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The plight — and peril — of displaced Syrians

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A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family's makeshift home at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, in August. More than 2 million Syrians have fled the country's two-and-a-half year conflict. Jordan hosts more than 554,000 refugees.

MOHAMMAD HANNON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family's makeshift home at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, in August. More than 2 million Syrians have fled the country's two-and-a-half year conflict. Jordan hosts more than 554,000 refugees.

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, JORDAN The aerial footage of the Zaatari camp near Syria’s border with Jordan — row upon dusty row of squat trailers and tents as far as the eye can see, like a desert version of Oz — could become the iconic image of this war, along with photos of children gassed outside Damascus.

While the images of the chemical attacks capture the inhumanity of this conflict, the aerial shots of the camp capture the scale. More than two million Syrians have fled the war, half of them children, making it the world’s worst refugee crisis since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Left unaddressed, the crisis risks destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and disposing any hope of instilling peace and democracy in the region.

Indeed, there is a disconnect between the debate in Washington and the reality here on the ground. U.S. officials are discussing our intervention as if it were this dramatic crescendo to the conflict.

But along the dusty streets of Zaatari and urban slums along the Syrian border, there is a ho-hum attitude to America’s proclamations and a reluctant acceptance that regardless of what we do, this war is not ending anytime soon.

Many refugees I spoke to just want to go home. Better to die in a tent in Syria than a palace in Jordan, goes their mantra. Others have sought to recreate a sense of normalcy, planting gardens and opening up shops that sell everything from satellite TVs to solar panels.

Even United Nations refugee agency officials now refer to Zaatari not as a camp but as a "temporary city," replete with decentralized districts and neighborhood watch groups. Like any city, there are slums and sanitation issues, petty crime and prostitution. The border region with Syria’s Daraa province has long been a haven for smuggling — fuel, drugs, sex workers — which has authorities in Amman, and Washington, worried. After all, Jordan remains the last Arab ally of the United States outside the Persian Gulf not staring into the abyss.

The CIA has trained Syrian opposition forces here, and Washington pumps in hundreds of millions of dollars to keep its economy afloat.

Refugees can export instability in two other ways:

* They drive up prices for food, rent and fuel, angering locals. In this parched part of the Middle East, water is a main point of contention.

In Zaatari — population: 125,000 — more than a million gallons of water is trucked in every day, which has allowed Syrians to plant gardens and even open a pool (it was closed for health reasons).

Jordanians outside the camp walls, meanwhile, are forced to ration their water, which has fueled resentment. Similar tensions are playing out across the region.

In Lebanon, which despite being Syria’s smallest neighbor has taken in the most refugees, a fifth of the population is Syrian. That is the equivalent of the USA absorbing 60 million Canadians.

* They spread anti-Americanism. Virtually every refugee I interviewed blames the U.S. for not intervening sooner to end the war, as it did in Libya. Dropping a few cruise missiles on Damascus will not reverse two-and-a-half years of pent-up frustration. "We are giving (President) Obama our blood, but for him that’s not enough," Abu Emad Azner, a Syrian refugee and former lieutenant in the Syrian army, told me.

In Zaatari, where jobs are scarce and services are limited, the risk is not that idle young Syrians will pick up and join al-Qaida, says Robert Blecher of the International Crisis Group, "but the politicization and militarization of a population. Most of (Syria’s) militants have a presence in the camp. The Free Syrian Army uses it for R & R."

These uprooted populations are not hotbeds of Islamist radicalism. But they are potential incubators of anti-Americanism, as future generations grow up to distrust Washington. And that should worry U.S. policymakers.

As the world debates intervention in Syria, we ignore refugee populations at our own peril.

 

Lionel Beehner, a Ph.D. student at Yale, is a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

 

— USA Today

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