RAMTHA: In a dusty lot flanked by olive trees just south of the Syrian border, dozens of Jordanian men, women and children gather among mounds of bottled water, food, medicine and baby diapers bound for Syria’s war-torn south.
A truck loaded with yet another shipment of assorted donations has just arrived to a depot in the border city of Ramtha in northern Jordan. Young men scale the sides of the truck and throw boxes of food, bottled water and clothes to scores of volunteers waiting below.
Nearby, a line of a dozen or so volunteers—half of whom are local schoolchildren on summer vacation—pass another batch of donations from a van to a truck preparing to cross a nearby border crossing into Syria.
Every few hours, an explosion shakes the ground beneath the volunteers’ feet—a reminder of the fighting raging in the nearby Syrian province of Daraa. For the Jordanian volunteers in Ramtha, the urgency is palpable.
[See Syria Direct’s photo essay on the cross-border aid campaign here.]
Just a few kilometers northeast of Ramtha—once a brief car ride away—some 60,000 displaced Syrians are stranded in no-man’s land along the Jordanian border. They are seeking relative safety there after fleeing their homes to escape a massive air and ground campaign by Syrian government forces and government militias against rebel-held territory in southwestern Syria that began in mid-June.
The ongoing Syrian and Russian assault on rebel-held territory in southwestern Syria has killed hundreds of civilians and forced as many as 271,000 Syrians to flee their homes since June 15, the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs reported on Monday.
Volunteers help load Syria-bound trucks with donations in Ramtha on Tuesday. Photo by Waleed Khaled a-Noufal/Syria Direct.
With food and drink scarce and no shelter from the blistering July sun, the situation for displaced Syrians along the Jordanian border is “becoming worse every day,” Abu Zeid, a Daraa resident who fled his home for the Jordanian border last week, tells Syria Direct.
"There are no tents and water is scarce,” Abu Zeid says from the border via WhatsApp. “There’s no treatment for the injured.”
More than a dozen displaced people sheltering near the Jordanian border have died from scorpion bites, dehydration and drinking unsanitary water supplies since June 17, the United Nations reported on Monday.
The Jordanian border has been closed to Syrian refugees since Amman locked down its northern frontier in June 2016, following an Islamic State suicide attack that killed seven Jordanian soldiers at the Rukban border crossing.
A government spokeswoman announced early last week that the border would remain shuttered despite growing calls from international human rights organizations, as well as Jordanian citizens, to allow Syrians into the country.
“The decision to keep the border closed provoked [Jordanians],” says Adi al-Kabariti, the volunteer coordinator for the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), the state-run aid group coordinating the cross-border operation.
In the days following the Jordanian government decision, the hashtag “Open the Borders” became the number one trend on Jordanian Twitter. At the same time, thousands of donations—almost entirely from private citizens—began to pour into warehouses operated by the JHCO.
“This aid is from the Jordanian people,” al-Kabariti says, “it’s not from official institutions.”
JHCO coordinators have been stunned at the volume of donations from Jordanian citizens, al-Kabariti says, which now fill a collection of warehouses and storage areas in the Jordanian border cities of Mafraq and Ramtha.
Volunteers unload a truck carrying donations at an aid depot in Ramtha, Jordan on Tuesday. Photo by Waleed Khaled a-Noufal/Syria Direct.
The loading zones in the two northern cities are the final stops for donated goods before they are brought across the border as part of an unprecedented, civilian-driven aid campaign for displaced Syrians.
“We’re under a lot of pressure,” says coordinator al-Kabariti. “Dozens of trucks are still waiting to be offloaded.”
At least 123 trucks loaded with food, water and humanitarian aid have crossed from Jordan into Syria since the campaign began on July 1st, JHCO spokeswoman Shahd al-Anani tells Syria Direct.
The JCHO gathers and organizes civilians’ donations in two separate depots in both Ramtha and Mafraq throughout the day. From there, members of the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) drive the trucks—loaded with donations—to the Jaber-Nassib border crossing just north of Mafraq, al-Anani says.
‘Returning the favor’
For residents of Ramtha, the Syrian war has never felt far away. Bombardments in nearby Daraa city, just seven kilometers from downtown Ramtha, frequently rattle the window panes here. Machine-gun fire and artillery shells can be heard well into the night.
“I was at the loading zone [in Ramtha] for six hours on Monday night,” Mafraq resident and volunteer Abu Saddam tells Syria Direct. “We could hear the planes above our heads.”
For decades before the war in Syria began, Ramtha’s local economy hinged on the highway that runs through its downtown, connecting the Jordanian and Syrian capitals.
But seven years of war in neighboring Syria have taken a toll on the border town. Cars no longer pass along the international highway and Syrian-made goods once commonplace are now a rare sight in Ramtha’s souqs.
A truck carrying donations bound for Syria in Mafraq, Jordan. Sign reads: “Donation campaign from the people of al-Koum al-Ahmar to our people in Daraa.” Photo by Waleed Khaled a-Noufal/Syria Direct.
Still, local Jordanians say they feel a sense of connection to the Syrians just across the border.
“At one point, Syria was providing for all of the Arab world—specifically Jordan,” Kamil a-Zoubi, a Ramtha resident and volunteer at the loading zone there, tells Syria Direct.
“It’s time for us to return the favor for our neighbors,” he says. “Our shared humanity unites us—we have the same blood.”
JHCO volunteer coordinator al-Kabariti says that the response by Jordanians to the donation drive has been “shocking,” with 70 volunteers arriving from across the country on Tuesday afternoon to staff the Mafraq warehouse where donations are being stored.
“We’re only a few minutes away from [the displaced Syrians],” al-Kabariti tells Syria Direct. “They deserve to live. What we’ve gathered is basic, but it can help them,” he adds.
Roughly 75,000 people resided in Ramtha in 2010. But after an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees began entering Jordan in 2011, the city’s population doubled to over 150,000, while the population of nearby Mafraq ballooned from 95,000 to 200,000 by 2015, the state-owned Jordan Times reported that year.
For Ramtha resident a-Zoubi, the only difference between Jordanians and their Syrian neighbors is which side of a closed border they’re on.
“They’re our brothers—it’s not okay for them to die right next to us,” he tells Syria Direct. “We’re with them and we won’t let them down.”
With additional reporting by Mohammad al-Ghazawi.