They call the main drag in Za’atari the “Champs Elysees.” Like the famous Parisian boulevard, this Jordanian thoroughfare is also lined with shops and food vendors. But instead of Louis Vuitton, Guerlain or Lacoste, on offer at the Syrian refugee camp are modest tea shanties and falafel stands, and creative homemade shack industries providing services from wedding dress rentals (10 dinars) to travel bookings.
Located in Jordan’s desert plane, today Za’atari is home to some 80,000-85,000 Syrian refugees — 80 percent of whom are women and children. It sprang up almost ex nihilo in July 2012 as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tent city for 100 families, but was quickly settled by the thousands fleeing the seemingly endless Syrian civil war that had begun the year before.
Now, with some 80 babies born a day, Za’atari has the dubious honor of being the second-largest refugee camp in the world (the first is in Kenya) and has quickly evolved into Jordan’s fourth-largest populated area.
Za’atari is loosely divided into 12 districts, of which only three have schools, and is served by a slew of NGOs providing various forms of relief and aid. And in this mix of suffering and survival, many Jewish organizations are openly helping the Muslim majority refugees, and several others fund projects in secret.
The head of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, Dr. Georgette Bennett, was in Za’atari in February. In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel on Monday, she described the endless rows of tents and cheap metal caravans dotting the desert landscape that she witnessed there.
The “shops,” she said, are impromptu structures, formed from an amalgamation of materials that are useful purely by virtue of not being tied down. But she called this commercial district “very very important” in that it “restores dignity” to the shop owners and a sense of normalcy to the camp. And, at the same time, these micro business owners are building up a tentative economy from the residents’ stretched financial subsidies.
Bennett takes the plight of the refugees personally. Born in Budapest to Holocaust-survivor parents in 1946, she and her family escaped Hungary’s Communist regime in 1948 and went to Paris. From there, they made their way to the United States in 1952 where her father died shortly thereafter.
Alone in a strange land with a small child, her mother was left to restart their lives and Bennett said there was no doubt that her family’s history as refugees plays a “very large role” in her drive to aid others today.
She was in Jordan and Israel in February for an inspection tour at Za’atari and whirlwind series of meetings with the Multifaith Alliance’s Syrian and Israeli partners. Although the alliance comprises mostly Jewish organizations — and is funded by Jewish money — it also includes Muslims, Christians of all denominations, Sikhs, and more.
Bennett said that during her February visit to Za’atari, she asked families whether they would like to be resettled elsewhere. The refugees’ overarching goal was to return to Syria, but if the choice was between resettlement or remaining in the camp, they chose the camp.
She was told, “We will stay here, because here we still breathe the air of our home, we are the same people. As long as we are here, we are still connected to our home.”
Ready for deployment
At the core of the Jewish efforts is the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, a 2013 American Joint Distribution Committee-initiated partnership of 50 Jewish organizations that has been streamlining funding and aiding Syrian refugees to the tune of half a million dollars.
The coalition partners include a swath of major Jewish organizations, such as the United Kingdom’s World Jewish Relief, the Anti-Defamation League and the various Jewish denominations’ umbrella organizations, and is facilitated by the JDC’s Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief.
Hampered by an across-the-board lack of funds and rationing of basic necessities, the international Jewish relief organizations hope to take advantage of the increased media attention on the Syrian refugee crisis. They are introducing new fundraising efforts for those who have reached Europe, and at the same time emphasizing existing projects in Jordan, where temporary living arrangements are slowly becoming permanent.
The coalition partners are all “independent and interconnected and coordinated,” JDC assistant executive vice president Will Recant told The Times of Israel this week. In many cases the coalition gives grants to on-the-ground service providers, including the Israel Trauma Coalition, both currently working in Jordan, to double down on existing efforts rather than deploy their own field teams.
However, in the case of Europe, the Joint is already embedded in the continent’s Jewish communities. Several weeks ago, staff was tasked with assessing the needs of the current wave of refugees and migrants as coalition members began to push for expanding the mandate beyond Jordan, said Recant. That expansion was approved this week and Wednesday night the coalition will have a coordinating conference call to decide on its immediate future steps.
When asked how quickly the JDC social workers and field staff could begin work with the refugees, Recant replied, “They are there.” Should the Jewish communities wish to become involved, the JDC will back them.
