“Just don’t say you’re a Syrian. Whatever you do, don’t say that.”
My cashier assumed I wasn’t a Jordanian when I walked into a small grocery store in Abdali, Amman. He greeted me with a “Hello, how are you?” in broken English, something my fair hair and skin tend to invite in the Middle East. As I waited for him to total my items, I asked him about directions in Arabic. He was shocked. I was used to it.
“So you’re an Arab? Don’t look like it. Where are you from?”
I told him I live in the United States, but would be working in Amman for the summer. I told him I am a Syrian.
“I could tell by your accent. I was thinking Lebanese or Syrian.” He then cautioned me about disclosing my background. “Some of us don’t like how many of you are in Jordan these days. Taking our jobs, resources, attention. We’ve been gracious and we feel bad, but there should be a limit. Maybe stick with Lebanese.”
I thought my cashier was joking. I shouldn’t have, however, because he was the fourth person to recommend that I hide my identity since arriving in the country. Four times in two weeks isn’t all the time, but it was enough to for me to notice a trend, even if subtle.
A few days later, I met Samir*, a Syrian living in Jordan after leaving Aleppo in 2012. Tolerating this trend for nearly three years, Samir discussed his experience living in Jordan.
“It happens. Rejection, derogatory comments, suggestions to lie about being Syrian… all of that happens. When I first arrived in Amman, I was rarely confronted with disapproval and irritation. Now, it happens more. Now, there are more Syrians.”
But Samir acknowledges that his case is different.
“I work in Amman. I have a job, I pay taxes, and I’m not using government resources and aid that are allotted for Syrians in dire need. I’m privileged for most Syrians in the country. This usually protects me from always getting comments about how I’m using Jordan or weakening the country. It’s the initial reaction, though. I tell some people I’m Syrian, but they hear “refugee.” It’s not until I explain myself that the reaction begins to fade. The Jordanians I closely know respect me, but things would be different if I were less independent. Of course, these comments aren’t representative of an entire population’s opinion, but they do indicate that they are representative of some Jordanians. Some is enough. Some can become many.”
When considering the forefront effects of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Jordanians’ reactions to Syrians don’t come as a surprise. A country with youth unemployment rates nearly twice the global average, a crippling water supply, and a geographic location situated in the midst of a region defined by turmoil, Jordan naturally has a limit for the number of Syrians it can host within its borders. Currently, Jordan hosts over 628,000 registered Syrians and houses two refugee camps- Zaatari and Azraq. To support this population, the Jordanian government has allocated nearly $400 million for Syrian refugees, claiming that over twice as much would appropriately support Syrians’ needs. Even more frustrating to some Jordanians is the fact that highly-skilled Syrians who are looking for work in Jordan are willing to be hired for wages substantially lower than Jordanians. Serving as a cheaper substitute, Syrians have become more likely to be hired in certain jobs than Jordanian citizens. The Jordanian government, nonetheless, insists on keeping its borders open. In doing so, Jordan is likely to continue to experience these effects until its capacity for Syrians reaches an unbearable limit, only fueling Jordanian unease toward Syrians.
The problem is that refugees in Jordan tend to stay. Experiencing their third massive influx of refugees since Jordan’s independence in 1946, Jordanians are understandably becoming impatient. Sentiments rooted in distaste and irritation toward Syrians have flared, as Jordanians increasingly feel the gravity of Syrians in their country. Simply, they’re jaded by the fact that yet another group has come to stay. More newcomers? Refugees? Masses of non-Jordanians? Big deal. Jordan is used to that, but it’s getting tired of it.
The greater problem, however, is the fact that many fail to recognize that Syrian impact in Jordan has not been entirely regressive. The influx of Syrian refugees has actually contributed to declining unemployment rates. Beginning in 2013, Jordan experienced a decrease in national unemployment, an ironic fact considering the common “Syrians are taking our jobs” understanding. Commercial strides have also resulted, especially in the Irbid province of Al-Mafraq, where nearly 160,000 Syrians now reside. Syrians merchants have increased the number of commercial stores in Al-Mafraq, while Syrian refugees have increased the demand for purchasing goods- both of which have stimulated the local economy in the Mafraq Governorate.
Unfortunately, this positive aftermath of Syrian arrival is regularly disregarded. Perhaps it’s expected, maybe even comfortable, to view Syrians as a marginalized and burdening group. Of course, their level of affliction should not go unnoticed, but solely acknowledging Syrians in Jordan as an afflicted refugee population can generate even more disdain among host citizens, as well as disempower Syrians of their enduring identity. “Refugee” is not a nationality. When we blur the distinction between a revolution-induced consequence and national identity, we only reify the farce that “refugee” and “nationality” are interchangeable. Indeed, many Syrians are refugees- but Syrians will always be Syrians.
“Some of those refugees in Zaatari and Azraq, and some of those Syrian beggars on the streets were of the utmost level of citizenry in Syria,” says Samir. “They were doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and they were good people. They didn’t flee their country to ruin another one, they fled because their country is ruined.”
With this in mind, with the reminder that over nine million Syrians are externally and internally displaced, with the fact that over 310,000** have died since the 2011 protests in Dara’a, and with the understanding that the Syrian refugee crisis is as much of a humanitarian concern as the Syrian revolution itself, it is now more necessary than ever for Syrians, including myself, to say this:
I am a Syrian.
**Number according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights April 2015 estimate
(Title image via author).