Exclusive: Queen Rania Reveals What the Syrian Refugee Crisis Really Looks Like in Jordan


Amman, Jordan — A father, reduced to tears, struggles to provide for his family that has been torn apart by war. A mother's search for urgent medical care for her sick children lasted hours. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fight desperately for their survival, with their past lives lost and dreams for the future shattered.

No, this isn't the shores of Lesbos, the Greek island that has received the lion's share of attention when it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis. This is what's happening in Jordan right now, with minimal fanfare from the international media.

"It's getting worse," International Rescue Committee doctor Mohammed Sharadqah, 27, said in an interview in Irbid, a city located in the country's northern region, just kilometers from the Syrian border. "The refugees who remain in Jordan, five years later, are trapped in war. They are suffering."

Jordan, a key U.S. ally and a country that has long-enjoyed relative stability in the turbulent Arab world, may not receive the same visibility as countries in Western Europe. But faced with a severe economic downturn and escalating security concerns under the weight of an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees who have resettled in the country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the country is teetering on the brink.

"Every seventh person in my country is a Syrian refugee," said Jordan Queen Rania Al Abdullah. "They all need shelter, food, drinking water, education, and healthcare. Even with the work of UN agencies, we are barely coping."

Queen Rania's comments came during an exclusive interview with Mic after a recent visit to Lesbos, where she met with women and girls in order to raise awareness about the continued plight of Syrian refugees. "For most of these girls, any hope of getting an education is tossed out the window once they marry. Very few, if any, will ever see a classroom again," Queen Rania said.

Mic/Queen Rania

Queen Rania, married to Jordan's King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and an international celebrity in her own right, has become one of the world's most vocal advocates on behalf of Syrian refugees. In an October 2015 interview on Good Morning America, the Queen pleaded with the world to "put our self in their shoes." She also recently penned a powerful op-ed in the Washington Post in which she shined light on the fate of Syrian women in particular, who according to Queen Rania, are "at their breaking point."

In part as a result of the Queen's advocacy, a host of celebrities, activists and politicians have traveled to Jordan in recent months. Many have visited the Za'atari refugee camp. The camp, a sprawling settlement operated by the UN Refugee Agency, now houses more than 80,000 Syrian refugees and plays host to a myriad of well-known international aid organizations, such as the IRC and Doctors Without Borders. Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, toured the camp during her recent trip to Jordan. Samantha Bee also featured a refugee camp in Jordan during a recent episode of Full Frontal.

But while the camps might provide an ideal backdrop for media photo-ops, Queen Rania is clear to emphasize what's really going on in her country, far away from the cameras.

The following represents a transcript from our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mic: Can you give readers a sense of the magnitude of the refugee crisis in Jordan? How many total refugees are estimated in the country, and how is Jordan coping with the influx?

Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah: The magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis is unmatched by any other; the UN has described it as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. It's hard to get a real sense of its scale unless you're up at the frontline like we are. Jordan is now struggling to host 1.3 million Syrian refugees. That means every seventh person in my country is a Syrian refugee. They all need shelter, food, drinking water, education, and healthcare. Even with the work of UN agencies, we are barely coping.

Many don't know that 90% of Syrian refugees are living in Jordanian towns and villages, not in camps. That is placing immense pressure on our social and physical infrastructure. The population of some northern towns where refugees have found safety has more than doubled since the crisis began. Many schools run double shifts to accommodate Syrian students; and unemployment and rent have skyrocketed. Yet international contributions have covered less than 40% of the needs. The rest, we've had to borrow, and this has made our national debt soar. This crisis comes with a hefty price tag, one we can't afford without more support from the international community.

What was the most striking experience or moment you had during your trip to Lesbos? Is there a particular story or encounter you had with a refugee that stuck with you?

QR: I think it's difficult to forget any of the encounters I had with the women I met in the Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesbos. I heard so many tragic stories, each more harrowing than the other. Families sold everything they had, even their clothes, in order to afford to get on death boats to Europe. One young woman described crossing 46 checkpoints to leave Daesh-controlled territory and the horrific journey to Greece, through Turkey, as "one death scene after the other." She is a medical student, who was training to be a gynecologist in Syria and is determined to continue her studies.

One woman said she told her children that the sea was their last hope ... that they either make it to the shore and to a new beginning, or the sea would be their end. On the overcrowded boat, her frightened children clung to her, and she clung to hope. I cannot imagine anything harder than being forced to risk the lives of your own children in a desperate attempt to give them security and a future.

Mic/Getty Images

You're such a vocal advocate on behalf of women and girls. How is the refugee crisis affecting women and girls specifically? What are you doing to overcome this?

QR: Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in refugee crises. And this crisis is no exception. There are worrisome reports of increased gender-based and domestic violence. Last month, I visited an International Rescue Committee program in Jordan that offers counseling services to Syrian women traumatized by war and displacement and incidents of violence.

We're also seeing a rise in early marriage among Syrian girls. Unfortunately, at times of crisis, early marriage can be a coping mechanism and a way out of poverty.  For many struggling to make ends meet, marrying off a daughter means one less mouth to feed. For most of these girls, any hope of getting an education is tossed out the window once they marry. Very few, if any, will ever see a classroom again.

None of this would happen if refugees had more support and opportunities. This is why we've repeatedly asked the global community for support with education. It's the most crucial investment we can make in Syria's children, its future and the region's stability.

What do you feel are the biggest stereotypes about refugees — and about Islam more generally — in the West?

