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Amjad Nasser

Syrian refugees in Mafraq blamed for town's woes

Zaatari refugee camp is 10km east of Mafraq [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 November, 2014

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Discontent is growing after an influx of Syrian refugees arrive in the northern Jordanian border town.

There is a buzz of activity in the Jordanian city of Mafraq near the Syrian border. The city's streets and markets used to be deserted by late afternoon. Not anymore, now the number of Syrian refugees is double the local population. They city has 85,000 long-term residents and 160,000 refugees.

Walking around the previously quiet city, one can hear the sound of cement mixers, construction machinery and Egyptian labourers during the day. Demand for rental housing has reached unprecedented levels due to the massive influx of refugees. Syrians have become easily identifiable on the streets by their clothes and accents. Some work in markets, others in shops.

     Refugees have been blamed for long-term government failures in the city.


When the refugees first arrived, residents gave them a warm welcome - even preferential treatment.

However, they have become a source of annoyance for residents and city officials alike.

This is because of their large numbers, the long time they been here, the pressure they are placing on already weak infrastructure, and because they are competing with local people for work.

Exaggerated and sometimes fabricated stories have been told about refugees, and they have been blamed for long-term government failures in the city. In short, they have become scapegoats for government neglection and corruption.

Historically, Jordanian authorities have neglected Mafraq.  The city has had no cultural or sports facilities in living memory, and local MPs are only visible during elections. There is a governor and city council in charge of infrastructure, but the impact of their work is not visible. When city officials are asked about the piles of refuse on the streets, or the lack of regulations covering street food vendors, Syrian refugees are usually blamed.

Ahmed al-Hawamdeh, head of the city council, has blamed the increase in resident numbers for the waste lining the city's streets, arguing the council lacks the resources to manage the refugees.

This is only partially true. The situation has deteriorated since the refugees arrived, however the city was neglected and in bad shape to begin with. It is only to be expected that the large numbers of refugees, the fourth highest concentration of refugees in Jordan, has made matters worse.

My family

Mafraq is my hometown, and I used to return for short visits whenever I was in Amman. However, last time I visited Jordan, I spent the whole time at my family home in Mafraq. I went to Amman only once.

Family gatherings in our house usually follow a certain pattern. After greetings and pleasantries are exchanged, we discuss developments within the family - but the most pressing issue is the changes happening to the city.

Expanding neighbourhoods, and the numbers of refugees now exceeding the number of residents are hot topics.

As a journalist and writer, I cannot resist using my family's opinions as a sample of the attitudes of Mafraq residents. My family represents a good cross-section of society, and they have different views about the situation. Some have direct connections with refugees.

Roadmap

I tried to map out a route of my movements in the city I left three decades ago, but failed. There are new neighbourhoods, new streets, and some old streets that no longer exist. A new city is developing on the outskirts of the old city. The city centre where the market streets intersect remains, although it is now quite shabby. The market sells new goods for a new age, but there are some Bedouin essentials still on display.

I ended my exploration and returned home. Our house used to be on the northern edge of the city in al-Dubbat district, beyond which there was nothing more than a few military bases. A dunam of land - 1,000sq metres - was worth around 300 Jordanian dinars, or about $420 in today's money. Today it costs 150,000 dinars ($212,000). With the increase in development, our neighbourhood is now in the heart of the city, and it houses Syrian refugees who have a reasonable income.

As the refugee issue has become a staple topic of conversation in every household, my father took my two brothers and I to an area named Dahiya that did not exist a decade ago. The area was being developed to make if suitable for lower-middle-class residents.

Dahiya started off housing livestock and poultry farms that have since moved further south. With their departure, some saw the opportunity to make money, and they converted the livestock pens into rooms and apartments for Syrian refugees outside the infamous Zaatari refugee camp, which is 10km east of Mafraq.

Windows and doors were added to pens made from concrete blocks with tin roofs to make them suitable "homes".

From Homs

     Syrian refugees are being cruelly exploited after arriving in our country.

My father's Toyota stopped at a dirt plot in front of these "homes". A woman with her son, who looked about ten, approached us thinking that we were from the United Nations or a refugee organisation.

Unable to determine her origins from her attire, I asked her:

- “Where are you from?”
- “Homs” she said.
- “Homs?”
- “Yes”.

The woman understood I found it strange she was from Homs, a city located in western Syria, because Homs is far from Jordan - but close to Lebanon. 

People from Homs seeking refuge typically go to Lebanon, rather than going south through the Damascus countryside and the plains of Hauran to reach Mafraq. Her accent and attire were a mixture of Bedouin and urban. She said that she was from the Fawaarah tribe, which made sense. 

- “How much is your rent?” I asked
- “150 dinars ($210) a month”.
- “Does anyone help you?”
- “We get a little help, but we have to work to provide for ourselves.”
- “How big is your house?”
- “One room and a bathroom.”
- “How big is your family?”
- “Five people. We all sleep in the same room.”

Then the lady asked me:

- “Who are you by the way?”
- “A journalist”
- “Please write about the hardship we are sufffering especially as winter is coming, and we don’t know how we will manage the cold.”
- “I will.”

My father did not join as we spoke to the refugee. He remained silent. However, as soon as we left the dirt plot he began speaking. My father, Abu Yahya, a retired officer in the armed forces, said that Syrian refugees were being cruelly exploited after arriving in our country.

They come from a land that is more fertile with better weather. They did not lack food or water in their country, and they lived in dignity, only escaping to save their lives. Who in Mafraq would agree to live in a sheep pen or a poultry farm? It is not enough that they have to live in pens, but they are also being charged the same price as a normal apartment to live there.

My father does not complain about the sudden influx of Syrians, and he does not blame deteriorating conditions in the city only on the refugees. The world promised to improve their situation, and provide Jordan with sufficient assistance to help them, but these promises were never fulfilled.

According to my father, the Syrian regime and the world which failed to keep its promises are to blame for the continuous tragedy of the Syrians.

This is the first in a series of two special features looking at conditions in Mafraq. Watch out for the second part, "Voting for Assad", to be published on these pages tomorrow.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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