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.
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%.
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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."