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Middle East
3:40 pm
Thu March 15, 2012

For Fleeing Syrians, Jordan Offers Bare-Bones Refuge

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 9:39 am

If you're trying to escape the turmoil in Syria for the calm in Jordan, you have two choices.

You can go the legal way. Just get in a car and try to drive across the border. But that's not very easy these days. The Syrian government isn't letting many people out.

Or you can try the illegal way. Wait until nightfall, climb through a barbed-wire fence. It sounds dodgy, but if you make it over, you'll actually be welcomed by the Jordanian army. Troops will take your name, give you a drink of water, let you rest.

After that, though, you're on your own. You might end up in an apartment building that's become a kind of holding pen for hundreds of Syrians near the border.

About 20 men are staying in one room of the run-down building. They all came from the same village in southern Syria. They don't want the name revealed, because they are afraid the Syrian government might find out they've escaped and punish their families back home.

A Familiar Story

Their story is similar to those of many others who have fled the troubled country. About a month ago, a group of soldiers from their village defected from the Syrian army, refusing to fight for the government. They came back home and started defending their village against security forces, who were, according to these men, arresting and torturing anyone suspected of opposing the government.

One man who wanted to be identified only as Abu Ammar says defectors managed to take control of the village for about 15 days. Then the army stormed it with tanks and mortars, and some of the men fled to Jordan.

The only assistance the men can get right now is at a private Islamic charity. Recent arrivals crowd around the bearded director of the charity. He tells the men he has no cash to help with the rent, but he can provide bags of food.

This is the problem for refugees in Jordan. On the one hand, Jordan is more open to new arrivals than any other country that borders Syria. Yet the government doesn't have much to offer.

Jordan is already a country of refugees. It has hosted Palestinian refugees for decades. And hundreds of thousands of Iraqis came here after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Jordan calls them guests and allows them to go to government schools and hospitals for free.

But its resources are limited.

Calls For Help

Andrew Harper, who heads the Jordan office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says the U.S. and other countries should provide assistance.

"Jordan can only do so much. Jordan suffers from a lack of infrastructure, it has a very young population, it doesn't have very much water," he says. "I spoke to some Jordanians who basically had their own family, and they also had two other families there. And they're saying, 'We're doing what we need to do, because we should do this.' But there's only so long they can do this."

Jordanian analyst Yasar Qatarneh says regardless of whether it gets international assistance, Jordan has to walk a fine line with its stance on Syria.

No one is sure what will happen in Syria. Will Bashar Assad's government survive or fall? And even if it does fall, Qatarneh says, Jordan's rulers don't want to see their neighbor ruled by Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We cannot remain silent to what our brothers in Syria are facing under the Assad regime, yet at the same time we don't want to replace Assad's regime to have a puppet regime in the hands of the Muslim Brothers," Qatarneh said.

Jordan has its own outspoken branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, though they have not engaged in violence. While the Syrian opposition is not currently dominated by Islamist parties, Qatarneh says Jordan, like all countries with interests in what happens in Syria, is planning for all possibilities.

Rima Marrouch and Sean Carberry contributed to this story.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with two stories about the conflict in Syria and how it's affecting Syria's neighbors, Turkey and Jordan. First, the flood of refugees.

BLOCK: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 200,000 Syrians have been displaced since the anti-government uprising began one year ago. The Syrian regime's brutal crackdown has sent people fleeing the country.

SIEGEL: Many ended up in Jordan, which has long been a haven for refugees. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Jordan and sent this story about the complications of hospitality.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: If you're trying to escape from Syria into Jordan, you have two choices. You can go the legal way. Just get in your car and try to drive across the border, but that's not very easy these days. The Syrian government isn't letting many people out. So you can try the illegal way: wait till nightfall, climb through a barbed-wire fence. It sounds sketchy, but if you make it over, you'll actually be welcomed by the Jordanian army. They'll take your name, give you a drink of water, let you rest.

After that, though, you're on your own. You might end up in an apartment building that's become a kind of holding pen for hundreds of Syrian refugees, or you might end up in a place like this, in a town on the Syrian-Jordanian border. See, I'm going into this room now. There's about 20 people staying in one room - typically, rundown buildings, a lot of garbage outside and...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: ...a lot of guys who just got here kind of crowded into this one room. The men in this room all came from the same village in southern Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Their story is eerily similar to the stories of so many cities and towns around Syria. About a month ago, a group of soldiers from their village defected from the Syrian army, refusing to fight for the government. They came back home and started defending their village against security forces, who these men say were arresting and torturing anyone who was thought to oppose the government.

ABU AMMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: A man who only wants to go by the name Abu Ammar says defectors managed to control the village for about 15 days. Then the army stormed it with tanks and mortars, and some of the men fled here. The only assistance the men can get right now is at this private Islamic charity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Recent arrivals crowd around a bearded director. He tells the men he has no cash to help with the rent, but he can provide bags of food. This is the problem for refugees in Jordan. While on the one hand, the country is more open to new arrivals than any other country that borders Syria. The government doesn't have much to offer once they get here. After all, Jordan is already a country of refugees. There are more than two million Palestinians in Jordan, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis sought refuge in Jordan after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Jordan allows these guests, as it calls them, to go to government schools and hospitals for free, but it doesn't have unlimited resources. That's why, says Andrew Harper, who heads the Jordan office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.S. and other countries that say they're committed to helping Syrians who oppose their government need to make good on that promise and pony up, and that doesn't just mean cash for the Syrians themselves, he says, but also for the Jordanians who are hosting them.

ANDREW HARPER: Jordan can only do so much. Jordan suffers from a lack of infrastructure. It's got a very young population. It doesn't have very much water. I spoke to some Jordanians who basically had their own family, but they also had two other families there. And they're saying we're doing what we need to do, because we should do this. But there's only so long which we can do this for.

MCEVERS: Jordanian analyst Yasar Qatarneh says regardless of whether it gets international assistance, Jordan has to walk a fine line with its stance on Syria. For one, no one's sure which way Syria will go, whether the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will fall or not. And even if it does fall, Qatarneh says, Jordan's rulers don't want to see their neighbor be ruled by Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.

YASAR QATARNEH: We cannot remain silent to what our brothers in Syria are facing from the Assad regime, yet at the same time we don't want to replace Assad's regime to have just another puppet regime in the hands of the Muslim Brothers.

MCEVERS: Jordan has its own nonviolent but outspoken branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Syrian opposition is not currently dominated by such Islamist parties, Qatarneh says Jordan, like all countries with interests in what happens in Syria, is planning for all possibilities. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.