QR: I often find myself having to remind people that no one chooses to be a refugee. A refugee is what you become when you've run out of choices. People need to understand that refugees are not a threat. They want security, safety, and peace. People don't risk their lives, unless they are desperate to live. Yet, many refugees, who arrive in strange lands, terrified by what they have escaped and uncertain about their future, find that they have become what others fear.

Unfortunately, today, perceptions of Muslims and knowledge of Islam amongst many are almost exclusively based on the actions of extremist groups who operate on the farthest fringes of our religion. They have nothing to do with faith and everything to do with fanaticism. His Majesty has called these terrorists "khawarej," meaning outlaws. In fact, many of their fighters were radicals before they were religious and their histories can be traced back to prison cells and criminal networks.

We're seeing how these stereotypes obscure a group's humanity, and allow suspicion to creep in and intolerance to build. Eventually, fear takes root and walls go up. Left unchecked, extremism and intolerance feed off each other, serving a single agenda: that of the extremists.

Mic/Queen Rania

What role is Jordan playing in combating extremism and in solving the refugee crisis? What are some of the most important steps your country is taking?

QR: We have been fighting extremism for a very long time and on many different fronts. On the ground, Jordan has been successful at curbing Daesh sympathizers and cracking down on their networks inside the country. Last month, our intelligence services foiled a significant terror plot by Daesh to attack civilian and military targets in the country. Our army is also working around the clock to prevent cross-border infiltration by terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

But the global community also needs to fight extremism on a less-bounded territory. The internet has widened extremists' sphere of influence and allowed them to cross over geographic boundaries, broadcasting their destructive ideology far and wide.

As we've seen, the minds of the young are the most vulnerable to recruitment. We have an ideological battle on our hands, and you cannot kill an ideology with a bullet. That's why the battle we wage in the classroom is perhaps the most important, and why, in Jordan, we have been working hard on education reform. But so much of our local momentum has been slowed by the attention and resources we've had to divert to the refugee crisis.

As for solving the refugee crisis, we have to face the difficult reality that on average, refugees stay at least 17 years in host countries. There is nothing temporary about this crisis and that is why we are piloting a sustainable approach to deal with it in Jordan. We are working with the international community and the World Bank to develop special economic zones that can provide more jobs for both Jordanians and Syrians.  

Do you feel ISIS can be defeated? If so, how?

QR: They must be defeated; we cannot afford to feel otherwise. I have said before that this is the first time in history that the civilized world has a common enemy. They aim to destroy everything we stand for: our principles, our ways of life, and our future.

We must remember that extremists are selling a false dream; we have to provide a better and real one. A promise that is not based on hate and violence and one that not only delivers personal fulfillment, but also respects and advances humanity.

There is no single answer as to "how?" As I mentioned previously, there is the military approach, which is underway. Jordan plays an important role in the international coalition against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. But we're not just fighting a terrorist in a battlefield. Just as importantly, we're fighting an ideology, which in many ways is harder to defeat than men with guns. We're up against a heinous global brand of terror as we've seen in France, Egypt, Belgium, Turkey and many other places. Any strategy must target not only ISIS in Syria and Iraq but also its growing network of affiliates and supporters around the world.

Mic/Getty Images

Do you think America is doing enough on these issues? What would you like to see from the United States in order to help solve the refugee crisis?

QR: 95% of the refugees are in neighboring countries, who are bearing the brunt of this humanitarian disaster. Host countries like Jordan need more support, not just from the U.S., but the global community at large.

We also need to empower the refugees so they can support themselves and provide for their families. But jobs don't create themselves, nor can countries like Jordan afford to solve this crisis with their own citizens' jobs. Foreign investments and large-scale projects have been internationally endorsed as the most sustainable way forward. If the international community wants to see less destitute refugees getting on death boats to find better opportunities in the West, then it should strengthen the infrastructure and resilience of Syria's neighbors and help create opportunities there.

There are many other ways Americans can help. Today more than ever, millions have been empowered to speak for those who can't. We all have access to platforms that enable us to take on the causes and campaigns we believe in, and this power is also a responsibility. While governments and large institutions tackle the conflict on the global level, every voice and initiative working locally to alleviate the suffering is part of the answer. Web developers who have created applications and networks that help refugees track their families in exile are part of the answer. Every innovative idea that responds to the crisis is a chip added, and I come across new ones every day. For example, I recently read about a group that launched the first free online university for refugees whose education was interrupted by war.

You're an outspoken feminist in a region where women's rights remain an ongoing issue. Where do you see feminism going in the coming years in the Arab world?

QR: When Islam emerged over 1400 years ago, it gave women rights when previously they had none: the right to own and inherit property and to participate as leaders within their communities. Often, it is cultural and societal constraints that hold women back in my region. But I think it is important to realize that "feminism" means different things to different people, and that women's rights are being compromised all around the world. Though the rise of fundamentalists has undermined the rights of women in some Arab countries – Syria being a prime example — the struggle isn't unique to the Middle East, as women everywhere campaign to be heard and find equal opportunities.

Despite these challenges, we have seen breakthroughs. In Jordan, the social, legal, and cultural process of change takes time because many conflicting values are in play. At the forefront of the push for progress are some difficult negotiations between modernization and tradition, development and conservatism. But when our end goal is to better our societies and make them more inclusive, there is no question that with one law at a time, one family at a time, one conversation at a time, a fairer mold will prevail.

What advice do you have for other young women around the world who are interested in becoming global leaders?

QR: Well, my four guiding C's would be: conviction, courage, compassion and creativity. Armed with them, you may not be able to rule the world, but you can certainly do your bit to change it for the better! To make a difference, you need to believe in what you're doing; do the right thing, which – more often than not – is not the easy choice; do right by others, and do things differently.

Correction: May 11, 2016