“A Paradise Seven Years Ago”

Syrian Refugees & Jordanian Hosts Transforming a City


Irbid, Jordan

Charles Simpson & Agyead Abo Zayed

My [Charles’] professional work in Jordan began in 2016, meeting with humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO) in Amman and conducting field research with refugees. I was struck by the discrepancies between the way refugees were portrayed in spreadsheets in air-conditioned offices, compared to the actual lived experiences of refugees and Jordanians in the dusty streets outside these NGO compounds.

In 2018 when I met Agyead in an Irbid shisha cafe, I found a co-author who shared my frustrations with the international perspective on refugees as distant, unresponsive, and inaccessible to average Syrians and Jordanians. I knew from our two positions that we could produce an original report, despite the oversaturated body of refugee “research” taking place in Jordan.

The report we’ve produced fills four gaps:

1) Building knowledge about refugees in Jordan outside of camps like Za’atari, and away from the capital city Amman where researchers have easy access, but also where refugees’ experiences are different from other parts of the country.

2) Presenting the latest wave of Syrian refugee arrivals as the latest episode in a much longer history of migration to Irbid that includes Palestinian arrivals, economic migrants, and mass urbanization of Jordanians beginning with the founding of Yarmouk University in 1976.

3) Giving spatial context to refugee integration in Jordan. Most studies take data from a few locations in Jordan, typically out of convenience, and then generalize conclusions for the whole of the country as if dynamics in every neighborhood are the same, ignoring known differences between Jordan’s cities.[1]

4) Sharing experiences of both Jordanian host communities, refugees, and other migrants with their own voices, rather than the perspectives of key informants from aid agencies or the Jordanian government upon whom the vast majority of studies are based.

The report is divided into three main sections:

transformations of A city

This section explores the urban impact of migration to Irbid in nine sectors:

Public spaces, housing, the education system, the security apparatus, jobs and the local economy, the healthcare system, the transportation system, water infrastructures, waste management, and the impact of the presence of large INGO’s on the city.

Refugee, Jordanian, and other migrant experiences

This section describes what it feels like for migrants and hosts to live in Irbid and experience the long process of de facto integration.

It draws from the experiences of Agyead and his journey to integrate to Jordan from Syria, and the experiences of Charles living with a Jordanian tribe who have lived in Irbid from before Jordan became a modern state.

Conclusion: The future of integration in Irbid?

This section concludes the report by overviewing Syrian and Jordanian aspirations for either putting down roots in Irbid, or continuing onward migration. It will explore how new arrivals are taking ownership of certain neighborhoods, and the city’s capacity to continue hosting a growing population.

Also available is discussion on:

  • The terminology used in this report.

  • The methods through which data was collected and analyzed.

  • The positions of the authors vis-à-vis the people and place of Irbid.

  • For readers unfamiliar with the national context, background on Jordan.

  • For readers unfamiliar with the local context, background on Irbid.

  • A Full References List.

[1] Betts et al., 2018