RAMTHA – With its unfinished buildings and sporadic sidewalks, Ramtha looks like
any other rural Jordanian town. But over the past few weeks, its simple white
houses and bustling central streets have seen a steady stream of thousands of
Syrian families arriving from across the nearby border in search of a respite
from the ongoing violence and political unrest in their home
While some have managed to come here via legal channels,
claiming they are going on vacation or visiting relatives, many have used the
cover of night to slip unnoticed across the sandbags and barbed wire marking the
border fence in order to reach this relatively quiet neighboring Arab
With no official figures available on exactly how many Syrian
families have arrived since the uprising began more than four months ago, those
working to help the growing number of arrivals estimate that there are already
more than 2,000 families and a few hundred individuals now living in Ramtha and
the scattered communities close to the border.
Although their presence is
widely known to locals and even welcomed by them, finding Syrians willing to
share the stories of their dramatic escape with an international journalist is
“Most people are too frightened to talk to journalists,
even though they are now no longer in Syria,” comments local journalist Abdul
Halim Zoabi, who in recent weeks, since the Syrian regime agreed to reopen the
border between the two countries, has become the initial contact person for
those looking to escape to Jordan.
“They are scared that if at some point
they have to go back home and the regime has not been overthrown, then the
authorities will persecute them for speaking out,” he says.
Zoabi, most of those arriving in Jordan come from the nearby town of Deraa,
which is less than 10 kilometers away. It was in Deraa that the wave of protests
first kicked off on March 18, when residents there began demonstrating against
the arrest and detainment of children who had sprayed pro-democracy graffiti –
inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia – on the walls of their
A regular visitor to that city before the unrest, Zoabi says the
situation there today is very tense, with the Syrian authorities continuing to
arrest young men suspected of joining in the protests, and tanks surrounding the
city to prevent civilian movement.
Locals also say the authorities have
stopped issuing or renewing passports, in an attempt to prevent people from
leaving the country.
Zoabi was last in Deraa three months ago and
directly witnessed the violent crackdown on a peaceful demonstration. His
presence quickly became known to the authorities, he says, when he was one of
the first journalists to report on what was happening.
“Suddenly I was
the most wanted man in Syria,” jokes Zoabi, who has since been interviewed about
his experiences by several international media outlets.
“I think they
were angry with what I had written.”
Luckily for the journalist, a
network of friends and colleagues in Syria helped him escape and return safely
across the border to Ramtha.
“Now I am indebted to them, and I want to
return the favor,” he says, explaining how he ended up as the point man for
thousands of families now being forced to leave.
“The people are scared,
and they just want to feel safe,” comments Zoabi. “I want to do what I can to
UNLIKE IN Turkey, which has opened its doors to thousands of
Syrian refugees, Jordan is playing it more cautiously. Even as the authorities
attempt to address what is most certainly a growing humanitarian crisis among
Syrian civilians, it is concerned about damaging diplomatic ties or opening the
gates to what could become thousands more people, and possibly causing a
financial crisis for this already economically strapped nation.
there are clear signs that the Jordanian authorities are easing official
restrictions on those crossing the border in search of a safe haven. Syrian
drivers who ferry consumer goods and other merchandise, both legal and illegal,
between Deraa and Ramtha say the word on the street is that those who make it to
Jordan will be treated with kindness and compassion.
Among the Syrians
who have made it across illegally, there are stories of Jordanian soldiers
allowing them to pass through with little interrogation or hassle.
say the drivers, many residents in southern Syria have managed to obtain
Jordanian SIM cards and use the extended antenna range of Jordanian cellphone
companies to disseminate vital information or speak to relatives outside the
In addition, Zoabi suggests that local immigration inspectors in
Ramtha and the surrounding towns have been urged to take it easy on illegal
Syrians found working there without the required permits.
“At the moment,
there is not a big problem, because most of those who have come over are
relatively wealthy and can afford to take some time off and take care of
themselves while they are in Jordan,” he explains. However, he adds that as the
numbers begin to swell, there is a growing concern among Ramtha residents that
the situation could spiral out of control.
“There are almost no more
apartments left here to rent,” explains one Ramtha resident, who finally agreed
to talk on condition of anonymity.
He said the situation had also been
severely damaging to businesses in the area, which rely heavily on imports from Deraa, greater Syria and the countries beyond.
diplomatic concerns and the fear that Syrian refugees could flood the area,
residents of Ramtha – who in large part are blood relatives or intrinsically
linked to those in and around Deraa – are greatly supportive of those Syrians
looking for an escape.
On the day I meet with Zoabi, his modest home not
far from the town center seems more like a hostel than a family
The hallway outside the guest living room is lined with
numerous pairs of shoes – it is the custom to remove shoes before entering – and
a bulging suitcase is propped up against the wall.
At least one family,
who arrived from Syria last week, is staying with Zoabi until they find a more
permanent place to stay, he says.
The mother, who has a valid Syrian
passport, crossed legally into Jordan, telling the authorities she was going for
a quick vacation to visit some relatives in the nearby city of Irbid, but the
father and the couple’s three children arrived in a more clandestine
“He carried the children across the border in his arms,”
recounts Basmaa (not her real name), her eyes immediately filling with tears as
she describes the pain of letting her children leave with their father, unsure
if she would ever see them alive again.
The next day, says Basmaa, 33,
she set out to cross the border, fearful that the Syrian authorities would
easily guess where she was headed and that she had no intention of
“I was so scared,” she says. “I was trying not to cry, it was
so awful, and I did not even know if I would see my children again or if they
would let me pass.”
The couple, both born and raised in Deraa, say the
situation in Syria became intolerable for them when security forces occupied the
“We live with my family in a four-story building. It’s high,
so the security services just came in and took over the building for their own
use,” she says, adding, “My parents’ house was shelled, there were random
shootings all the time and our car was smashed by a tank; we were afraid night
Basmaa, who describes how her brothers and other young men in
her neighborhood were arrested by the authorities, says the push to leave also
came from seeing her children too petrified to leave the house.
children are still very young,” she says. “But they understand a little bit of
what is going on, and whenever they heard gunfire, they would start to cry. Even
now [when] we are in Jordan and they hear shots from fireworks or from wedding
celebrations, they are scared that something else bad is going to
“Our minds and souls are in Syria, but we had no choice about
leaving,” says Basmaa’s husband, who also asked not to be named.
either be killed or get arrested, and those who are getting arrested are not
returning home. We do not know where they are or when they will be
He claims that mass graves are being dug by the
For the near future, the family has no immediate plans to
return to Syria and will stay in Jordan until the situation
“There is no way we can give up on the revolution now,” says
Basmaa’s husband, who a few days ago met up with some opposition leaders who are
also now in Jordan.
“Nothing will change in our country until [President]
Bashar Assad leaves, and there is no way that we can leave the current regime in