Refugee, Jordanian, and Other Migrant

experiences with integration

“University Circle,” was once mostly Jordanian college students, but is now home to thousands of Syrian family residences and workplaces.

“University Circle,” was once mostly Jordanian college students, but is now home to thousands of Syrian family residences and workplaces.


First experiences on arrival in Irbid

Agyead arrived in Irbid at the start of the conflict like many Syrians did, regularly, and fully expecting to return home soon.

When I [Agyead] first stepped out of the doors of Queen Alia airport in 2013, I was struck by a feeling of familiarity and belonging. I had arrived at 2 am, and it was the first time I had ever visited Jordan. No one was waiting for me at the airport, and I had to rely on myself to get to my friend's house in Jabal Al-Hussein in Amman. Like a local, I did not take a taxi from the airport, but instead used the local bus to get to the Dakhiliyya Circle. I think this sense of familiarity instilled a sense of comfort in me, which was heightened thanks to the gracious cooperation and kind treatment of the people I met when I first arrived. Already on the bus back from the airport, the fellow passengers were patient with my many questions that centered on the names of the areas we passed and how much time was left until we reached our destination.

Two days after arriving in Amman I decided to go to Irbid to meet with Siddiqui, one of my friends from back home who had left Syria several months earlier. I arrived in Irbid at 10 pm, and we met up near the Al-Manar clinics on University Street, which also happens to be the area where most Syrians in Irbid congregate and reside. When I arrived in Irbid, I did not feel like a stranger because of the great similarity in dialect and in the norms for dealing with others. Even the booking system at the bus that took me to Irbid was familiar to me, and I felt like I had lived in this place before.

At this time, Siddiqui was living in a village in the countryside of Irbid. After a three-hour tour of the city, I went with Siddiqui to his house where he lived with his family. The house itself belongs to his Jordanian cousin. When I arrived in the countryside, I immediately felt at home, even more so than when I had been in the city. There is a great degree of similarity between the feel of the streets and the villages in the countryside in Jordan, and the area where I’m from in southern Syria. This was especially apparent in how houses were distributed, the customs and traditions of Jordanian rural society, the organization of village life, and even in the presence of many cars with Syrian plates.[1]

Social & cultural integration

On a superficial level, social and cultural integration has been easy. For Jordan and Syria, the food is more or less the same, the religion the same, the language the same, and customs and mannerisms are similar. Many Syrian Irbid residents we spoke to have chosen not to emigrate to Europe—even in cases where they had the means to do so—because they prefer a familiar way of life in Jordan. Almost all of the Syrians we’ve spoken with in Irbid report that their neighbors are friendly and do not present problems. Their relations are fine.

However, few Syrians have close or strong relationships with Jordanians that went beyond basic respect and dignity. Even stronger relationships through marriage are virtually nonexistent. While we do know of a few Syrian-Jordanian marriages from before the war, we de do not know of any cases from after the conflict began, and most Jordanians oppose Syrian-Jordanian intermarriage.[1]

However, there are subtle distinguishing features between Jordanians and Syrians, in the way each group dresses, wears their hair, and speaks in a unique accent. Al Hamraa cigarettes, as an example, are the most popular among Syrians, while Jordanians prefer other brands like Gauloises. Unable to hide their origins, young Syrian men report it is difficult to make friends in Irbid. After three years living in southwestern Irbid, one young Syrian man said his only close friend was a connection from before the war who was still stuck in Syria serving in the army. He tells his friend in Syria not to come to Jordan “because it isn’t their country,” and he “won’t feel welcome here.”

The biggest obstacle to social integration in Irbid is a conservative culture that makes social integration difficult: in Irbid it is considered weird to approach strangers with a smile and make friends. The only kinds of social interactions in Irbid that might allow someone to meet a stranger are high cost activities, like riding in a taxi, or going out and getting coffee, while low cost activities only normally take place within one’s existing national and social group, like going out for shisha or getting a haircut. There are virtually no low-cost activities in Irbid that make meeting strangers easy.

Activities that would allow multinational social bonding are outside the budget of most low-income families.

Activities that would allow multinational social bonding are outside the budget of most low-income families.

The only opportunity for refugees to expand social connections seems to be meeting their neighbor. This suggests that in Irbid there is the opportunity for refugees to create a small number of deep and strong social connections with Jordanians, but not the opportunity to create wide or dense social connections with a large number of people.

The second biggest obstacle to social integration is the ebb of sympathy toward Syrians by Jordanians. At the start of the conflict, the tone of Irbid was ahlan wa sahlan, hello and welcome! This warm conviviality was rooted in Bedouin culture, where traditionally a guest may stay in a Bedouin’s tent, given food, water, tea, and shelter for three full days and nights before they are even expected to reveal their name or why they are there.

However, as the conflict dragged on, it became clear Syrians were not returning home anytime soon, and the humanitarian community flooded in to give relief to Syrians (but not poor Jordanians), the Jordanian publics’ sympathy towards Syrians had declined.[1] In a 2016 national poll, most Jordanians report an increase in “psychological pressure,” because of the presence of Syrian refugees.[2] In 2016, the streets were filled with a noticeable social tension. When asking Jordanians for directions to a neighborhood in Irbid known for housing mostly Syrians, they seemed uncomfortable: “It is as if there is an invasion, and we’re asking about the invaders, not about the original people who were there,” said a Syrian research assistant who accompanied me [Charles] in Irbid in 2016.

