Arab World: The quiet refugee crisis

With pro-democracy protests in Syria showing no signs of abating, Jordan is seeing steady flow of families arriving in search of refuge.

Syrian at Turkish refugee camp 520 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian at Turkish refugee camp 520
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 country.
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 country.
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 another matter.
“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.
According to 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 school.
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 help them.”
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.
Still, 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.
Also, 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 country.
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.
DESPITE the 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 dwelling.
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 fashion.
“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 returning.
“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 family home.
“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 and day.”
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.
“The 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 happen.”
“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.
“It is 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 released.”
He claims that mass graves are being dug by the authorities.
For the near future, the family has no immediate plans to return to Syria and will stay in Jordan until the situation improves.
“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 power.”