AL MAFRAQ, Jordan — Sultana is 23 years old and very hungry. She grew up in the suburbs east of Damascus, but when her house was firebombed by an airplane belonging to the Syrian regime, she fled the city in the night along with her husband and their five children.
Together, the group trekked south toward safety across the Jordanian border, adding their numbers to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have swarmed this remote, impoverished corner of the Hashemite Kingdom while Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reign of terror shows no signs of abating.
Sultana and her family were initially placed in one of the two UN mega-camps in the region, which have swelled into bona fide cities of transients and their tents. Like other refugees, she declined to have her last name used out of security concerns.
In the camp, disease and crime fester amid the more than 200,000 refugees desperately trying to feed themselves and stay alive. Local NGOs say that on most days, 700 to 1,000 more Syrians cross the border and add to the toll.
Fearing infection and frustrated with the overcrowding, Sultana and her family took their tents and moved to a smaller outpost, one of a handful of ad hoc mini-camps that have popped up amid the arid plains near the Jordanian town of Al-Mafraq. She may not realize it, but now her food, cooking oil and cleaning supplies come to her thanks to an Israeli aid organization and a network of Jewish donors across the Diaspora, including the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the AJC, World Jewish Relief and the Pears Foundation.
Late last week, minutes before a sandstorm whipped through the region and rendered Sultana and her family even more invisible than they already are, a van driven by a Jordanian NGO volunteer and carrying a volunteer from IsraAid, an Israeli humanitarian aid agency, pulled up at the camp. About 125 refugees live here in 25 dirt-spattered tents, cut off from the primary aid organs that pump food and water into the bigger local camps of Zaatari and Mrajeeb Al Fhood. One by one, the refugees here lined up and waited to be called by name to the van, where fat purple bags filled with lentils, rice, sugar and other dry goods sat ready for distribution.
The items inside the bags are purchased locally by Jordanian NGOs using funds transferred to them from Israel. They are handed out daily or weekly, in a sporadic schedule that depends entirely on how much donor cash flows into Israel and can then be transferred to the other side.
“We are concerned for their livelihood. That’s the first thought,” says the director of an international faith-based humanitarian organization whose Israeli arm has partnered with IsraAid to bring relief to Syrian refugees in Jordan. For her own security, she also asked not to be named. “For us, this has nothing to do with politics at home. It’s about how can we, as people in a difficult situation, where there is animosity between governments, how can we – Jewish and Christian, humanitarian workers and people – make a difference? And I’ll tell you how: Bag by bag.”
The woman is the linchpin in this process, a tough, no-nonsense aid worker who has seen frontline trauma across the world and understands that crisis care depends on relationships upon the ground. She makes the drive across the border several times a month, accompanied by several IsraAid volunteers who know the local climate, have nurtured relationships with the heads of Jordanian NGOs, and have no desire to let politics become a stumbling block.
“We don’t come as representatives of Netanyahu, or of a party, or of the government. We come because we are people who want to do humanitarian work,” says Mickey Alon, a photographer by day who volunteers his time with IsraAid and has traveled with Israeli aid missions to Haiti, South Sudan and Japan.
We are seated in the office of a major Jordanian NGO, sipping hot coffee at the insistence of its director. The NGO asked not to be named, fearing that their association with Israel could cause backlash against family members of Syrian refugees who have yet to make it out.
Here in Jordan, however, the NGO director says he is happy to work with Israelis, and the refugees are simply eager to be fed.
“Believe me, people are hungry and it doesn’t matter. They are not asking where the aid comes from,” he says. “With the refugees, there is no problem. But the regime inside [Syria], they blackmail them if they know they are supported by Israel.”
Outside, a line of Syrian women who have left the camps and migrated to the city are waiting patiently for their own purple bags. After we finish our coffee, a few of Ali’s employees — all of them also volunteering their time, working without salaries — open the doors. The women come flooding in, each a dark shadow in her black abaya, struggling to drag the packed satchels down the flight of stairs and onto the street. Later, when we bid the NGO director goodbye and walk down to our van, a trail of dried lentils and rice kernels will crunch under our feet.
The bags, of course, are a stopgap. These women need more than food. One of them, a 41-year-old widow named Asma, pulls me aside and unzips her abaya to show a meter-long, pus-seeping gash across her belly, a reminder of the explosion that killed her husband and sent her fleeing. The NGO director takes her aside and, when the rest of the women have cleared out, promises to find a way to get her to a hospital in Amman.
The Jordanian government, he says, is doing everything it can to help these people. But even the NGOs are being stretched thin. Refugees knock on his door at night. Mothers come begging for meat, and milk for children they birthed inside tents in the camp. The coming winter, which some forecasters have warned will be the harshest to sweep through the Jordanian desert in decades, is now only weeks away. Caravans, blankets and insulation are desperately needed, and the funds just don’t add up.
So when IsraAid reached out to the Jordanian NGO in early January, the director was eager to start a partnership.
“We feel like a family,” he says now. “They are nice guys, a very good team. We cooperate and we work honestly.”
The relationship that has blossomed, says Alon, is a basic human friendship.
“You see a lot of Americans doing humanitarian work all over the world. It’s a bit more complicated for Israelis to do it,” says Alon. He gestures to the shabby headquarters of the NGO. “It’s important for me, first of all as a human being, and this place allows us to do things beyond what the average Israeli can do. We don’t come with big Israeli flags or any political affiliation. We’re not looking at this to see if it is good for the Syrian-Israel relationship. We are looking only at the people we are going to work with.”
The help that Israel can give these refugees, the IsraAid volunteers and the director of the international aid organization both say, trickles in bag by bag, donation by donation. And if Israel’s involvement in Jordan is going to change political perceptions, they add, it’s going to happen in the same slow way.
“It’s not like we come in here and go, ‘We’re from Israel!,’” says the director of the IsraAid’s partnering organization. “You keep your mouth shut and you do the work. And maybe they will ask some questions after the fact, because actions speak much louder than words.”