Jordan’s fatigued host communities: A story of discrimination in humanitarian aid

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
(Photo: Jordan News)
In 2016 in a televised interview with ABC’s Tony Jones, His Majesty King Abdullah spoke about Jordan’s “moral responsibility” towards Syrian refugees.اضافة اعلان
His unforgettable words still ring true for many Jordanians: “When you have a pregnant mother with a child in her hand trying to cross the border, how are we going to stop her? ... There is a level of humanity that we have to reach out to each other.”

With this spirit of compassion, Jordan became the second-largest host of refugees per capita in the world, sharing what little it had with the women, men, and children fleeing their Syrian homes — from scarce water resources to record loads stressing its electricity power grids.

Little did Jordan know, when it opened its arms to families fleeing terror and pain, that its own people living in host communities, which accommodate over 80 percent of the Syrian refugee population, would receive little regard from the international community.

We never thought our women, men, and children would be taken for granted.

Crowded by the agendas of humanitarian INGOs, it took Jordan several years to navigate the complex landscape of the UNHCR-led Syria Crisis Response. Eventually, the Kingdom came up with its own Jordan Response Plan (JRP), prepared by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Released in March, the budget for the year 2021 stood at approximately $2.4 billion.

Two weeks ago we learned, from a meeting King Abdullah had in New York with International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband, that only 10 percent of the JRP has received funding this year, signaling a sharp decline in international contributions.

A week ago, His Majesty reminded the world, for a second time this month, of its responsibility towards the refugees and their host communities in Jordan (and Lebanon), in his address to the 76th UN General Assembly:

“For generations, our country has sacrificed to help millions of refugees fleeing injustice and danger. The well-being of these millions and the communities that host them remains an international responsibility. It is vital to keep up support for UNHCR, the World Food Program, and others that care for and offer hope to refugees and their host communities.”

The Syrian crisis erupted in 2011. Yet, 10 years later, our country still needs to remind the world of its moral responsibility towards the refugees and the host communities they live with.

This is a country that is literally breaking at the seams from the stresses it has endured for the past 10 years, let alone the 10 years before that was spent bracing ourselves throughout the war on terrorism. And a few extra years before that braving the panic of the Iraq War.

No one seems to be getting it. We have had no breather. This nation is exhausted and fatigued, and the international community is taking our ability to endure and persevere for granted. No nation, no individual, no family, can ever sustain long years of continuous strain without coming to their breaking point. It is unavoidable.

For Jordanians to be able to put up with 10 more years of depleted resources, the international community needs to shift gears from a humanitarian aid model (that lacks longevity and aims to elevate people’s misery with quick solutions), to a sustainable approach that is more developmental in nature.

I speak from first-hand experience when I say host communities have endured a lot of discrimination and strain, caused by narrow-viewed policy-making and advocacy by the international aid community. Regardless of past mistakes, the aid community needs to start working with developmental agencies to find long-term solutions to long-term problems, like water scarcity and challenges plaguing the energy sector.

Those are no longer issues belonging to a different socioeconomic box, like Jordan’s reform program. Every resource affected by the Syrian refugee crisis is eligible for a new developmental model that elevates every last bit of Jordan’s chronic fatigue.

Again, this depletion is closely linked to discrimination in humanitarian aid.
Seven years ago, I saw how Syrian refugee families and their Jordanian neighbors, who lived in the same shabby building and in the same rundown neighborhood, had two slightly different living standards. Back then, I worked as an aid worker for a UK-based humanitarian INGO, an eye-opening experience in every sense of the word.

During my work as a media officer there, I came across many heart-wrenching stories about Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, with most encounters ending in suppressed tears and intense heart burn.

But then a new story angle started to emerge — of a different kind of agony and unfairness.

Up close and personal, I saw a disparity in opportunity and living standards when a Jordanian woman barged into an interview we were having in a suburb north of Amman.

At first I thought the woman, wearing a traditional Jordanian dress and headdress, was being rude for refusing to leave. She had almost bolted herself to the ground, waiting for us, representatives of a humanitarian organization, to offer aid to her more “privileged” Syrian neighbor. “You give them everything,” she snapped at me as I embarrassingly tried to ask her to leave.

At the time, I was too focused on the Syrian refugees, as was the habit of my organization. I felt what she said was inappropriate and “un-Jordanian.”

But then a few weeks later, I started to understand where she came from.
We were shooting an advocacy video for a political event, and this time we went to the home of a Syrian refugee living in eastern Amman. The father, a kind man who crisscrossed western Amman’s streets to sell his homemade Arabic coffee, complained about the isolation his son felt at his public school.

As it turns out, his son received a brand-new schoolbag from some international humanitarian organization, together with new colorful notebooks and a pencil case. His Jordanian peers, who had befriended him when he first joined their classroom, stopped talking to him. The Syrian boy was hurt, and so were they.

Let me offer some contextual translation. For years, the humanitarian community has engaged in discriminatory actions that have resulted in leaving behind Jordanian children and their families, filling them with all sorts of negative feelings; the kind of feelings that could destroy “social cohesion”.

Discriminating between a Syrian child sharing a desk with a Jordanian child is wrong. Ask any child psychologist.

The humanitarian community has been pushing for “social cohesion,” but do leaders and workers in such organizations really understand that to create “inclusion” you need to treat people fairly?

Now that we are moving towards a more advanced development-based phase (from a rapid crisis response stage that has lasted longer than anticipated), we need to make sure equity, social justice, and non-discriminatory humanitarian aid and long-term developmental projects, are an integral component of the path forward.

In other words, INGOs and the international community need to start treating refugees and Jordanians in host communities equitably, in a manner that corrects past mistakes and puts Jordanians on an equal par with the Syrian refugees they are hosting.

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