The Invisible Refugees of Jordan

By: Esma Abib

Jordan has witnessed an influx of refugees and immigrant settlements from different African groups. According to the UNHCR, there are currently 3,000 Sudanese and 2,000 Somali refugees living in Jordan. However, compared to the nearly 700,000 Syrian refugees, and the 3 million Palestinian refugees, African refugees are often underrepresented and forgotten in conversations about marginalization in refugee groups.

Many Jordanians that I met so far are acquainted with the neighborhoods where African refugees mainly reside but are completely unaware of the larger systems of ethnic-based discrimination that differentiate their experiences from other Syrian, Iraqi, or Palestinian refugees. The passion I have for my topic stems from my proximity to refugee resettlement and immigration as a Somali immigrant in America. Initially pursuing this research topic, I faced many difficulties breaking through surface-level information and outdated statistics on African refugees in Jordan. As the international focus is on larger more immediate groups in Jordan, very few are invested in advocating for equal and progressive rights of all refugee groups. Sawiyan is one of these few organizations that advocate for marginalized African refugee groups.

Early this morning, I met the Co-founder of Sawiyan at a bookstore cafe, where she shared about her initial involvement with the African refugee community after having worked within the Syrian refugee community in the past, along with the growth of Sawiyan as a community rather than a non-profit organization. The Sawiyan team first came together to respond to a mass deportation of Sudanese refugees that happened on December 15, 2018. During this critical time, Sawiyan brought food, blankets, and clothes to the Sudanese community, who were too scared to leave their homes due to the looming threat of deportation. Sawiyan continues to integrate African refugees into the Jordanian community through social inclusion projects that break down stereotypes using dialogue between Jordanians and African refugee communities and provide specialized resources that they currently lack. Additionally, they conduct and support research projects that critically analyze the irrefutable realities faced by African communities, while also solidifying their validity in the NGO world and increasing awareness of their marginalization in Jordanian society.

Jordan has neither created sound national refugee laws nor asylum procedures, as they refused to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protection. They did sign, however, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with UNHCR in 1998 where they were given the responsibility of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) that contained the main principles of international refugee protection, and also states that the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan should eventually rise to the internationally accepted standard.

To better contextualize what this policy meant for the African refugee experience, I hope to engage with Sudanese and Somali community members during my stay in Jordan. Later this afternoon, I went to Manara Arts and Culture Center to meet with an Adolescent & Youth Development Specialist at UNICEF, who is a member of the Somali community. His family left Somalia over 10 years ago, spending a few years in Yemen and Syria, and settling in Jordan under refugee status, waiting for their final resettlement elsewhere. His story highlights the limited educational and work opportunities for refugees that are exacerbated by anti-Black discrimination. the African refugee experience can take different forms depending on how much the host country is willing to invest in these communities.

These two meetings today further ignited a passion in me to continue learning about the issues of the African refugee community in Jordan through engagement. I now have a clearer picture of Jordan as an overwhelmed state, burdened by the immense needs of its citizens and newly settled refugees. However, Jordan will continue accepting more refugees than it can take care of as long as they receive humanitarian aid from international organizations and donors. Through my research, I hope to highlight the systems that oppress the marginalized African refugee in Jordan and continue to be critical of the different privileges enjoyed by Jordan’s different refugee groups to create a holistic picture of the unique struggles of the African refugee community.

Jordan, Refugees, and inequality: Disparities between the treatment of Syrian and Palestinian refugees

By: Karim Al Haffar

I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan to conduct interviews with experts in the field of political science. One particular day stood out to me as we interviewed Professor Jalal Al Husseini, an expert on topics such as the Palestinian occupation and Jordanian identity.
Professor Al Husseini provided us with a comprehensive history of the Palestinian immigration to Jordan. He explained that Palestinians who arrived before 1955 are eligible for a passport and citizenship in Jordan. However, he also expressed Jordan’s fear that it could become a second state for Palestinians, leading to them forgetting their homeland. This was a significant concern for Jordan as it could potentially destabilize the country’s delicate balance.

