Five years on, Jordan grapples with Syrian refugee crisis

Life in Jordan is familiar but economically difficult. For Syrians, the culture is similar and it allows refugees to sustain hope of returning home.

April 28, 2016 08:11
4 minute read.
AHMED HAMZEH, a refugee from Deraa in Syria now living in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, undergoes d

AHMED HAMZEH, a refugee from Deraa in Syria now living in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, undergoes dialysis treatment yesterday at Irbid’s Islamic Hospital.. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)


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IRBID, JORDAN – The Islamic Hospital of Irbid is a small building compared to its surroundings. At around five stories, the private facility doesn’t particularly stand out as a beacon of health and wellness.

It’s only over the last few years it has morphed from a solely obstetrician gynecological center to general medicine, growing into a destination for dialysis and kidney diseases.

Of the 200-250 patients the hospital sees in a month, one third are Syrian refugees, says Reem Abudllah al-Shoha, 32, its administrator and head of the accounting department.

The Syrian crisis is a burden on the Jordanian economy, she says.

Although Jordanians are not in favor of sealing their borders to their suffering neighbors, they are clearly frustrated with the situation. At the end of 2015, unemployment among the roughly seven million citizens was at 13 percent.

With more than one million Syrians living here, in addition to large numbers of Palestinian refugees who arrived in the 1950s and Iraqis who arrived since the 1990s, the ongoing Syrian crises is a source of tension. Tourism has declined precipitously in the last years. All of this makes continual care for Syrian refugees very difficult to handle.

In the basement of the Islamic Hospital in Irbid, the nine beds in the dialysis center are all full. At least two of the patients are Syrian refugees.

Ahmed Ismail Hamzeh is from Deraa, a Syrian border town just 30 kilometers away that has been a center of the rebellion against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

He has been in Jordan for four years and while he says the problem with his kidneys is genetic, it wasn’t until the stress of the civil war that symptoms appeared.

“I was a truck driver,” he says through a translator. “At checkpoints they would make me get out of the truck and they would spray the ground with bullets under my feet, just to intimidate me.”

Hamzeh has come to the hospital thanks to charities working with the Zaatari refugee camp where he lives with his family.

Charities help to match patients with treatment centers – either private or governmental – provide transportation and subsidize costs. Hamzeh needs to come to the hospital three times a week.

While he has found a donor kidney, he doesn’t have enough money to pay for the surgery, which costs between $12,000 and $13,000, he says.

With five years of civil war in Syria, the refugee crisis is one that has moved from managing urgent, emergency humanitarian aid, to finding solutions for a sustainable, recovery phase.

Gavin White, the head of UNHCR external relations of the Zaatari camp, which holds about 79,000 refugees, describes how the UN agency is coping with the ongoing needs of the population that has settled here.

The fourth-largest camp of its kind in the world, it is possibly the most well known, a symbol of the misery inflicted by the Syrian war. In the last few months high profile visitors have included Britain’s Prince Phillip, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U2 front-man Bono.

“What is unique about Zaatari is what Syrians have done with that space,” White says of the camp’s success; explaining that it is the only camp in the world with an electrical infrastructure started with the initiative of the refugees.

Within the camp, White says, Syrians have opened their own markets, have set up meaningful friendships and business partnerships with Jordanians and started building their own piping system for water and sewage treatment. “Their resilience to manage their displacement should be recognized,” he says.

Yet Syrians continue to be stuck in a difficult limbo, White continues, between holding out hope in returning to Syria or accepting a resettlement solution.

Life in Jordan is familiar but economically difficult. For Syrians, the culture is similar and it allows refugees to sustain hope of returning home, which is sometimes just a few dozen kilometers away on the other side of the border.

A solution UNHCR is moving toward is to identify projects and funding that provide short-term economic and infrastructure solutions for refugees while laying groundwork for long-term benefits for Jordanians.

The Islamic Hospital is emblematic of this concept and of successful partnerships. Organizations working with UNHCR such as the Qatari Red Crescent and Red Cross, help to alleviate some of the financial burden of the refugees in terms of healthcare, and in some instances allow for the purchasing of new equipment that also benefits Jordanians.

Hospital administrator Shoha shows off state of the art X-Ray, CT and ultrasound machines.

These new machines are there partly thanks to funding coming in from the refugees themselves.

Without a political solution on the horizon in Syria, and with the resettlement of the refugees in third-party countries moving along slowly, the investment in the Jordanian economy is a glimpse of the beneficial outcomes that can emerge from a tragic situation.

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