credits: photoreportage “Les réfugiés syriens de Jordanie, entre la terreur et l’oubli” (la Cote – CH), photos from Sara Lahli.
The Syrian refugees in Jordan
The numbers are open to fierce debates … Some say they are 750 000. Others say they are more than 1.3 million … Those are big figures. Let’s just take the median number to get everyone agreed. It means that they represent roughly, 10% or more, of the people living in this country.
In the proportion to the total population in France, refugees would be about 7 million people. That is to say, 3 times more than the population of Paris. And 2 times more than the whole population of Amman.
And yet, we see quite few of them … All right, there are many refugee camps in this country … and some are HUGE. Zaatari, Azraq , to name a few, are real cities, having counted dozens or even hundreds of thousands of inhabitants at the height of the Syrian crisis.
Humanitarian volunteers and agents of international organizations work really hard in these camps, which, however, are emptying inexorably of their inhabitants. Because Man is enterprising. he takes his chance, wherever he can.
So in Amman and other Northern cities of Jordan, Syrian refugees just blend into the landscape. They are under the radar scope. They are no longer counted, and they no longer count. They live, eat, work – or try to do so. They are here. They are there. And many of them will stay. Because they are afraid to return to their country.
The Ammanites, whether they are locals or expatriates, do know that the city is divided into two parts: on one side, the rich and the very rich. On the other, the poor.
The formers, in the south and west of the city, in beautiful new neighborhoods, in neat apartments, in smooth streets, surrounded by expensive and sometimes extravagant cars.
The latters, rather North and East, in old and decrepit apartments. If anything “old” means something, in this endless growing city, which counted only 15 000 inhabitants in 1940. Many live in gigantic sad suburbs, such as Zarqa…Zarqa, named so for “the blue one” in Arabic, so badly named as it is so gray and banal. Among them, Syrian refugees nestle in interstices.
And sometimes, these two worlds, the rich and the poor, rub shoulders and intertwine … When the refugees do not get evicted from there, they manage to sell cheap products at the traffic lights, in the beautiful neighborhoods. Sometimes men, often women. And, children. Some, almost exclusively women, ask for charity. Here in middle East, men care about having themselves a brave face.
Same situation as in the big European cities? Maybe. But with proportionally dozens of times more refugees on Jordanian soil, compared to the situation in Europe. All in all, most surprising is the invisibility of the refugees, relevant to their number. So many, and so discreet …
And sometimes they just move around. They walk, without asking anything to anyone.
That day, it was a grandfather, with his granddaughter. An unusual tandem, and meanwhile so symbolic of a very sad condition.
Painfully pushing a caddy, half-full with scrap metal, the old hob, was trying to find his way among the potholes of a highway side. The one, which you imagine to be his grand-daughter, is holding his arm, scampering on the same pace. An almost declining old man and an 8ish-year-old girl in rags.
They are not even begging. They are beyond that. They are not looking around them. Maybe, do they have their pride. They are just walking on the high ground of this fast lane, as Amman counts so much. Around, cars are driving at a pace. Their drivers are bored, and have plenty of time to contemplate the sad scene.
On this long straight line, at the end of the afternoon, dozens of cars are approaching the two refugees. When trafic lights become green, far beyond, drivers are passing at their level, then move away, slowly, inexorably. I am in this slow flow, among so many other anonymous cars.
I am now at their level. We are crossing each other. Their eyes are fixed, and do not meet mine. On the dirt road along the highway, it is not easy to push the caddy. The old man and the girl are concentrated on their journey. Now, I have to wring my neck to look at them from my mirror. In petto, questions are fusing. Where the heck are they going? where are the little girl’s parents? Are they at least… alive? And why aren’t they just asking for charity? Still, it would surely work … Who would dare refuse to give them a coin?
They are moving away, somehow. My inner questions turn into thoughts about destiny. A new look backwards. They will soon disappear behind a guardrail.
Suddenly, the car in front of me brutally stops. A standard sedan, a little shabby, of a typical Asian brand very popular among the Jordanian middle class. The door is opening. His driver, quite bulky, young thirty, cigarette stuck in the mouth, is springing from the car like a jack-in-the-box. But what the hell is he doing?
He is obviously not sporty, and his polished moccasins do not help him run … Although his approach is comical, he succeeds in catching up with the two refugees before they disappear. He stops at their level. He slips them a few words, puts each one of them a hand on the shoulder. He takes the little girl’s hand, and before it closes, I glimpse a banknote slipped into it.
Now I’m gazing at the scene. He comes back to his car, still running, and I watch him go by, he, the out-of-breath generous man . I am staring at him. He gets into his car, and rushes back to join the line in front of him. In the meantime, no driver honked him. Not one. In the whirlwind of a capital in which any delay at the red light is sanctioned with an indignant concert of “wonk-wonk”, it is rather unusual. I guess many had to be impressed too by his gesture.
Yallah, yallah ! Help them, me too! But it is now to late. The refugees behind, have disappeared. Where are they? Should I run too and take my chance?
My turn is over. A first horn sounds. I need to go forward. One last look behind. No one any more. Too late. I shift the first gear, and replace me behind the hero’s car. Life resumes its normality. Some opportunities only occur once. You can still prepare a banknote in your car side-pocket, “for the next time” … It would still be too late for “the right time” where it should have been done at the first place.
That day, there was only one actor, and many spectators.
That day … I was a spectator like so many others.
That day …. Only a man can claim his good conscience. All the spectators around can think about this scene again and again, it will still be too late for them.
By thinking back to that day … They will remain spectators. We will remain spectators. I will remain a spectator.