When Western Intervention Is Not Enough: Syrian Refugees in Jordan

The word spun in my head like an inverted drumbeat, thumping to M.I.A. on a caravan through Wadi Rum, pounding as piping tea was poured and cigarettes lit in the mayor's office in Zaatari Village, vibrating down my shoulders and out onto my fingertips as they dangled out the Mercedes drifting through the tight streets of Amman's inner circles, whirling and whirling as conversations turned into quarrels and then unsatisfactory silence, and drowning in the nausea of thinking about it at all: reconciliation. Since the flood of Syrian refugees into Jordan began in 2011, tensions between Jordanians and Syrians have turned from quiet displeasure into outright tantrums. The goal of the project my group had created, however naive and idealistic, was -- and is -- to create space for reconciliation between the two groups.

But more is at play than the traditional distaste one may feel for new noisy neighbors; the root goes all the way back to Jordanian independence in 1951. While there are still a few original tribes in Jordan, the majority of the population has come from waves of refugees, particularly and primarily Palestinians. Also Iraqis, Armenians, Lebanese and others that have come and gone back when bombs stopped dropping in their homelands. For its efforts, Jordan has been propped up by the West monetarily, receiving nearly one billion dollars from the US government each year -- just one of a large handful of major donors who sees the tiny country as an essential ally in strategic diplomatic decisions in the Middle East.

While many of those refugees have made permanent homes in Jordan, they know that much of their livelihoods rest on Western dollars. "They want their handouts, and are afraid we're going to get a cut of the pie," a Syrian woman who requested confidentiality told me. The Jordanian monarchy seems to have succeeded so far by balancing on a tightrope; appeasing native tribes (including navigating tribal law), supplying sufficient resources to the rest of its citizens, and now maintaining positive relations with the West, many Islamic nations in the region, and Israel simultaneously.

With over 700,000 Syrians suddenly thrown into the pot (nearly 10% of the total population in Jordan), the bubble of Jordanian prosperity could burst. Perhaps forgetting that many of them were themselves once refugees seeking shelter -- a hypocrisy almost ubiquitous in U.S. history -- Jordanian citizens have more than tired of watching foreign aid dollars be diverted from their usual streams and into the hands of needier Syrian refugees. This jealousy is most apparent in villages outside Amman, where poverty among Jordanians already runs quite high. To quell their unhappy citizens, Jordan has barred Syrians from obtaining legal work, from receiving certain medical services, and may soon disband all international NGOs whose primary work involves Syrians. But with almost one million homeless squatters in the country and an increasing fear of Daesh (arabic for ISIS) infiltrating their lands, something has to change.

"Change always enacts from the bottom-up; it has to start with the people. Have you read Freire's 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed?'" the doctor questioned. "Yes," I mustered, the name from the end of some philosophy seminar syllabus, "the banking system of education doesn't work," I finished, wondering whether I sounded like the Sparknotes version of the book.

"Exactly," she responded, "that book drives our work -- we know that our success derives from the interaction of the community reader and the children being read to; our teachers know that magic is born out of what they learn with the students; it's not just instructors making 'knowledge deposits' into pupils, but a community endeavor to affect change larger than any of them combined. In the end, they all keep coming back." This we learned from a successful not-for-profit run by and for Jordanians (backed by Western aid dollars), headquartered somewhere in a quasi-NGO district in Amman's busy circles, whose goal is to increase the number of Jordanian children being read to, despite a 94 percent national literacy rate.

Back on the road on the way to Zaatari Village, we maneuvered the details of our project's implementation. Our project creates a classroom of Jordanian and Syrian women being taught to sew by women from both groups, hoping that an eventual economic endeavor will be born out of the classroom and the fruits of their collective labor will forge new reconciliatory bonds between them. All this seemed fine to me, if a bit idealistic, until I asked the leader of the NGO with whom we were partnering whether she thought the Jordanian woman overseeing the project actually supported our vision. "As long as you pay her each month, she will support what you want her to support," she replied frankly, dismally, "that's just how things work in Jordan." In Amman, the construction two massive skyscrapers and eyesores has been permanently halted because of internal corruption.

On our final trip to Zaatari Village, we planned a day of games and activities for a mix of Jordanian kids from the village and their Syrian counterparts from the nearby overflowing camp, hosted at the headquarters of the NGO. A microcosm of reconciliation and hopefully some fun, we draped sour straws over strings, did puzzles, drew, and played soccer with the boys while the girls made friendship bracelets. For a while I hid out in the back kitchen, scratching out some obnoxious poetry and making a permanent cover from the cabinet that stored all the food, feeling pangs of guilt as I wondered whether the potential child thief might just be the most hungry. After more reasonable sustenance than candy was supplied alongside buckets and buckets of water, we hosted a farewell dance party. The teenager who ran the shop nearby brought the speakers the NGO had lent him--everyone was giddy, jumping and dancing to the music, girls asked me to take their photos, boys got competitive over who was to dance next to my female college friends, and more laughter was heard than I could ever imagine, given the circumstances. Overall, the moment rang with reconciliation, and as the children piled out, it seemed that among all the chaos and violence, everything had fallen into place--ignoring the idealism of that feeling.

I lit a cigarette to walk outside and see them off, but before I had gotten outside the screaming started. The Syrian and Jordanian boys had gotten into an obnoxiously large rock fight just outside the NGO. As I ran to join another American volunteer who was yelling at them to stop in Arabic, a few younger boys ran behind me, knowing that no rocks would be thrown at me, which was indeed the case. Eventually some angry adults came and broke up the fighting, and I watched as the Syrians ran back through the trees and into field separating the village from the camp. "So much for reconciliation," I muttered to the other volunteer. He grimaced in reply. I began to wonder what the day had seemed like for the kids, whether it resembled an early lesson in global politics and diplomacy.

I imagine the youngest kids know to some degree that some major awful thing has led to so many people living in tents and have also noticed the influx of Westerners. These same kids understood that in order to get our water and food and candy, they needed to smile and dance and behave, but that they could go right back to fighting once we weren't looking. The lesson from our day with them might be that they need to develop two faces--a common theme in the colonizer-colonized relationship--one which grins and kindly accepts the gifts and terms of those gifts, while the other face steals the same rations out of the hands of their rivals. The problem is simple: there can be reconciliation on paper, but this is far different from an authentic putting aside of differences and finding grounds for amicable relations. The irony was that the successful doctor at the NGO in Amman had pinpointed our essential failure accidentally: we were trying to enact change from the top-down.

It seems real reconciliation between the Syrians and Jordanians will require more than Western aid and do-gooders can accomplish via strategic maneuvering. My hunch is that it will take revisiting the temporal element of this crisis--preparing for the possibility that there will never be a home for the over 700,000 Syrians in Jordan to return to. Temporary aid relief for these refugees will need to be forgotten in favor of plans to create permanent homes and livelihoods for these displaced people, in a manner resembling the integration of Palestinians into Jordan. So far, the Jordanian government and its citizens seem more than hesitant to begin such accommodations--and probably won't without a massive influx of more aid dollars, or the economic incentive of an oil pipeline from Syria for the tiny resource-less country that has long played a surprisingly integral role in politics and diplomacy in the Middle East.