Jordan

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%.

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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."

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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