Negative attitudes toward Syrian refugees are more common among men than women, among married couples than single Jordanians, and among college-educated Jordanians.[3] Based on our conversations, we believe this is because married couples who are thinking about children and educated Jordanians who are able to plan beyond just day to day life are thinking strategically about the long-term viability of integration, and not just about how coexistence feels in the present moment.

In day to day life, the presence of Syrians isn’t alarming: life in Irbid feels normal; there aren’t terrorist catastrophes; and there aren’t crippling food insecurities. Life isn’t always easy, but it also isn’t a disaster. Looking to the future however brings on new anxieties: how will the city manage water shortages in 20 years? How will children find jobs? How will families be able to afford ever-increasing rental costs for smaller and smaller apartments?

Integrating through adaptation of language

In cases of refugee settlement around the world, the primary obstacle to integration is often the language barrier. This is not an issue in Irbid, since both Syrians and Jordanians speak a similar dialect of Arabic. However, the subtle differences in accents do create a small obstacle: Jordanians sometimes will say things with a Daraa accent “to make fun” and “tease,” Syrians, mocking what to them is a funny sounding pronunciation or phrasing.

A look at the biggest changes to Jordanian Arabic suggests a deeper theme: transformation of Irbid is coming mostly from urbanization and structural economic change, not refugee settlement. In Jordan, there are four distinct Arabic dialects: urban, rural, Bedouin, and Palestinian dialects,[1] with the rural and Bedouin dialects losing speakers in favor of the urban dialect. The majority of Jordanians in Irbid who speak the urban dialect are young people, less than 35 years old.[2] This is also the dialect that Syrian youths emulate on the streets. We have observed these young people conversing in Bedouin or rural dialects with their elders when visiting their families but conducting their day to day activities in the city in the medani urban dialect. Often, the urban dialect is laced with English loan words.

This change in the way young people are speaking is accompanied by a loss of numerous rural cultural heritages, like urban youths’ distaste for mansef and maqluba dishes in favor of Western fast food. We’ve witnessed young Jordanians day after day walking past traditional Syrian and Jordanian sweets shops selling Shami (Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian) keneffeh in favor of a caramel blended Frappuccino at Western-style coffee shops.

The transformation of language in Irbid shows the biggest transformation in northern Jordan is not the presence of Syrian refugees, but the process of urbanization, globalization, and modernization.

Legal & Political Integration of Refugees

Typically, the long-term goal of integration is migrants achieving full citizenship. However, the majority (77%) of Jordanians see Syrians as connected to them by Arab identity and religion, but not nationality,[1] meaning that if Syrians stay in Irbid, they may remain welcomed and sheltered, but will not have any clear pathways to citizenship.[2]

There is an exclusive nationalistic pride in Irbid that must feel threatening to any non-Jordanian residents; the entire country, Irbid included, has a strong sense of loyalty and gratefulness to the Hashemite kings who have kept the country relatively stable in a neighborhood of states that have fallen to civil unrest and war. The symbols of national pride are everywhere in Irbid: Jordanian colors on lampposts in the streets, the King’s face in every business establishment, and cars driving down the roads emblazoned with Jordanian flags.

This nationalist pride is closely tied with militaristic, defensive imagery, and even the most average neighborhood shwarma shops are hugely nationalistic and showcase a military fetish: take for example “Basha,” a restaurant named in reference to the Ottoman-era strongmen who ruled Jordan before it was a modern state. The restaurant’s staff serve chicken wraps while wearing black shirts with the image of a Jordanian flag draped over M16 rifles. Walking down the street, large Jordanian flags are hung outside of many of the apartments owned by Jordanians. According to one Syrian, this is so they do “not to lose their identity,” as the neighborhood becomes more and more Syrian in composition.

Amidst demographic change, longtime Irbid residents cling to their nationalism, but also their tribal allegiances, which are exclusive and only accessible to outsiders by marrying into the tribe. There are only about four major tribes native to the area around Irbid who inhabited this space before the modern country lines were drawn. These are the Bani Issa, Bani Hani, Khasooni, and Abedat. Today, each tribe is between 1,000-2,000 people, and therefore are influential and well established, but also a minority among the city’s total population of around 2,000,000. Anxieties over minority status in their own country inflates tribal loyalties and emphasis on security and military power. In this atmosphere, legal integration through citizenship of refugees does not seem possible.

[1] Based Al Athamneh & Al Momani, 2016

[2] For a full report on citizenship as a domain of integration for refugees in Jordan, see the Refugees in Towns Report on Amman by Allyson Hawkins and Ruby Assad.

[1] Abushihab, 2015

[2] Ibid.

[1] Based Al Athamneh & Al Momani, 2016

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[1] Based Al Athamneh & Al Momani, 2016

[1] In the early years of the conflict when the border was still open, many families simply loaded their possessions into the family car and drove across the border.