A heavy burden



Middle East

By Guy Edmunds

In the Al Wehdat district of Amman, cramped houses jostle for position on narrow roads. Coatless children with streaming noses play in the winter sunshine, while old men watch the world go by.

This is a Palestinian neighbourhood, one of many set up people who fled the war with Israel in 1948. By some estimates, over half the country’s 6m population is Palestinian. Jordan also now hosts 400,000 or so refugees from Iraq, and over half a million more from Syria. Jordan’s refugee burden is remarkable.

Harbieh Kaied Ali, a Jordanian, does not live here because of kinship ties with the Palestinians – even though Bilal, her husband was actually born in Gaza. For her, the area is attractive for another reason: cheap rent in a city that has seen prices more than double in the last two years.

As we enter the one-room apartment in which she and Bilal live with their 6 children, she bids us to sit in front of the gas fire. But the heating is not for us. One of their children has chest problems, and needs to sleep in a warm room. Harbieh has borrowed the heater from a neighbour, and washes her carpets in return.

By any standards, this is a poor family. Bilal can’t work because of a heart condition, which he cannot afford to treat. 3 children go to a nearby school, but the family struggles to buy the clothes, bags and books that they need. For breakfast and lunch, they eat bread with yoghurt. The family sits, eats and sleeps on the mattresses that circle the room, which they bought with money provided by DRC. The only other furniture in the room is a wardrobe.

Still, at least the roof no longer leaks, after DRC referred the family to another organization that assists with emergency shelter rehabilitation.

Inevitably, the influx of refugees has complicated life for ordinary Jordanians, driving up prices and taxing Jordan’s creaking infrastructure. Public services and resources are overwhelmed by the sharp rise in population, threatening the social fabric of hosting communities. Those at the bottom of the scale - approximately 13 percent of the Jordanian population lives under the poverty line – are hardest hit.

Yet to have any kind of life at all in Jordan, refugees depend on a tolerant attitude from the rest of the population. That is why DRC ensures that 30 percent of the beneficiaries of its emergency cash assistance are Jordanian, even though they are not refugees.

Harbieh and her family depend entirely on family, friends and charity to survive. That is harder now than ever: before the influx of Syrians, prices were lower and there was more charity to go round. Yet Harbieh displays no grudge towards this latest wave of refugees. Like mothers all over the world, she is more worried by her children.