In Jordan, Syrian refugees find a home away from home (THE GLOBE AND MAIL) PATRICK MARTIN MAFRAQ, Jordan 03/27/12)
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“We’re looking for the Syrian refugee camp,” my driver shouted out
the window toward a man who had just emerged from a modest stucco
house in an area just outside this town on the Jordanian-Syrian
“We’re all Syrians here,” the man replied with a beaming smile, his
arms stretched out wide, taking in the whole neighbourhood.
We were hunting for a specific camp Jordan is quietly, unofficially,
constructing; one to house several thousand refugees that are
anticipated soon. But, in hundreds of Jordanian homes and apartments
in a stretch of 50 kilometres alongside the Syrian border from Irbid
to Mafraq already live several thousand Syrians, refugees from the
fighting that has engulfed the country just a few kilometres to the
Many in this semi-desert region are from widespread clans and tribes
that were split 90 years ago with the drawing of the border between
Jordan and Syria. Most of the refugees from these groups are bunking
with distant relatives. Those who’ve come from further north in Syria
are renting rooms or houses in the towns.
Officially, there are some 5300 Syrians registered as refugees in
Jordan, but tens of thousands more are believed to be living here,
including 500-600 former Syrian soldiers who, diplomats say, are
being held in a prison, for their own protection, in the Jordan
valley town of Salt.
Half the kids in the Mafraq playground are Syrian; their idle fathers
watching the kids play.
Kamal Abdul Karim, his wife and their four children, all under 12,
arrived 10 days ago, relieved to be far from the fighting in their
home town of Homs, 265 kilometres north of the border, on the far
side of Damascus. Their house, in the Karam a-Zeitun neighbourhood,
was among many destroyed in shelling over the past three weeks, they
said. Ten-year-old Firaz says he’s very happy to have gotten
away. “No one hurts us here,” he said, bluntly.
His three-year-old brother isn’t quite sure what’s happening.
Alternately clinging like a baby in his mother’s arms and throwing
himself down on the ground crying, he seems pretty traumatized. “He’s
wetting the bed.” his mother says.
The Shami family, from Latakia, more than 450 kilometres away,
crossed into Jordan from Syria three days ago. The family of four say
they lost their home too, though Latakia, a mixed city of Muslims and
Alawites, has been less heavily bombarded.
The two families, 10 people in all, are sharing two large rooms and a
small cooking area above a store for about $165 a month.
“We can’t afford to stay here for long,” said Mr. Abdul Karim, who
was a butcher in Homs, but hasn’t yet found any work other than
something that pays very little and is a long way from town.
As the families generously share juice with visitors, they recline on
the half dozen mattresses along the walls of one of the rooms. The
husbands speak cautiously, the children are curious and the wives
both talk at the same time.
No one in the family, thank God, they say, was wounded or imprisoned.
But it was very frightening. Mohamed Shami, 50, said he was worried
for the safety of his 15-year-old son. Many young men were reportedly
rounded up and imprisoned since they are the age-group most likely to
join the opposition.
The families, who didn’t know each other until they met in Mafraq,
made their way by bus from their hometowns, carrying very little with
them. Mr. Abdul Karim said he tried without success to get the family
legal exit visas and gave up after three days.
By cover of night, they made their way on foot across the flat border
area, and simply lifted up the wire fence that marked the
frontier. “It’s a very old fence,” he said. There was no evidence of
any land mines having been laid.
“We knew there were no mines,” Mr. Abdul Karim said, “because there
were lots of sheep grazing in the area. They would have blown up any
mines,” he noted.
Besides the relative ease in crossing the frontier, the most
surprising thing the people found was the reaction of the Jordanian
police once the families arrived in Jordan: “They welcomed us,” said
Mr. Shami. “I couldn’t believe it. They offered us coffee and told us
where we could go for assistance.”
“That’s not the way the police behave in Syria,” he said.
Until a year ago, both families, Sunni Muslims, said they supported
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawi sect.
Now, they reckon, he’ll never stop the killing. “If he does, the
Alawites will turn against him,” said Mr. Shami.
As the number of refugees in Jordan grows, the country is quietly
preparing for the arrival of lots more refugees. They don’t want to
antagonize Syria the way Turkey has, taking in great numbers of
refugees and allowing the Free Syrian Army to set up a camp. Nor do
they want to assist the regime the way some in Lebanon have done.
But Jordan believes it must protect its own interests.
Already home to so many refugees – Palestinians from 1948 and 1967;
Iraqis from the past nine years – Jordan doesn’t need a lot of people
without work wandering all over the country.
So, quietly, they are building facilities, including a fair-sized
camp northeast of Mafraq.
And, with a little help, we found it.
It looks more like an empty parking lot than anything else. An
expanse of the flat desert land was paved with asphalt -- about 200
meters by 150, or about 30,000 square meters – an area big enough to
house a few thousand people in tents, although the soldiers and
workers on the scene said they didn’t know how many could be
accommodated, and the government won’t even acknowledge the camp’s
Some 32 water towers line two sides of the lot, and large washroom
facilities are being built on three sides. The entire compound is
ringed by large lamp stands and barbed wire.
The Abdul Karims and Shamis want no part of life in a camp like that.
They fled one nightmare, they said, and don’t want to be locked up
But Jordan, which arrested 10 supposed Syrian army defectors on the
weekend, is beginning to worry about getting overrun. The 10 men,
Jordanian officials said, briefly, were being treated as spies, sent
by Syria to infiltrate the refugee community. (© Copyright 2012
CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. 03/27/12)
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