Twenty months on, and too many seasons lapsed for it still to be an Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict has not let up, and for many, their only option has been to leave the warzone (along with their homes) behind. As cities in one embattled and and war-drumming nation empty out - Homs, Derra and Aleppo are looking more like ghost-towns than hubs of Syrian life - on the other side, another country is quietly swelling up with visitors relieved to swap shells and danger for peace and humdrum.
We checked in with the new Syrian/ Jordanian reality that is populating the borderlands of Jordan. The small border village of Atorra, across the frontier from the Syrian town of Deraa, welcomed us once again with open arms, no stranger to guests - all 300 refugee families worth that they had absorbed.
Ever since Syria’s crisis escalated into full-blown violence, border towns in Jordan have accommodated fleeing refugees who were lucky enough to cross the line dividing nation-states, but not people. Residents on either side seemed to have a lot in common: language, culture, religion (a shared Sunni zeal) and, as we soon discovered, kinship.
Etched on these stoic faces was concern for their friends and family left behind. The hope was for a Eid visit by their loved ones, just days before the ‘bigger’ of the twice-yearly Muslim ‘Eids’ or Feasts, Adha that falls right after the Muslim pilgrimage, Hajj. Though these families could now sleep the nights, they often left one ear and the mind’s eye back home with daughters, sons, brothers, sisters who were not quite so lucky as to be able to escape.
Perhaps they were still shell-shocked, why else would their visage carry a vapid smile when they'd lost loved ones and homeland and were living the temporary status of guest or refugee? One group of children staying with their aunt and uncle in Aturra spoke of their distaste for the word “refugee”.
“I don’t like it when people call me that”, said a boy of 10 who was away from parents but not separated from his two sisters and his younger brother.
What would you rather be called, we asked gently. "I’m a ‘returnee’," he announced with pride- a guest who will go back, he elaborated.
Is this Syria’s 'Arab Spring', we asked? When will it finish? "It’s been long overdue since Hama, 1982" said a senior member of a refugee family. "This time we have the media and Facebook" - rather than the black-out in coverage of the '80s massacre. “Sharon is better than Assad” he went on to add.
Still, as we were treated to the usual generous rounds of sweet coffee and tea served up with the sour stories of their pain and torment, we couldn’t help but wonder once again how both these people and their hosts, the Jordanians of the villages and towns were grinning and bearing it all. It is worth mentioning that Jordan is going through some economic and political tribulations– with dire debts and political tugs of war holding the body politic to ransom. Even the richest of states--of which Jordan is patently not one--would complain when immigrants or refugees darken their door. Take Malta and its Libyan boat guests…
More friendly questions with occasional biting enquiries soon illuminated the reality at stake. These border town Jordanians had always mingled with and married into families on the Derra side of the crossing and it was not uncommon to have an aunt or uncle across these (arbitrary and colonial) borders. These refugees were not the enemy within but Sunni 'cousins' in need. While we were sat in one of the houses, a whole troupe of Saudi men in their tell-tale thobes came bearing gifts for the refugee children. Barbie dolls and toy cars were received with glee from the salvaged childhood innocence of those who had gotten away. Muslim charity has been forthcoming for this host Jordanian community under duress. We later learnt that the visible toys fronted a hidden $100 per refugee family. Saudi money not a first-time visitor to Jordan, nor the Syrian Sunni cause.
Reunited for Eid?
Eid gifts come early were all very well – but all knew that what they’d really like is to see more of their compatriots get across the border safely to join them for the festivities this weekend, particularly with their eye on the proclaimed ceasefire.
When asked where they saw the conflict in 6 months time, the Syrian refugees we spoke to said that they saw Assad captured alive yesterday already, and that they could only bear to think ahead to 6 hours or 6 seconds; they could not suffer the idea of him still alive and kicking (killing) in 6 months time.
Right now, all are praying and hoping that the ceasefire will be observed over Eid--and that it will allow Syrians fleeing fighting in their country to join their kinsmen in Jordan, for them the Kingdom of hope?
By Dina Dabbous
Do you think the ceasefire for Eid will be successful and observed by both sides? Have your say on the situation in Syria and the future of the refugees housed in Jordan.
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