The Urban Impact: Housing

Despite only a thin wall separating them, Jordanian and Syrian neighbors may never become personally close.

Despite only a thin wall separating them, Jordanian and Syrian neighbors may never become personally close.


Refugee apartment buildings across Irbid house a diverse mix of Jordanians, Syrians, and other migrants. And yet, even though each apartment is separated only by a thin wall, residents may never become personally close or even speak to one another beyond cordialities. Whether or not a refugee knew their Jordanian neighbors seemed more to do with personality than proximity. Outgoing gregarious Syrians tended to know many neighbors, while introverted or shy Syrians did not, regardless of where they lived or the composition of their apartment building. In short, spatial integration did not necessarily bring social integration.

Syrians and Jordanians both claim to have the ability to perceive down to the individual apartment which room houses a Jordanian and which houses a Syrian, just by looking at the exterior. They describe subtle differences in features: Jordanians keep blinds closed and keep the exterior very plain aesthetically, harkening back to Bedouin ideals that equate minimalism with cleanliness. By contrast, Syrians hang clothes out the windows, fill their balconies with furniture and children toys, and keep window shutters open to let in the light. Jordanians also like to plant small shrubs, succulents, and cacti in windowsills and balconies, a decoration not favored by Syrians. Other clues might include a TV left on at night, its glow and noise through an open window suggests a Syrian resident used to the noise and bustle of Daraa. During the day, the use of cloth curtains to block the sunlight suggests a Syrian, where Jordanians prefer heavy metal pull-down gratings to block out windows.

There are some apartment buildings that are entirely Syrian rented, where residents all know each other and share responsibilities for daily tasks: the old man upstairs will often work as a boab, or doorman/security guard,[1] while couples or older women will watch other families’ children during the day, and so on. Often the residents of these buildings knew each other—or knew of their family names—from before they were displaced, sometimes coming from the same neighborhood back in Daraa.

One advantage Irbid’s housing stock presents for integration is the diversity of income levels in most of the city’s neighborhoods. With the exception of Jadeed, the new neighborhood on the edge of the city where UNHCR resides, every neighborhood of Irbid has a mix of very high-end houses sitting wall to wall with packed, aging apartment buildings. From Irbid’s layout of housing, the product of lax building codes and lack of property development speculators, all economic strata must experience and take ownership of integration of refugees, not just the poor like in many of the world’s refugee-hosting cities where migrants cluster in specific poor neighborhoods with low-income hosts.

[1] These men spend all day sitting by the door on plastic chairs, sometimes in pairs, chatting and watching the street. They know everyone who comes and goes and have a sharp eye for any unfamiliar faces.

The city has been impacted in eight other sectors:

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

[1] UNRWA. (2018). “Irbid Camp.” Online. Available at:

[2] Al-Kheder et al., 2009

[3] Bani Mustafa, 2017

Note the number of Syrians in Jordan is highly political. Jordanian government ministries have an incentive to over-estimate to increase foreign aid/development revenue. The UNHCR describes only 98,000 Syrian “persons of concern,” in Irbid (UNHCR, 2016), down from a peak of some 125,000 in 2014 (Stevens, 2016). However their data is likely an underestimation as only a minority of Syrians in Jordan register or interact with the agency for support.

[4] Healy & Tiller, 2013

[5] “Social stress” including a spectrum of experiences from feeling discriminated against, to being assaulted.

[6] Alfadhli & Drury, 2018

[7] Based Al Athamneh & Al Momani, 2016