“We’re looking for the Syrian refugee camp,” my driver shouted out the window toward a man who had just emerged from a modest stucco house in an area just outside this town on the Jordanian-Syrian border.
“We’re all Syrians here,” the man replied with a beaming smile, his arms stretched out wide, taking in the whole neighbourhood.
We were hunting for a specific camp Jordan is quietly, unofficially, constructing; one to house several thousand refugees that are anticipated soon. But, in hundreds of Jordanian homes and apartments in a stretch of 50 kilometres alongside the Syrian border from Irbid to Mafraq already live several thousand Syrians, refugees from the fighting that has engulfed the country just a few kilometres to the north.
Many in this semi-desert region are from widespread clans and tribes that were split 90 years ago with the drawing of the border between Jordan and Syria. Most of the refugees from these groups are bunking with distant relatives. Those who’ve come from further north in Syria are renting rooms or houses in the towns.
Officially, there are some 5300 Syrians registered as refugees in Jordan, but tens of thousands more are believed to be living here, including 500-600 former Syrian soldiers who, diplomats say, are being held in a prison, for their own protection, in the Jordan valley town of Salt.
Half the kids in the Mafraq playground are Syrian; their idle fathers watching the kids play.
Kamal Abdul Karim, his wife and their four children, all under 12, arrived 10 days ago, relieved to be far from the fighting in their home town of Homs, 265 kilometres north of the border, on the far side of Damascus. Their house, in the Karam a-Zeitun neighbourhood, was among many destroyed in shelling over the past three weeks, they said. Ten-year-old Firaz says he’s very happy to have gotten away. “No one hurts us here,” he said, bluntly.
His three-year-old brother isn’t quite sure what’s happening. Alternately clinging like a baby in his mother’s arms and throwing himself down on the ground crying, he seems pretty traumatized. “He’s wetting the bed.” his mother says.
The Shami family, from Latakia, more than 450 kilometres away, crossed into Jordan from Syria three days ago. The family of four say they lost their home too, though Latakia, a mixed city of Muslims and Alawites, has been less heavily bombarded.
The two families, 10 people in all, are sharing two large rooms and a small cooking area above a store for about $165 a month.
“We can’t afford to stay here for long,” said Mr. Abdul Karim, who was a butcher in Homs, but hasn’t yet found any work other than something that pays very little and is a long way from town.
As the families generously share juice with visitors, they recline on the half dozen mattresses along the walls of one of the rooms. The husbands speak cautiously, the children are curious and the wives both talk at the same time.
No one in the family, thank God, they say, was wounded or imprisoned. But it was very frightening. Mohamed Shami, 50, said he was worried for the safety of his 15-year-old son. Many young men were reportedly rounded up and imprisoned since they are the age-group most likely to join the opposition.
The families, who didn’t know each other until they met in Mafraq, made their way by bus from their hometowns, carrying very little with them. Mr. Abdul Karim said he tried without success to get the family legal exit visas and gave up after three days.
By cover of night, they made their way on foot across the flat border area, and simply lifted up the wire fence that marked the frontier. “It’s a very old fence,” he said. There was no evidence of any land mines having been laid.
“We knew there were no mines,” Mr. Abdul Karim said, “because there were lots of sheep grazing in the area. They would have blown up any mines,” he noted.
Besides the relative ease in crossing the frontier, the most surprising thing the people found was the reaction of the Jordanian police once the families arrived in Jordan: “They welcomed us,” said Mr. Shami. “I couldn’t believe it. They offered us coffee and told us where we could go for assistance.”
“That’s not the way the police behave in Syria,” he said.
Until a year ago, both families, Sunni Muslims, said they supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawi sect.
Now, they reckon, he’ll never stop the killing. “If he does, the Alawites will turn against him,” said Mr. Shami.
As the number of refugees in Jordan grows, the country is quietly preparing for the arrival of lots more refugees. They don’t want to antagonize Syria the way Turkey has, taking in great numbers of refugees and allowing the Free Syrian Army to set up a camp. Nor do they want to assist the regime the way some in Lebanon have done.
But Jordan believes it must protect its own interests.
Already home to so many refugees – Palestinians from 1948 and 1967; Iraqis from the past nine years – Jordan doesn’t need a lot of people without work wandering all over the country.
So, quietly, they are building facilities, including a fair-sized camp northeast of Mafraq.
And, with a little help, we found it.
It looks more like an empty parking lot than anything else. An expanse of the flat desert land was paved with asphalt -- about 200 meters by 150, or about 30,000 square meters – an area big enough to house a few thousand people in tents, although the soldiers and workers on the scene said they didn’t know how many could be accommodated, and the government won’t even acknowledge the camp’s construction.
Some 32 water towers line two sides of the lot, and large washroom facilities are being built on three sides. The entire compound is ringed by large lamp stands and barbed wire.
The Abdul Karims and Shamis want no part of life in a camp like that. They fled one nightmare, they said, and don’t want to be locked up now.
But Jordan, which arrested 10 supposed Syrian army defectors on the weekend, is beginning to worry about getting overrun. The 10 men, Jordanian officials said, briefly, were being treated as spies, sent by Syria to infiltrate the refugee community.