In Jordan district packed with Syrians, anger festers

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In a Jordanian border district packed with Syrian war refugees, anger is festering: many complain the mass influx has pushed down wages and driven up food and housing prices.

The resentment is still tempered by empathy for the Syrians, who share religious and cultural beliefs with Jordanians, and there have been few signs of open hostility.

Dunya Shawaqfeh, a 59-year-old Mafraq resident, said she believes the refugees "stole the rights of our children" — even though she works at a local women's charity that helps both needy Jordanians and Syrian refugees.

Jordan's leaders increasingly point to volatile public opinion in justifying tougher refugee policies, such as barring entry to most Syrians now seeking asylum and keeping them in makeshift camps in remote desert areas on the border.

King Abdullah II warned this month — in a renewed appeal for more foreign help — that Jordanians have reached a "boiling point."

After a Feb 4. Syria aid conference where the international community proposed large-scale job schemes for refugees in regional host countries, the king assured Mafraq district leaders that this would translate into five jobs for Jordanians for each job for a Syrian. At 15.6 percent, Mafraq had the highest unemployment rate of any district in Jordan in 2015.

Pollster Musa Shteiwi said an overwhelming majority in Jordan opposes taking in more refugees, but that tensions remain relatively low because Jordanians realize "that these people are brothers and neighbors."

Shteiwi, who runs the Institute for Strategic Studies at Jordan University, said the mood could quickly turn, especially in case of an attack by foreign extremists or another large refugee influx — a possibility as Russian bombardments are sending thousands more Syrians from their homes.

Also, promises made to Jordan and other host countries at the aid conference are viewed with "more skepticism than hope" by ordinary Jordanians, Shteiwi said.

Jordan hosts about 635,000 Syrians registered with the U.N. refugee agency, out of more than 4.7 million Syrian war refugees in regional host countries.

Jordan says its burden is much heavier and points to 2015 census figures which show twice as many Syrians living in Jordan — though this also includes Syrians who arrived before the 2011 outbreak of the conflict.

Mafraq has the highest percentage of Syrians of any district in Jordan — close to 208,000, or almost 40 percent, of a population of 550,000, according to the census.

In the district capital of the same name, Syrians make up half the population of 200,000, said Hayel Omoush, a city official. That's more than triple the size from a generation ago.

The influx has benefited some Jordanians, including landlords, farm owners and building contractors, while hurting the poorest.

The newcomers initially boosted local sales by spending foreign aid stipends on food and other necessities, though refugee aid has been cut back drastically because of growing funding shortages among international agencies.

Syrians also provide an ample supply of cheap labor. Largely banned from working legally, many have taken on informal jobs below the legal minimum wage of 190 ($268) a month, working menial jobs on farms and construction sites shunned by Jordanians.

At the same time, rents and food prices have skyrocketed, while wages for all, including Jordanians, have dropped.

Services have buckled under the demands of the sharp population increase.

The city of Mafraq produces 200 tons of garbage a day, compared to 80 tons before the Syria crisis, said Omoush.

At one point, the city even employed Syrians without work permits to cope with garbage pickup, though they have since been laid off to avoid violations of the law, Omoush added.

Shawaqfeh, who works as treasurer and sewing teacher at the Queen Zain al-Sharaf charity in downtown Mafraq, said her 24-year-old son is unemployed because he refuses to work for 100 dinars ($140) a month.

Another son, who is 26, earns just under 400 dinars ($560) a month but cannot marry because rents have become unaffordable.

"Are we going to find a chicken coop for him for 200 dinars ($380)," asked the widowed mother of eight.

Shawaqfeh's co-worker Maysoun Smadi, who runs counseling workshops where Syrian and Jordanian women vent their frustration with each other to defuse conflict, said such complaints are common.

The Syrian women try to explain to the Jordanians that "they did not come to take their places, they had to flee war and battlefields," said Smadi, 40, who left behind a comfortable life in the Syrian city of Daraa, fleeing three years ago with five of her six children.

As the Syrian civil war drags on, some refugees in Mafraq are preparing for an extended exile, including those who take the risk of starting a business.

The Mugharbel family last year opened a small sweets shop, "The Gate of Homs," named after the Syrian hometown they fled under gunfire more than four years ago.

Now there's a "For Sale" sign in the window.

Abdel Khaleq Mugharbel, 25, said his family invested 8,000 dinars ($11,300) in the shop. Sales were good for a few months, but dropped off sharply in the winter when the entire town suffered an economic downturn.

"The situation is bad for everyone," he said, adding that he'll look for odd jobs once the business is sold.

Nearby, the Arabiyat restaurant — a Mafraq institution offering staples such as hummus, falafel and shawarma for more than 40 years — stood largely empty.

Business dropped by 25 percent because of growing competition from new restaurants, said owner Monir Arabiyat, 68. He now closes three hours earlier, around 8 p.m.

Some refugees said they feel bad about making life harder for Jordanians, albeit unintentionally.

"We know we have placed a huge burden on this country, but believe me, we have been forced to do so and we are not happy about it," said Hani Khidri, 58, a former Damascus restaurant owner who now cooks for the Queen Zain charity.

These days he is thinking of leaving Mafraq and heading to the West.

"We hope to travel, not because it's better abroad, just to ease the burden," he said.