4 min read  | Diaspora & Refugees, Reports

As Syria’s refugees pass two million mark, hopes that US strike will bring them home


September 5, 2013

September 5, 2013

By Michael Pizzi, Abdulrahman al-Masri and Nuha Shabaan

AMMAN: The imminent United States-led military strike holds particular promise to those Syrians waiting out the conflict in neighboring countries. Syrian refugees in Jordan at least say they hope that the strike will overwhelm the regime’s security forces and allow them to finally return home.

“Toppling the authoritarian regime in Damascus will open the way for refugees to return,” says Mahmoud a-Shara’, who fled to Jordan at the onset of the revolution. “It will put an end to the largest humanitarian disaster in the world.”

A-Shara’ “strongly” supports American military intervention, an opinion he says is shared by “the rest of the Syrian refugees who have been exiled because of the regime’s policies.”

Mother in a tent in Zaatari camp al-Mafraq Jordan. Photo courtesy Syria Direct-Abdulrahman al-Masri

Zaatari camp, Jordan (Syria Direct\Abdulrahman al-Masri)

To Syrians in Jordan, the idea of an American military intervention is a low-risk proposition. Many have already lost their homes, relatives and former lives to the war.

More than a quarter of Syria’s two million refugees are ending up in Jordan, where they are struggling to find work and make ends meet. Unemployment is rampant, and Syrians say they are ready to go home.

The estimated 130,000 Syrians in Zaatari camp, more than 90 percent of whom come from the southern province of Daraa, are particularly desperate.

Tariq Hamshu fled his hometown of Daraa city and now lives in the Zaatari camp in Mafraq, in the northern Jordanian desert. He earns 10 Jordanian dinars, or about $16, per day working for the International Rescue Committee, an NGO that operates in the camp, but is otherwise unoccupied. Hamshu wants to leave Zaatari, but is trapped inside until he can come up with a 500 dinar fee to the Jordanian authorities.

Hamshu says he supports American intervention so long as it targets military bases and not civilians. He says that he and his friends discuss whether Western intervention could set Syria on a path to making it the next Iraq, but it is worth the risk for an opportunity to return home.

Pro-strike sentiments are echoing in urban refugee communities, which constitute 70 percent of Jordan’s Syrian refugees. Though these Syrians are fortunate to enjoy a high degree of security and some semblance of normalcy, unemployment is a source of frustration. Syrians say that even when job vacancies can be found, securing a work permit is costly and cumbersome.

“Syrians do not have real opportunities to work,” says a-Shara’. “Most live in poor, desolate conditions and rely on their savings or aid from charities.”

The inability to obtain official work permits “is the thing that makes Syrians angriest,” says Hussein, a 25-year-old refugee from Damascus who now lives in Amman.

“I hope to return to Damascus, so I hope that this strike will be the decisive blow to the regime,” says Hussein, who worked as television producer in Damascus. He still has family in the Syrian capital, but supports the strike if it can “tip the balance” in the war.

Crisis not slowing down

With the UNHCR announcing on Tuesday that two million Syrians are now living in neighboring countries, the refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing down.

“The war is now well into its third year and Syria is hemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

The regime’s use of chemical weapons and the prospect of imminent Western intervention have struck fear into the hearts of Syrians who had previously endured the tumultuous violence. As a result, more and more are fleeing.

The Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, where the US government reports that 1,429 people were killed in an August 21st neurotoxic gas attack, have emptied out in the past two weeks. The result is a human traffic jam along the Jordanian border.

Nayef a-Sari, the 40-year-old manager of the pro-revolution Daraa Media Office, says that “huge numbers” of people have fled the Damascus suburbs since the chemical attacks and have been unable to cross into Jordan due to overcrowding.

The lucky ones take shelter in schools, a-Sari says. Others “lie between trees, using the ground as their beds and the sky as their blankets.” Food and medical supplies are dwindling, he added.

With President Obama opting to seek congressional approval for the strike instead of acting unilaterally, Syrian refugees will have to wait at least a few more days for news.

“I am with the American intervention,” says a refugee also named Mahmoud, a 26-year-old from Damascus who briefly worked in a bookstore but has otherwise been unemployed. Unable to obtain a work permit, Mahmoud is idle most of the day.

“I wake up and drink my coffee, sit and read the news online, and then I go see my brothers and complain about our problems,” he says.

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