Syria’s war haunts Jordanian border town

The closure of a Jordan-Syria border crossing after its capture by rebel fighters has worsened Ramtha’s economic crisis.

Ramtha town on Jordan-Syria border
Locals blame the Jordanian government for not doing enough to create job opportunities or improve services [Areej Abuqudairi/Al Jazeera]

Ramtha, Jordan – Standing on a hill overlooking the flat green plains that stretch between the northern Jordanian town of Ramtha and the Syrian border, Ahmad Abu Sarhan laments the devastating consequences of the Syrian war on his hometown.

“Here, we are living in a state of war – without war,” said Abu Sarhan, a 43-year-old shopkeeper.

Once known as the “Sinbads” of Jordan due to their relentless trade and ability to find commercial opportunities abroad, residents of Ramtha, 90km north of Amman, relied on the ancient route to Syria as their lifeline, counting on trade and transport between the two countries for income.

But ever since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, thousands of Ramtha families have lost their livelihoods, and now struggle to put food on the table. “Our war is economic. We are fighting to feed our children,” Abu Sarhan told Al Jazeera.

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The final nail in Ramtha’s economic coffin was the closure of the Jaber-Nassib border crossing after Syrian rebel groups seized it on April 4. Amid the chaos on the Syrian side, armed fighters and civilians reportedly looted the Syrian-Jordanian free zone, with losses estimated at 100 million Jordanian dinars ($140m).

“Overnight, I lost all my business and my staff lost their jobs,” said Abdullah Abu Aqoolah, whose car dealership was looted. After boasting a display of 388 cars, he has only six left to his name now.

The economy in Ramtha was on life support for the past three years, but the latest closure has completely killed it.

by Abdul Salam Thunibat, head of Ramtha's Chamber of Commerce

Nabil Rumman, the manager of Jordan’s free zones, estimates that some 7,000 Jordanians – working in logistics, transport and other services – have lost their jobs since the Jaber-Nassib border closure. The majority of those laid off were from Ramtha, cutting the last sources of income for the border town, while others hailed from the northern Jordanian towns of Irbid and Mafraq, which are also housing an influx of more than 200,000 Syrian refugees.

“It is a blow for the Jordanian economy, but it is the work force that has been hit hardest,” Rumman said. Heavy items such as wood and construction equipment survived the looting and have been transferred to the Zarqa Free Zone, according to Rumman.

But for the residents of Ramtha, this was just the latest, and most devastating, of a series of attacks that have gradually taken away their livelihoods.

In 2011, Jordanian authorities closed the Deraa-Ramtha border crossing, a move that cost 3,500 taxi drivers their jobs, according to residents and community leaders. It also gradually blocked the flow of goods such as cotton, food and clothing from Syria to Ramtha’s wholesale merchants.

“The economy in Ramtha was on life support for the past three years, but the latest closure has completely killed it,” said Abdul Salam Thunibat, head of Ramtha’s Chamber of Commerce. The number of active merchants in the border town registered with the chamber declined from 6,500 in 2010, to 1,000 in 2015, according to Thunibat.

“They cannot afford to pay rent, taxes, and salaries when there are no goods coming in,” Thunibat told Al Jazeera, adding that some merchants have turned to Turkey and China to import from, shouldering higher transportation costs.

By midday in Ramtha, most shops remain shuttered, with no local demand to encourage them to open. Even the local butcher offers his customers an economic choice between “fresh meat” or days-old “leftovers”, due to declining demand and purchasing power.

The Syrian war has not only cut off the border town’s lifeline. It has also brought an influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, who have strained the local infrastructure in Ramtha and flooded the labour force with cheap, skilled labour that out-price Jordanian workers.

Rihab Krasneh, 37, shut down her 15-year-old hair salon in Ramtha after her customers turned to Syrian hairstylists who offered half-price services in their own homes. “They do not pay for rent or taxes, so whatever they earn is profit,” Krasneh said.

Locals blame the Jordanian government for not doing enough to create job opportunities or improve the services and infrastructure that have been burdened by the Syrian crisis. Before the Syrian war, Ramtha’s population stood at 90,000. With the influx of refugees, it has ballooned to 160,000, according to Ibraheem Saqqar, head of Ramtha’s municipality.

The Jordanian government received $216m in aid to help the country cope with the pressure placed on them by the Syrian crisis. But Ramtha locals say the government has not properly allocated the funds. “We still have [only] one hospital. No more schools have been built, and no job opportunities were created with this aid money they talk about,” Saqqar said.

Syrian smugglers’ operations booming in Jordan

The only noteworthy addition to the town has been the establishment of two new cemeteries donated by a local charity, after the war raging a few kilometres away filled up Ramtha’s burial plots. The only “breathing space for families”, a community garden known as King Abdullah Gardens, was long ago converted into a camp for Syrian refugees.

Jordanian officials, however, say that aid money is not sufficient to solve the problems caused by the Syrian crisis. With Jordanian border towns suffering economically and coping with a doubling of the population, they say their needs are too great and the donations too few. With so much need, they say it is difficult to know where to allocate the limited funds.

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“Regardless of how much you do, it is not going to have an impact because the sheer numbers [of refugees] are enormous,” Hassan Assaf, governor of Irbid, told Al Jazeera. “If I have a million dinars, will it be enough to build a school, hospital, or fix streets?”

Meanwhile, the sounds of the Syrian war, which has killed 210,000 and displaced 3.7 million Syrians, continue to echo in Ramtha.

Every night, the crack of gunfire and the low rumble of shelling from Syria interrupts their sleep, while the occasional mortar shell falls on Jordanian soil. Luckily, the errant mortars have caused no casualties, but several Ramtha residents have been wounded over the past four years.

And lately, pictures of civilians and armed groups looting the free zones have been circulating over mobile phones. To protect their children from the echoes of war, Abu Sarhan and his wife used to tell them that the sounds of shelling were fireworks from celebrations.

But now as the children “go to school with Syrian children who tell them horrific stories about the shelling”, the war has crept into their home as well.

Source: Al Jazeera