Syrian issue was first brought up during my visit while at a night out with friends at a restaurant on Rainbow Street. I noted to my friends that I didn't recognize anyone at this place unlike the old days when I used to run into a number of people every time I used to go out (you know, Amman back then was considered a "small town"). One of my friends put things in perspective by saying "the people that you see at the restaurant are not Jordanians, they are Syrians."
That was when I realized that the Syrian refugees issue was more than the plight of people at the Zaatari Refugee Camp (as I used to read in the news from the comfort of my home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.). It's a bigger issue with major impact on all of Jordan, a country with very few resources, which has hosted a large number of refugees during the many conflicts the region has witnessed through the past couple of decades.
Any visitor to Jordan now can't help but notice the "Syrian effect." From cars with Syrian plates scattered across the streets of Jordan, to concerts played by Syrian musicians, to even something called "Syria line" -- special offer by one of the telecom companies for customers in Jordan who want to call loved ones in Syria, the signs are everywhere.
My overall assessment based on numerous conversations (usually over gigantic portions of food), Jordanians are not happy about the Syrian influx. I heard complaints about Syrians "stealing" Jordanian jobs. There is even an urban legend about "three women" barging into a doctor's clinic and asking him about his receptionist's salary. They said they are all willing to take half what she makes, and he only needs to pick one of them to hire instead of his highly-paid receptionist. Statistics somehow back up this story since according to Jordan's labor ministry, there are 160,000 Syrians who are working illegally in the country, and accepting lower wages than Jordanians.
The Syrian issue was also discussed at the Jordanian pediatrician I took my daughter to after she had a sudden high fever due to a "bacterial infection" she picked up during our trip. The pediatrician was quick to blame the "refugees." "This country is hosting so many refugees these days," he said adding "We don't know what kind of illness they bring with them."
In an article entitled "Resentment grows against Syrian refugees in Jordan", the International Herald Tribune quoted a recent poll conducted by the Amman-based Center for Strategic Studies, which reveals that 70 percent of Jordanian respondents oppose allowing more Syrian refugees into the country.
Hosting Syrian refugees has put a major strain on Jordan's limited resources including, health, education, and state-subsidized electricity and water. Jordan government officials estimate that the country has incurred $251 million in costs to host Syrian refugees in 2012, and by the end of 2013 the figure might reach $1 billion. According to Jordan's Economic and Social Council, each Syrian who crosses into Jordan costs the government about $3,000 annually, mostly due to electricity and water subsidies. Meanwhile, Jordan's health ministry says it spends half of its budget on medical care for Syrians.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. There is one tiny silver lining: a new ice cream shop. The famous, Damascus-based ice cream shop "Bakdash" opened in Amman a couple of months ago. Jordanians noticed, and rushed to devour the famous pistachio-laden ice cream.
The subject of ice cream was brought up during a brunch with some of my friends in Amman. "My husband went to get us some ice cream the other day and they said they ran out," she said. "Imagine, they have to get the ice cream mix from Damascus, and we have to wait a few days until they get their ice cream." I guess, when it comes to ice cream, patience and virtue don't mix.
This "refugee" vibe reminded me of a similar one a decade ago when I came back to Jordan for a visit, and everyone back then was complaining about "the Iraqis". I wonder if we follow the same trend, would there be a "refugee" crisis in Amman every decade? From the way events are unfolding in the Middle East, this scenario is very likely. Who would Jordanians complain about next? Who knows, but for a country with very few resources that is constantly being exhausted, you shouldn't blame them.