Our Work Has Never Been More Important — Further Reflections from Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

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Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan
Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

People keep asking me if I have ever been to Jordan before — taxi drivers and aid workers ask, government officials, UN and refugees ask.  My answer is “yes,” I have been to Jordan once before — but it was more than 20 years ago. At the time I worked on Capitol Hill and travelled with a congressional delegation to learn more about the situation of Palestinian refugees. Decades later, it is hard to believe I am back and that Jordan continues to be on the front line of providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of new refugees fleeing for their lives.

The conflict in neighboring Syria is now in its fourth year causing a massive humanitarian crisis. More than 200,000 people are dead and 1 million injured. More than 3 million people have become refugees, fleeing for their lives, leaving everything behind, and seeking safety in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. More than 7 million people are displaced from their homes inside Syria seeking safety where they can. Nearly half of all who have been affected by the war are children. And since 2014, the crisis has only grown as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has emerged as a new and brutal threat that is sweeping across Syria and Iraq.

And so I have traveled to Jordan and Egypt as a member of a Refugee Council USA delegation to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, to strengthen our advocacy and help equip LIRS and our network for the work of resettling a small portion of Syrian refugees in the United States beginning in 2015.

On our first day in Jordan, we met with:

  • the U.S. government’s Refugee Coordinator that leads our country’s work on resettlement in the region;
  • leadership of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that is involved in screening refugees for resettlement, provides cultural orientation for those coming to the US, and arranges refugees’ travel; and
  • the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan as well as senior protection staff of UNHCR.

Jordan has been a country of remarkable hospitality to refugees — providing safety for hundreds of thousands of refugees across the decades. The population of Jordan is about 6.5 million, which includes many former Palestinian refugees now integrated into the country. It is not a wealthy country — poverty is high, unemployment is estimated at 30%, it is among the countries with the least secure access to water — and still it has made room for neighbors.

Can you imagine — what would happen if 32 million people from other countries (equivalent to 10% of the US population) streamed across the U.S. borders running for their lives, with nothing, seeking protection, shelter, food, water, health care, education and hope for a future? It is truly beyond imagination. But that is exactly what has happened as Jordan has provided asylum for the equivalent of 10% of its population. At present, 620,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Jordan and 40,000 Iraqi refugees. Yet only about 100,000 live in five refugee camps, while the vast majority of these refugees live in local communities where they are considered “urban refugees.”  More about this in a future post.

But hosting these many refugees is causing huge strains in Jordan. There is growing resentment and services are being cut off. Since late in 2014, most of the refugees now fleeing ISIS who cross in to Jordan seeking safety are forcibly returned to Syria. There is fear among the refugees and among the Jordanian people, while the international community is growing tired of this refugee crisis.

One official described this as the most dangerous period in the history of the Middle East in terms of war, deaths, displacement of people, and the saturation of weapons. Solutions are not clear and won’t be easy. As is often the case, most refugees hope to go home one day – but that day is not likely to come soon.

The work of LIRS, our partners and supporters has never been more important.  We must continue to advocate to protect Syrian refugees, we can’t grow weary, and we must open our hearts and be prepared to welcome some of these refugees into our communities.

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