The professor also spoke about the Syrian refugee crisis and how Jordan views them as temporary refugees. The country only continues to welcome them due to the aid received from the EU and the US. He talked about the schooling for Syrian refugees and how Jordan decided to implement double-shifting and other harsh rules, such as closing the bathrooms in schools, so that Syrian refugee children would not use them because they were deemed unclean.

According to Professor Al Husseini, the problem was initially Trans-Jordanians vs. Jordanian Palestinians. However, with the influx of Syrian refugees, it has become a problem of Jordanians vs. Syrians. He expressed concern that this could lead to further unrest in the country and destabilize the current situation.

After a long day of interviews, we decided to walk around the “Al Abdali” area, which was full of malls, banks, and government buildings such as the Ministry of Education. We also had the opportunity to chat with locals about their political opinions and culture, particularly the taxi drivers, who had some fascinating insights to share.

At the end of the day, we enjoyed eating Kunafah from Habiba, a family-owned dessert place in Wasat Al-Balad since 1948, when the family moved their shop from Occupied Palestine to Amman.

Jordanian Identity: Contradictions of National Belonging and Shared State Conception

By: Leo Deener

The Hashemite Kingdom is an ethnically diverse state largely composed of two main identity groups: “indigenous” Jordanians and “foreign” Palestinians. Many say the country is majority Palestinian at this point and the capital city, Amman, is a clear center of Palestinian life and culture.

These divisions of “indigenous” versus “foreign” and Palestinian-Jordanian versus Jordanian-Jordanian are widely contested based on a number of factors ranging from fundamental pillars of state, common identity as Greater Syria under the Ottomans, and resistance against Israeli occupation and erasure of Palestinian life. These undercurrent tensions between nationality, identity, and citizenship are what I hope to illuminate in my research. My Friday beginning in Amman and ending in the desert of southern Jordan was a perfect embodiment of these complex dynamics.

The drizzly morning began with an interview with an accomplished academic of east bank origin who explained in rigorous detail the origins of Jordanian and Palestinian national identity. He expressed emotional dedication to the Palestinian cause and cited ideas of Arab unity, but as our conversation progressed, certain subsurface rifts emerged. Fascinatingly to me, the university professor noted how was glad that “we” East Bank “real” Jordanians controlled the military and that he didn’t want “them,” meaning Palestinians, to take over the entire government/state. This sensitive but present rift between nationalities and belonging under one common citizenship represents a fragile conception of state that an invented post-colonial Jordan must reckon with constantly.

After a delicious lunch of shawarma and baklawa, and slightly better weather, I had the opportunity to meet with the leader of a cultural center that engages with the wider history and traditions of the “Sham” region but focuses on preservation of a distinctly Palestinian heritage. As we sat in the sun with her dog, the young Palestinian woman explained an almost opposite understanding of Jordan. After asking to be off the record for this delicate portion of the interview, she described the rifts between the two groups as contrived and spoke of a Jordan for “indigenous” Jordanians as well as for its large Palestinian population in a shared mission of culture as resistance. Her work sought to avoid contentious political difference and focused on Arab and Sham unity instead.

These two interviews set the identity landscape of Amman as we vacated the big city and headed south towards the Jordanian desert. There, we were hosted by tribal Bedouins who also have a special place in Jordanian national myth as the group who welcomed in the Hashemites as their monarch. Therefore, they enjoy specific privileges and preservation within the discourse of who is reallyJordanian.

Overall, my Friday in Jordan clarified my sense that each narrow identity group has a distinct and important relationship with the state, regime, and royal family. This day was a microcosm of my curiosity to understand how each presence fits together to attain the functionally stable but foundationally insecure modern kingdom.

