Most conversations we had in Jordan started with “Where are you from?” No matter if we declared to be American, French or German the reply was always: “You are very welcome!” By the way, our Bedouin friends in Petra where most excited about our US association; they loved Obama for he was very kind and open towards them during his visit in Petra.
Jordan has a population of about 6 million people. However, per OECD/World Bank more than 2 million Palestinian refugees and 1 million Iraqis live in Jordan. Additionally there are hundreds of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, and South Asia. That means more than half of the Jordanian population is not from Jordanian descent. The 2 biggest Jordanian cities, Amman and Irbid are located in the North and inhabit 50% of Jordan’s population. In this region there are also the new camps for Syrian refugees.
The more north our trip took us the more we felt a tension created by this demographics. The first time the words: “You are very welcome!” lost their innocent sound was on our way to Madaba, 30 km south of Amman. We sat at a street corner waiting for a local bus when a large American SUV stopped and a Bedouin offered us a ride. During the trip we discovered that he was a successful business man and had accompanied the Jordanian King for a few years on his foreign business travels. His employees were all Syrian and he himself had a high appreciation for the Syrian country and people. However, later in the conversation he admitted that he had only stopped because we were Westerners, he was curious about our impression of Jordan and he wanted to welcome us; he would not have done the same for any Arabic person.
The next day I got a haircut at a barber who turned out to have fled Syria just 6 month ago. He was homesick and told me how wonderful Syria was.
The owner of the coffee shop down the road told us that his employees are all Syrians. He added that the situation would start turning bad because there were too many people coming into Jordan but no economic growth.
A friendly passenger in the bus to Irbid close to the Syrian border turned out to be a police man. When we asked, if they are concerned of any danger coming from the border he answered that their concern was much more about the danger coming from the refugee camps.
Standing in the ancient city of Gadara next to Umm Qais and looking over the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights into Israel and Syria we got to talk to a group of Palestinians. They told us that they make the trip from Amman to Umm Qais once a year to purchase the famous olive oil from the region and to look over the border into their country that they will never have a chance to move to.
Back in the city we met a 30 years old Syrian who was a refugee against his own will since one year. In Syria he had successfully avoided to be recruited into the official Syrian army as well as into the Free Syrian army. When a friend of him, who had defected from the army and joined the opposition, got severely wounded he carried him to the Jordanian border to get medical support. There his friend urged him not to go back into Syria to get killed. The Jordanian border police also didn’t let him back into Syria. They told him he would get housing and work to take care of himself. The reality however turned out different: Since he, as a young Syrian man, was considered a risk factor he could not get a job in the profession he had learned. Eventually he got a job that he legally was not allowed to do and his boss also gave him housing. Therefore he is working now 7 days a week with little salary and is totally depending on the goodwill of his employer. We expressed our hope that he can go back once the war is over. His answer was that the war in Syria was between the criminals and the thieves. No matter who would win going back into the country would be suicide for men like him who had not sided with either one.
For our last days in Amman we stayed with 3 Taiwanese students. When we told them about the friendly welcome we had everywhere they laughed. They told us that we are lucky to be Westerners because they themselves were exposed to openly displayed racism against Asians every day.
Talking to all these different people we realized how lucky we are to be able to travel around the world and be greeted at every border with: “You are very welcome!”