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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Syrian families reunited as Jordan border crossing reopens

The reopening of the border promises to boost Jordan's ailing economy

The Jaber- Naseeb crossing between Jordan and Syria reopened after being closed for three years on Monday, October 15 2018. (The National)
The Jaber- Naseeb crossing between Jordan and Syria reopened after being closed for three years on Monday, October 15 2018. (The National)

Celebration trumped bureaucracy at the Jordanian side of the Jaber border crossing on Monday as the first travellers in over three years crossed into Syria.

Strangers kissed and hugged, teenagers filmed the passport stamping with their mobiles, and young men declared: “Next stop, Damascus!”

This, travelers and drivers said, was the unfiltered joy inspired by the historic resumption of travel across the fertile plains of the Levant known as the houran.

For generations, hundreds of families either side of the border have earned a living by cross-border trade and passenger transportation between Damascus and Amman. For them, the reopening of the border represented the restoration of a lifeline.

For Syrians resident in Jordan who had doubted whether they would ever return to their war-torn homeland, it also represented a resumption of familial ties.

Ahmed, 40, who did not wish to use his full name due to the sensitivities that continue to surround returns to Syria, teared up as he recalled how he has not seen his brothers, cousins and mother since he left his hometown of Daraa to work in Amman eight years ago.

As soon as the Jordanian and Syrian governments announced Sunday night that they would reopen the border crossing, he told his family to expect him. With him he brought his eight-year-old son, who had never stepped foot on Syrian soil.

“It is an indescribable joy,” Ahmed said after having his passport and family file stamped. “Thank God, thank God, thank God. We are returning home.”

The reopening ended months of speculation in Jordan and Syria, after the two countries closed the last overland conduit between the two countries in 2015 after rebel forces captured the border terminal.

Before the war, 7,000 trucks carrying vegetables, meat, electronics, clothes and medicines made the crossing daily. Hundreds of tourists passed on their way to Damascus and Beirut.

The movement of passengers and goods slowed to a trickle as fighting intensified between regime and rebel forces in southern Syria in 2013. The main road leading to the border crossing today is a procession of abandoned rest-stops, restaurants, garages and gas stations, their windows shuttered, all caked in the red dirt that stretches for miles into Syria.

Jordanians from nearby villages expressed hope that Monday’s modest opening would mark a return to “real life.”

Some two-dozen out of work truckers, truck owners and taxi-drivers from the border village of Jaber As Sarhan gathered at the crossing on Monday to watch a trickle of passenger cars enter the terminal leading to Syria.

Although commercial transport is yet to resume in full – most companies and drivers, after years of inactivity, must renew their licenses, while firms review the security situation – Jaber residents hope that renewed commerce will revitalise the town.

“Five hundred families from our village and the border area have been put out of work since they closed the border,” said Hussein Abu Sharan, a 36-year-old truck driver. “We hope this re-opening means our struggles are over.”

Truck-drivers once earned between JD15 and 30 (Dh77 to 155) per day driving goods across the border, a decent wage even today. Since the war, many men gave up trucking in favour of farming and labouring.

Even those jobs were affected by the war though, as refugees drove down wages. A day’s work which once paid JD15 was soon being undertaken by Syrians for just JD5.

“We were being strangled and pressured on every front,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, a 38-year-old trucker. “In the end, most of us decided just to sit at home.”

Over 100 semi-trailers with plates from Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria are parked at the main truck stop bordering the Jordanian-Syrian free zone, looking rusted and abandoned.

“Before the war, this place was so full you could barely walk between the trucks and cars,” said Ossama Al Qabsi, a 38-year-old trucker from Jaber. “Now, it is a ghost town. We are tired of ghosts, we want life to return.”

At a currency exchange at the Jaber terminal, Aysam Al Zoubi, unlocked his office for the first time in three years.

“Our company once employed 21 people,” he said, stepping over broken glass and old newspapers. “If people are assured that the situation in Syria has returned to normal, we can employ people again.”

The second major crossing between the two countries, the Ramtha/Daraa border crossing some 40 km to the west, remains closed since Jordanian authorities shuttered it in 2011, a move that left jobless 3,500 Jordanian drivers living nearby.

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Unemployment has hit a record 18.7 per cent in Jordan, increasing to 30 per cent among youth. The multi-billion dollar trade between Jordan and Syria once constituted the lifeblood of merchants across the region.

If this vital lifeline regains its pulse, it may in one direction only. Syrians and Syrian vehicles entering Jordan must receive security authorisation from both governments, an additional step many expect to slow traffic into the kingdom.

By noon Monday no vehicles or passengers had arrived from Syria. But intrepid Jordanian drivers say they are up to the challenge.

“I am ready to take passengers, I am ready to take goods, I am ready to take anything I can between Damascus and Jordan,” said Bassam Abu Aqouleh, a 33-year-old Jordanian taxi driver from Ramtha.

“This is not just a way of life for us,” Mr Abu Aqouleh said as he got into his car and looked onto the desolate Syrian border ahead. “It is the only way of life for us.”

By Monday evening, 162 Jordanians and 37 Syrian nationals had crossed into Syria, the Jordanian transport ministry said in a statement. A total of 32 Jordanians and 16 Syrians entered Jordan from Syria.