Street Art in Jordan: Impossible to Ignore

By: Magali Ortiz

After a week of researching street art in Amman, my eyes are constantly on the lookout for graffiti and murals. So when our group embarks on a road trip to Wadi Rum and Petra, it’s impossible not to notice the stray graffiti here and there on the side of the road. Even as we get into remote stretches of desert, the occasional structure that pops up is almost always tagged, marked by someone’s spray can. Only once do I see graffiti at the base of a rocky mountain. I add a note to my mental list of the unwritten rules of graffitiing: don’t vandalize natural structures. This proves true in Petra, where street artists have repeatedly tagged the little shops and stands that dot the long hike through the wind-chiseled rocks, but not the rocks themselves, which are already streaked with color. Near the top, just a few minutes from the monastery, I have to laugh when I see a tag by an artist I recognize – SINER, one of the most prolific graffiti artists in Amman. Of course he would bring a spray can to Petra.

SINER’s tag, and a sticker of his crew Mad Dogs, on the side of a stand in Petra

It’s a fun game to play – once you know a street artist’s signature, you start spotting it everywhere. As we drive back into the city Saturday afternoon, I point out a piece by MIG overlooking the highway. He’s someone the whole group has learned to spot, not only because of his style and signature robot, but because he’s literally everywhere in Amman. When I interviewed him earlier in the week, he showed me his Google Maps app, where he marks every potential spot for his art. The screen is so covered with blue markers that in some places it’s difficult to make out the map underneath. 

Gifts from people I interviewed, including stickers from MIG and Sardine

Saturday evening, when I discuss the city’s street art with Sardine, he uses MIG as an example of how dedicated some street artists can be. Sardine, AKA Mike Derderian, has been in the graffiti game for a long time. We’ve been trying to find a time to meet since I landed in Amman, but it wasn’t until his art show that our schedules managed to line up. The show is hosted at F.A.D.A.317, Sardine’s studio and the only one in the city dedicated to street artists. Although he still goes out to spray paint frequently – Sardine’s characters can be seen all over the city – he has started to focus more on other art forms, such as his short film Geisha L.O.V.E., which debuts that evening. Nevertheless, he still knows everyone involved in Amman’s small but constantly growing street art scene. His show features collaborations with a variety of local artists, and during our talk in his office, he constantly mentions muralists and graffiti artists, often pointing out their art on his walls. Afterwards, when we venture back out into the art show, he introduces me to other artists, some that I’ve met, others that I only recognize from their art that I’ve seen walking around the city. Naji AlAli is yet another of the truly dedicated – his lemonheads can be seen all over, including at the entrance to F.A.D.A.317.

Inside F.A.D.A.317

Walking back to our hotel from the studio through Al-Weibdeh and Wasat Al-Balad, street art adorns most of the walls that I pass. Some of it is the casual, fast work of artists like SINER or MIG, some are small murals done by the likes of Sardine or Yaratun, or bigger street art crews. On one busy street, you can find a host of murals by renown artists like Suhaib Attar, done during different years of Baladk, an annual street art festival hosted by Amman’s Al-Balad theater. Somehow, it has become second nature to recognize styles, signatures, tags. It’s my last evening in the city, and I’ve only been here a short while, but I feel a deep sense of familiarity with its walls. After all my conversations with artists about the future of Amman’s street art, I wonder what the city will look like on my next visit, and how the medium will continue to take hold in other cities like Irbid and Petra, as well as all the long highways in between.

An alleyway en route to the hotel

Women’s Employment in Jordan: Systemic Barriers in the Cooperative Sector.

By: Miles Guerin

In Jordan, the majority of university students are women. Though despite educational attainment, Jordan has one of the lowest employment rates for women; not just in the region, but in the world. In my research, I hope to understand what systemic barriers exist for women in Jordan, and better understand the sorts of initiatives NGOs and the Jordanian government are undertaking to help reach gender parity in the labor force.

