Syria Crisis

A Rude Welcome For Syrian Refugee Children In Jordan

Since Syrians began fleeing the war zone for safety in their neighboring country, schools are overcrowded, jobs are scarce and tensions are high. Especially vulnerable are school children.

A 14-year-old Syrian boy inside the al-Ramtha refugee camp
A 14-year-old Syrian boy inside the al-Ramtha refugee camp
Christa Case Bryant

AL-RAMTHA — In this country, insulting the king can land you in jail.

So when Jordanian students wrote bad words about His Royal Highness on a chalkboard and blamed it on Majed, a Syrian refugee, his mother went directly to the school to clear his name and ensure that the perpetrators were held accountable.

The woman in charge laughed it off, dismissing it as just a few words on a wall, says the boy's mother, Umm Majed. But as Syrians, her family knows only too well the power of words.

"What brought us here to Jordan?" notes Majed's wizened grandmother Tala, alluding to the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. "Just a few words on a wall."

Across Jordan and particularly in cities such as Al-Ramtha, which has one of the highest densities of Syrian refugees in the country, tensions between more than a million war-weary Syrians and their struggling Jordanian hosts are playing out among their children.

From classrooms to dusty courtyards, Syrian and Jordanian children are taking out their families' collective frustrations on each other through physical attacks, insults, intimidation and stealing.

Bullying has been identified as one of the main concerns of Syrian refugee adolescents in a forthcoming study on their mental health and psycho-social concerns, according to UNICEF, which is carrying out the assessment in partnership with the International Medical Corps.

"It's not the Jordanian kids' fault," says Umm Majed, whose son was also beaten up and had his backpack stolen. "When they hear their father, mother or big brother insulting Syrians, it will be natural for them to act."

Staggering economic impact

The economic impact on this city — once a bustling town fueled by cross-border trade — is staggering. While only 22,000 Syrians here are registered with the UN refugee agency, there are many more who have not registered, making the total Syrian population here as high as 72,000 to 75,000, according to Mayor Ibrahim Alsaqar. That's nearly equivalent to the number of Jordanian residents.

Because trade has ground to a halt over the past couple of years and Syrians opened businesses or sought jobs, often working for well below the going rate, Jordanian unemployment in al-Ramtha has spiked from less than 10% to between 40% and 45%. As a result, tax revenues have decreased by more than 70%.

Syrian kids at school in al-Ramtha. Photo: UK Dept. of International Development

Meanwhile, school classroom sizes have nearly doubled to as many as 60 students, with some Jordanian parents saying they're forced to put their kids in expensive private schools because there were no places left in government schools, which are running double shifts as it is.

Parents waiting in the city's sole hospital for someone to see their children are delayed for hours as the staff treats wounded Syrians. The water supply is severely depleted, and there is twice as much garbage for the same old fleet of trucks to collect.

"It's true that you have war in Syria, but the destruction is here," says restaurant owner Ibrahim al-Zobi, who estimates he's lost 70% of his clientele.

UN bodies as well as the U.S. and the European Union have stepped in to help mitigate the city's economic crisis, delivering at least $1.7 million in funding and promising new garbage containers and trucks by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the mayor is trying to reason with residents to keep calm amid the crisis.

"Of course there are a lot of tensions," he says. "But we are trying to explain that these people are fleeing from death."

Syrians charged a higher rent

That's little consolation to Umm Mahmoud, the mother of the sole Jordanian family in the apartment complex where Umm Majed also lives.

As her baby gnaws on a shoe in the family's sparsely furnished apartment, she explains how her husband, a painter, has been out of work for two years since many Syrian painters moved into town.

The rent for their apartment, which once would have cost 80 or 90 Jordanian dinars ($112 or $126) is now 190 dinars ($266) — and that's a special price for Jordanians, given that Syrians in the same complex are paying 200 ($281) to 250 dinars ($352). Still, they haven't been able to pay rent in five months and were just given an eviction warning.

Umm Mahmoud, whose walkway is blocked off by a blanket, feels shunned by her Syrian neighbors. Two months ago, when a Saudi donor came door-to-door handing out cash, they told him not to go to her door, she says.

Her children feel it too. "When the kids go downstairs, Syrian kids attack them and hit them because they are Jordanian," she says, claiming the Syrians told her daughters that "this is our country."

Two weeks ago, someone hit her daughter in the face with a stone, and her husband went to the family. Her description of them fits perfectly the brood of Umm Majed, who also said there had been problems between the two families, claiming the Jordanian girls had ripped out a fistful of her daughter's hair.

Both mothers have gone to the Jordanian landlord to complain, and both believe he is on the other's side.

"The owner warned the Syrian family," says Umm Mahmoud. "But he will stand with the Syrians because they pay him more."

An all-Syrian school

While Majed's sisters still get in trouble in the courtyard, he now attends school during a different shift with exclusively Syrian students.

That helps somewhat, says his mother, though tensions remain with the Jordanian teachers. He does well in Arabic and maths but he indicates that he doesn't like school.

Yet his mother is resolute.

"When you have a problem, you have to face it and solve it, because to escape is not a solution," she says. "Everywhere you go, you will find it in front of you."

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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