Syria risks losing more than bazaars and mosques

Ezra Karmel, October 24, 2013

Ezra Karmel is a Graduate Fellow at UVic’s Centre for Global Studies and the Head of Research for the Jordanian CSO Identity Center

Damascus, locals say, does not measure its history in years or generations, but in civilizations. The evidence of these past lives is etched into its ancient walls and markets, which are now crumbling under the weight of war. The last two years have erased thousands of years of history, leaving the Syrian people as the last remnant of its legacy.

Those who have travelled to Syria will have experienced the unfathomable kindness and humility of a people that have witnessed the rise and fall of countless empires. Many will likely have also visited the famous Damascene café, where nightly (until 2011) the last storyteller of Syria, Mr. Abu Shadi, recounted age-old stories of empires past, whilst packed-in listeners smoked water pipes and drank Turkish coffee by the thimbleful. Those stories are no longer being told. They are vanishing along with the cities that gave them resonance.

Along with Syria’s famous mosques and bazaars, the Syrian people are being buried under the weight of the regime’s onslaught. Even those who have managed to escape Assad’s tank treads are being lost. They are being dispersed throughout the region and across the globe. Since violence erupted more than two years ago, over two million Syrians have joined the growing diaspora community.

Thus far, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has absorbed more refugees from this conflict than any other country. Daily, nearly 1 000 Syrians flee across Jordan’s northern border, seeking refuge from the conflict. In total, Jordan, a country with a population of over six million people, has received more than half a million Syrian refugees. This massive influx has drastically reoriented the demographic landscape of the small, ethnically divided kingdom. The third-largest city in the entire kingdom is now Za’atari, a Syrian refugee camp located in the North of Jordan.

The Syrian presence is also evident outside of the crowded, putrid streets of Za’atari. Jordan is being irrevocably changed, as more and more Syrians begin afresh within its borders. Along with their savings—which do not go far in Jordan’s vastly more expensive society—the refugees have brought only their culture. Yet this cultural influence has had a profound social impact; daily you hear the resulting quips: “Jordan is becoming a much friendlier place” or “the confectionary here is certainly getting a lot better.”

As with all jokes, there is a foundation of truth in these remarks. News stands, shops, and restaurants are popping up across Amman, the kingdom’s capital. One of these restaurants was opened by a Syrian chef who fled to Jordan with his family in 2011.

Syrians such as the chef have started new lives in Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom has graciously opened its doors and provided relative stability and safety to the Syrian newcomers. However, as Syrians grow accustomed to life in the conservative kingdom, growing anti-Syrian sentiments are also emerging. Due to the supposedly negative impact that Syrians have inflicted upon the economy and housing market, Jordanians are becoming increasingly hostile towards their new guests. In fact, while Jordanians were quick to condemn Assad when the conflict broke out, support for his regime is now growing, as many Jordanians see him as the best possible solution to the Syrian problem and the expedient return of Syrians to their homes.

To please its Western allies and maintain solidarity with its Arab brethren, Jordan continues to accept refugees. It does not, however, want its land to become a permanent home for fleeing Syrians. Jordan has been used as a dumping pile for refugees in many conflicts past; it refuses to once again be used as a pawn in superpower gambits. The wars with Israel and the conflicts in the Gulf brought wave upon wave of refugees to Jordan. They came as temporary guests, but made permanent homes.

The Syrian chef has been forced to close his restaurant. It is possible that he merely went out of business (his tabouleh was surprisingly cheap), although it is plausible that the Mukhabarat (Jordanian intelligence) forced his closure.

While the regime may not make life easy for the refugees, Syrians who have made a new home in Jordan are unlikely to pack up and return to a war-ravaged Syria the moment the conflict ends. The Syrian chef may have been forced to close his business, but he has since found employment elsewhere and is building a new life for himself and his family in Jordan. As with the end of the Iraq War, many of these refugees will decide to stay in Jordan after the conflict.

Even if it means living without citizenship or rights, some may choose to gamble on the security and affluence of Jordan. Countless Syrians who escaped the fate of being caught in no man’s land—between the bombardment of Assad and the opposing rebels—will, nonetheless, be lost from Syria.

As the war endures, Syria continues to lose its people—not just to death, but to the diaspora. If the war does not end soon, the Syrian culture that was once vibrant may disintegrate along with the bazaars and mosques of Damascus.