After interviewing academics and USAID representatives earlier in the week, today we were conducting our first interview with representatives from the Jordanian government. With the sun barely risen over the many hills of Amman, we made our way over to the central office of the Jordanian Cooperative Corporation— a governmental organization set up to oversee the formation, regulation, and development of all economic cooperatives in the country. There, we met with a representative who spoke to the country’s current strategies regarding the development of the sector, and existing barriers to female labor force participation. The representative mentioned that while Jordan’s agricultural sector receives aid from USAID and related programs, what is really needed for expansion of the sector is technology transfer from the US and other donor countries. Additionally, while Jordan has a relatively large public sector, limited growth in the private sector has put undue pressure on hiring in the public sector. As a result, fewer women are being selected to fill positions in the cooperative sector.

In the afternoon, we made our way to west Amman where we met with the head of UN Women in Jordan. In our conversation, he covered UN Women’s current initiatives for increasing Jordanian women’s economic empowerment, as well as initiatives for Syrian women living in Azraq and Zaatari. In speaking with UN Women, we found that the largest barriers to women attempting to engage in the labor force are the lack of reliable transportation, cultural norms, but also the lack of opportunities outside of the public sector. Given funding limitations, UN Women has sought to work with the Jordanian private sector to expand equity messaging to seek foreign investment from impact investors outside of Jordan.

After a morning full of interviews, a group of us made our way back to the neighborhood of Jabal Al-Weibdeh where we embarked on a tour of the city’s vibrant street art scene. In Amman, it’s hard to walk more than a couple feet without seeing a breathtaking mural, or a tag tucked away in one of Amman’s many alleys and sleepy side-streets. The street art scene not only envelopes Amman in a dazzling palette of color, but also serves as an expression of youth that envision a more progressive Amman. Of the 50 or so street artists that are most active in Amman, 35 are women. So, while many barriers still exist in the country, the youth are seeking to build an Amman, to build a Jordan, that is reflective of country’s true diversity.

A Thursday in Amman: A capital at the intersection between the Palestinian struggle and Israeli policy

By: Seif Zrelli

I started my day with an enriching interview with Dr. Jalal Al Husseini, a researcher and fellow at the French Institute for the Near East here in Amman. I learned a lot about the history of Jordanian-Israeli relations—why and how they came to be. From late King Hussein’s reasonings and strategies to the London negotiations, Jordan was unlike any other Arab country before the Abraham Accords. After Jamal Abdennasser had made a cold peace with the Jewish State, Jordan’s late king was aiming for a warm peace. Although Israel was and still is largely viewed as an occupying power, a colonial project that perpetuates the Western tradition in the region, late King Hussein was hosting huge waves of refugees from the Nakba while negotiating a pathway to peace with the Israelis. Palestinians in Jordan are today thought to be a majority by all scholars I have met with so far, although the census does not ask about origins anymore.

 On my way there, I was reminded by my first taxi driver of the stories that fall under the theme of my research topic. I am very grateful I speak Arabic because, throughout this trip, I got to spark conversations with taxi drivers who tell me about their families coming to Jordan from Palestine in 1948, 1967, or even from Kuwait in 91. Some share that they have decided to apply for a visa through the Israeli Embassy in Amman to be able to visit their families and homeland in Palestine, while others stick to a strict boycott of the Occupation. Some even opened up about their desire for peace in the whole region and for reconciliation among all peoples and countries, almost regardless of the generational trauma they deal with because of their displacement and occupation. I enjoy research and International Relations at large because I believe human connections and stories are at the core of it all. Beyond International Law and global governance, Jordan has been and still is home to millions of stories I am very happy I got to hear.

As a team of 8 Tufts students traveling together, we get to gain and learn a lot from each other. In fact, I connected Dr. Al Husseini with three of my friends researching Palestinian identity in Jordan, support for Palestinian refugees, and even economic opportunities for women. On my end, I also was able to connect with Dr. Oraib Al Rantawi, a lead scholar on Israeli policy, history, and foreign relations at the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Center for Political Studies, located here in Amman. I look forward to meeting with him tomorrow morning—Friday.