The issue has struck a strong chord in the Jewish communities, said Recant, who expected the media attention will raise awareness and, potentially, much needed donations. With its expanded mandate, the coalition’s coffers are starting from scratch.
The UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, told the Guardian this week, “If you look at those displaced by conflict per day, in 2010 it was 11,000; last year there were 42,000. This means a dramatic increase in need, from shelter to water and sanitation, food, medical assistance, education.
“The budgets cannot be compared with the growth in need. Our income in 2015 will be around 10% less than in 2014. The global humanitarian community is not broken – as a whole they are more effective than ever before. But we are financially broke.”
From the Kindertransport to Syria-transport?
Unlike the case with most of the Jewish coalition partners, the refugee crisis has already reached Britain’s borders. There, World Jewish Relief was founded eight decades ago to bring Jewish refugees out of Nazi Germany on the kindertransports. This week it has opened a fundraising campaign for Syrian refugees.
‘As Jews, many of us have family members who were refugees and our heritage must inform the way that we respond to the migrant crisis’
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis endorsed the call for funds, saying, “As Jews, many of us have family members who were refugees and our heritage must inform the way that we respond to the migrant crisis. This is a deep and tragic humanitarian emergency. I wholeheartedly support World Jewish Relief’s vital efforts seeking to alleviate the widespread suffering, and urge our Jewish community to provide a compassionate response at this great time of need.”
The Jewish coalition, of which World Jewish Relief is a member, has raised half a million dollars over three years. Although the JDC’s Recant calls this “a testament to the Jewish community,” this is hardly enough money to have a sweeping life-changing effect.
Likewise World Jewish Relief, said campaigns director Richard Verber, will insure that “every penny British Jews donate receive the most bang for the buck.” Every pound must count — and be accounted for.
Grants have to be given to “who is the most efficient when human lives are at stake,” said Verber, who said World Jewish Relief will continue working with partners as opposed to flying in teams. To be accountable to its donors, the organization identifies which NGOs are “most trustworthy” and will deliver the most impact. It invites them to make an application, which is almost like a contract of fee for services, said Verber.
Verber, who at 30 is also the youngest to be elected as senior vice president to the UK umbrella organization, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said British Jewry is not monolithic in its views of the refugee crisis.
“It’s great British Jews are getting together to try and find ways to change people’s lives,” said Verber. “There are certainly different views, but everyone is united in the horror and shock. Everybody has a desire to see the suffering reduced to zero.”
Verber said that among British Jews there are different approaches to aid — from supporting the refugees where they are to encouraging them to settle in the UK and learn “British values, whatever those may be,” he said with a laugh.
He added, however, that among the Jewish community, “there’s a certain question generally — would we be importing people who have been radicalized?”
The ties that bind
Many among Europe’s Jewish communities worry that an influx of Muslim refugees will cause an increase of anti-Semitic incidents.
The Multifaith Alliance’s Bennett, who studies and internationally lectures on combating religious prejudice, said she doubts the refugees will be the catalyst for an additional upswing. According to Bennett, both classes of racism are largely being perpetrated by the same offenders — the radical far-right.
Indeed, London Metropolitan Police figures released this week showed a monumental rise in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Britain. From July 2014-15, police recorded 499 anti-Semitic incidents — up more than 93% — and 816 Islamophobic offenses, a 70% increase.
‘The data show that although Muslim involvement in anti-Semitism is increased, the majority of offenses are still committed by right wing groups’
“We can’t talk about these refugees as if they’re a monolithic group, they’re not and while that hatred [culturally ingrained anti-Semitism] may be true in some cases, it certainly isn’t true in all cases,” said Bennett.
“The data show that although Muslim involvement in anti-Semitism is increased, the majority of offenses are still committed by right wing groups,” she said, pointing to the rise of right-wing parties all over Europe.
These right-wing parties are driven by anti-immigrant xenophobic ideology, said Bennett, who added that perhaps in the case of Jews and Muslims, “logically they could be making common cause based on that… I’m certainly seeing that [partnership] happen in the Middle East.”
What has touched Bennett the most in her work with the Syrian refugees, she said, is the opportunity for two “enemy” peoples — Syrians and Israelis — to work together and get to know each other for the first time.
“The most moving story is the partnerships being formed between Israelis and Syrians, working together, rising above politics to alleviate terrible suffering,” she said.