The Palestinian “camp” of Irbid now blends seamlessly in with the rest of the city’s urban fabric, while Circassian migrants have, over generations, become perfectly integrated to Jordan. Do these historical cases tell us anything about the future of Syrians’  de facto  integration?

The Palestinian “camp” of Irbid now blends seamlessly in with the rest of the city’s urban fabric, while Circassian migrants have, over generations, become perfectly integrated to Jordan. Do these historical cases tell us anything about the future of Syrians’ de facto integration?


The future of integration in Irbid?

Urban theorists predict that as time spent living in a neighborhood increases, so too does “collective efficacy,” or a sense of group ownership for the place.[1] Increasing collective efficacy comes with all sorts of positive outcomes in neighborhoods, from lower crime to increased trust with neighbors.[2]

There is evidence of this process playing out in Irbid: we spent time in the same neighborhoods in 2016 and 2018, and the attitudes of residents is calmer, and more relaxed. Syrians and Jordanians are growing accustomed to one another’s presence, getting to know each other as neighbors. Syrians are taking ownership of their buildings, investing in renovations, putting up decorations, tending to olive trees and jasmine plants in the courtyard or walls. Meanwhile, they are starting new businesses, restaurants, and cafes or working in local Jordanian shops, farms, and factories.

At one point, we asked a Jordanian Irbid resident the politically sensitive question about the long-term future of Syrians living there. He paused for a moment to think, and then described how over the generations Circassians and Armenians who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries became very close to the ruling tribes of Jordan and eventually the current royal family, even though these refugees arrived in Jordan with different languages, religions, and physical appearances. “Syrians and Palestinians are the same now,” he said, “so maybe it's easy.” Importantly, he did not say Palestinians and ethnic Jordanians are the same now. Four generations has not been long enough for Palestinians to become legally integrated, even if they are almost completely de facto integrated economically, spatially, and culturally integrated. However, the eight-generations of integration for Circassians and Armenians seems to be enough to achieve political and legal integration too.[3]

In 2018, I [Charles] asked Syrians about their long-term plans, and only a third wanted to stay in Irbid. This third did not want to go to Europe because they were concerned about what they believed would be an alien language and culture, as well as the risk and cost of the journey across the Mediterranean. In their minds, Irbid was acceptable, familiar, and comfortable.

One middle-aged man in Irbid who spoke regularly with his cousins in German said: “Who’s crazy enough to go to the West? Why would you want me to go to a Western country where I don’t know anyone there, I don’t know how they live. We are here in Jordan, and they are Arab, and we’re barely okay…The only place I’ll leave Jordan to go to is Syria... No West, no way.” This sentiment was held despite the fact that he works two jobs in Irbid to support his family, a day and a night shift back to back.

The desire to stay in Irbid is generational. No Syrians we’ve spoken with in Irbid over 50 years old wanted to emigrate. One elderly man we spoke with was called four times by the American Embassy to resettle, but he refused: “I don’t have a future there. I am too old. I would go there and die. Why would they call us [him and his elderly wife] and not young people?” The US Embassy did not call his children, and he believed this is because younger people are seen by the American government as security threats. He worries about a brain drain from Syria and a loss of language and culture for those who leave.

Syrians with children were also unlikely to want to leave Irbid for the West. After hearing horror stories of families unable to reunify after a male “anchor” arrived in the EU, families feel forced to travel as a group, or not at all. “I can’t go, not with the children,” said one Syrian man, patting the head of his young child in his lap. Sons, however, are perceived as a detachable part of the family unit. One Syrian family we spoke with said they didn’t have an interest in traveling to Europe, “because our family is here,” The father elaborated: “why travel when the family is here?! My daughter is here, my wife is here, why travel to Europe?” Their son wasn’t mentioned, and he later talked about his desire to emigrate alone as a heroic breadwinner for the family, sending money back from Germany or the UK.

Although parents and the elderly typically wanted to stay, two thirds of the Syrians I [Charles] spoke with in 2018—mostly single young men—described a desire to move to Europe or the United States. However, only a small minority had actually made concrete plans for the trip, saving up money or contacting smugglers. Most talked about their desire to move to Western countries as an abstract dream. Few had actually researched what life in the West might be like in any concrete way, relying on soundbites from friends, imagery from films, and fantasies of a Hollywood lifestyle.

One incentive to leave Irbid for the West is the possibility of better medical care. While basic medical care is available in Irbid, more advanced care for complicated medical conditions is only available in Europe. One Syrian we met with had an uncle who had his legs injured in Syria, and while the pain was treated in Jordan, he could not receive the neurological surgery and physical therapy he needed to regain the use of the limb. Doctors told him this treatment was only available in Europe, and he has since been resettled in Denmark.

Concluding Thoughts

“Both Syrian refugees themselves and the host communities in Jordan are paying a high price. Further political and economic deterioration may follow as the number of refugees is simply too great for Jordan to deal with,” writes Luigi Achilli from EUI’s Migration Policy Centre in Florence (2015). With respect to Dr. Achilli, this quote does not describe Irbid.

The city of Irbid—hidden away from the international community who fixate on Za’atari camp while living in Amman—has largely succeeded with integration, even if it is only de facto integration in practice, not policy. Here, Syrian “refugees” are just new city residents alongside Jordanians who only recently began migrating to the city en masse in the 1970s. While there is a widespread belief among Jordanians that Syrians are causing housing rental price hikes, shortages of services, and limited availability of water, the cause of these stresses seems more to do with a rapidly urbanizing domestic population, and not to be exclusively the product of Syrian arrivals who make up only a small share of the city’s apartment rentals, hospital visits, vehicular traffic, and commodity consumption.

As far as the economic life of the city, for the most part, Syrians have brought new businesses, new vitality, and an influx of cash from the international community, causing some inflation in prices, but not competition for jobs. Unemployment and underemployment are more connected to structural macroeconomic transitions of the Jordanian economy that began in the 1980s than the sudden recent arrival of Syrians.

The city of Irbid—refugees, hosts, and other migrants—are not thriving, but they are surviving, and are doing better than refugees in the camps. The long-term possibility of citizenship is not an option, but de facto integration has already largely been achieved. Meanwhile, those with the means are avoiding integration by slowly filtering out of the city, heading to Amman or richer countries while longing for what was “a paradise” in Irbid many years ago.

[1] Sampson, J. & Raudenbush, S.W. (1999). "Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods." American Journal of Sociology 105:3. pp.603.

[2] Sampson et al. (1997). "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." Science 277:328. pp.918-924.

[3] For more on citizenship pathways as legal integration in Jordan, see the RIT report on Amman by Allyson Hawkins and Ruby Assad at