Welcoming the Stranger: What Jordan's Bedouin Can Teach Us

By J. Daryl Byler 8-16-2012
 Syrian boy in rented flat in Mafraq, Jordan. MCC Photo/Nada Zabeneh
Syrian boy in rented flat in Mafraq, Jordan. MCC Photo/Nada Zabeneh

At the corner grocery in our Jabal al-Webdah neighborhood of Amman, a Syrian man in his early 20s now runs the meat and cheese counter. Ahmed (not his real name) is one of more than 150,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan since his country’s violence began in March 2011.  

Young males seeking to avoid mandatory military service are one of the largest groups leaving Syria.

Ahmed wires his wages to his family in Syria and calls them each evening to be sure they are still safe. “The situation inside Syria is even worse than reported in the news,” he laments.

A recent UNHCR report notes that, increasingly, Syrians are arriving in Jordan with only the clothes they are wearing and with few economic resources after months of unemployment.

I met Salwa, a Syrian woman from Homs, at a Caritas Jordan center in the northern city of Mafraq, one of several sites where young Jordanian volunteers are distributing Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) material resources shipped from Canada and the United States – thousands of relief kits, hygiene kits, school kits, and blankets.

Salwa came to Jordan with her husband and four small children in early 2012, after two neighbors were killed and her husband’s grocery store was taken over by Syrian security forces.

In Mafraq, they are renting a small flat for $140 USD per month. “Everything is more expensive in Jordan than in Homs,” Salwa observed. Her husband has not been able to find work in Mafraq.

She said her family’s most urgent needs are security, milk, and mattresses. Whenever her children hear fireworks or gunshots (often part of local wedding celebrations), they fear that the violence has followed them from Homs to Jordan.

Jordan has a long history of welcoming the stranger. Because of the harsh desert climate, the Bedouin offered three days of hospitality to anyone who passed by their tents. Amazingly, this hospitality was to be extended even to one’s enemies.

Well over half the population of Jordan is made up of newcomers who have arrived during the past 60 years. With a total population of less than 6.5 million, Jordan has opened its arms to 2.7 million Palestinians (the original refugees from 1948 and 1967 wars, and their descendants); half a million Iraqis; thousands of Somalis, Sudanese, and Libyans; and now to more than 150,000 Syrians.

This hospitality is remarkable given Jordan’s current challenges — economic (unemployment rate above 13 percent), political (weekly demonstrations demanding government reforms), and infrastructure (among top 10 countries globally for water scarcity).

Such generosity is not without risks. Jordan has long had a reputation as one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. But some analysts say ferment is growing.

They fear that the new influx of Syrian refugees might push Jordan’s tottering social stability over the edge. Indeed, many Jordanians have begun to complain about rising food and housing costs which they believe are linked to yet another wave of refugees. Others fear that groups like al-Qaeda will infiltrate the refugees and attack targets in Jordan. There are also reports of skirmishes on the Syrian-Jordanian border, as Jordanian forces help refugees enter the country and the Syrian regime responds.

Still, Jordan continues to follow an open-door policy and provides healthcare and access to public education for Syrians who register with UNHCR.

But the Jordanian government and U.N. agencies cannot meet all the needs. The U.N. has received only 10 percent of the $40 million needed for Syrian refugees in Jordan through the end of September. Local charities like Caritas Jordan have become key players in extending hospitality to Syrian refugees.

More than 3,000 years ago, just miles from where some Syrian refugees are settling today, a wandering people gathered in the Plains of Moab (part of today’s Jordan Valley) as their final staging area before crossing the Jordan River into the “Promised Land.”

Here, Moses gave a series of sermons – now known as the book of Deuteronomy – to prepare the people for living faithfully in a new land. 

“God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and . . . loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing,” Moses reminded the people. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19)

Remembering our own stories of vulnerability is the key to extending generosity and justice to strangers. As Western Christians, we have much to learn from the Bedouin of Jordan. 

J. Daryl Byler is a regional Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Representative based in Amman, Jordan. MCC’s work in the Middle East focuses on relief, sustainable community development and peacebuilding projects, which are implemented through local partners. He writes a weekly blog at http://cindydarylbyler.wordpress.com/.

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