The Problem of Industrious Refugees

The legal term “refugee” has carried with it semantic prejudice since World War II: the name of the helpless, the idle, the weak and needy. Those demanding of international rescue. These sentiments are alive and well in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis: official discourse frequently refers to “the refugees” as a “burden”; unofficial discourse often labels conflict-induced migrants as much worse.

But this narrative is not quite accurate.

“I would not have left, you know, Rifa says. My life in Damascus was good. I only left because the medicine was gone. I need it to live.”  He is Syrian; his family is still living in Damascus. They bombed the hospital where national stockpiles of his drugs were held in Syria, so he reluctantly left for Jordan where national health care was, until recently, provided to Syrians. “Sometimes I think I should go back there.”

Rifa is working here in Jordan. He bought his own drugs for three months, while his application was being processed; he is buying them again now, since universal access to healthcare has been lifted for Syrians. While Syrians are barred from legal work in Jordan, an exception allows them to take temporary contracts with international agencies. Rifa has secured one such contract. Technically considered “volunteers,” their stipends nevertheless can be better than local salaries. Though the contracts are temporary, running three to six months, often Syrian volunteers rotate from agency to agency through a dense network of professional contacts.

Those who are lucky enough to enjoy these positions are the minority. They tend to be upper class, familiar with office culture, computing, and the English language. Yet displaced Syrians as a whole are swiftly earning a reputation for being hard-working and resourcefulsometimes to the ire of their Jordanian hosts. “They are too creative, work too hard,” says one Jordanian friend. “They are putting Jordanians out of jobs.” Two women living in a village near Irbid centre tell how they befriended a Jordanian woman, then together put up the funds to start a food preparation business. They chop garlic and vegetables for resale, and—most lucrative—prepare jars of traditional “maqdoos”, or walnut-stuffed eggplant. Maqdoos is a cherished luxury in both Syria and Jordan, and businesss is booming. Another household collects bread that is thrown away, then grinds it up and sells it to Jordanian farmers for livestock feed. An aid worker tells me of a group of women who sing at birthdays, ceremonies for newborns, and weddings. “Have you met them?” she asks. “I hear they are becoming quite renowned for their talent.”

These exceptional stories of success buoy on the great number of tales I hear of Syrians working for poverty wages in shawarma shops and clothing stores. A Syrian barber cuts my hair. Standing in line for takeaway dinner, the cashier asks where I am from; I tell him. “And I am from Syria,” he replies. The same happens in a bookstore up the road. A Syrian friend sells tickets at an amusement park while holding down two other jobs—she is saving up to pay tuition. University was free in Syria; international fees are steep in Jordan, but she is determined to finish.

From the most fortunate to the least, all of these people have something in common: they have a passionate drive to build for themselves whatever they can.

This is not to suggest that Syrians are not suffering in Jordan. Most of this poorly-paid work is informal—technically illegal. If caught by the local authorities, Syrian families are instantly stripped of all they have built here. This is a daily vulnerability. The humanitarian aid that supports household income has always been insufficient, but now, as international funds dwindle due to donor apathy, its impact is fast approaching insignificant. That Syrians survive at all is testament to their resourcefulness and ability.

Syrians, then, are clearly not passive. They are not weak or idle. They are perhaps desperate, but only because the legal regimes that govern refugees force them to the margins. If Syrians in Jordan seem helpless, it is because they are given so few opportunities to help themselves. And this is perhaps the point: research with refugee groups since the 1980s repeatedly has shown that many of the stereotypes thrust upon refugees are, in fact, produced specifically by the legal ramifications of the label. Yet the legal framework does not change.

Unfortuantely, the aid regime fails to take advantage of these traits. In fact, quite the opposite: new regulations are being introduced which force Syrians out of work, out of cities, and back into camps where options are few. This will likely not change without serious intervention by the international humanitarian community. With an unemployment rate running as high as 30% among Jordanians under 25, the Government of Jordan is extremely reluctant to allow Syrians formal access to the economy. This caution is understandable. Yet the response is entering its fifth year, and funding will only continue to decrease. Syrians must be reconceptualized as a potential economic driver, not a burden, before it is too late. For if Syrians are not allowed to support themselves in some managed way, 2015 will mark a turning point where our efforts will be increasingly insufficient, and the lives of Syrians will be much worse—but not for their own lack of trying.


[Photo by Emad Zyuod, via Flickr Commons]