LAST week, more than 3400 Syrian refugees slipped across the border into northern Jordan, many with nothing but the clothes they stood in. Even backpacks might have marked them as opponents of the regime fleeing the country. As it was, some were fired on. Tragically, some children arrived on their own.
In two hastily constructed camps assembled, as it happens, by Australians, among others, I spoke to some of them: dusty, exhausted, traumatised. Since March last year, Jordan has received 145,000 Syrians. That's on top of an estimated 450,000 Iraqis (about 32,000 registered refugees) and nearly two million Palestinian refugees.
The population of Jordan is about 6.5 million. It has few natural resources. Its economy relies on external assistance, which accounts for 22.5 per cent of its budget, principally from the US and Saudi Arabia. With headlines about war, tourism falls off. It is among the world's 10 poorest countries in water resources.
In this context, the influx of Syrian refugees imposes enormous strains. Jordanian modelling estimates the full cost of 150,000 refugees to be about $US428 million ($404m).
I have just spent three days in Jordan talking to its leadership, visiting refugee camps and holding discussions on interfaith dialogue and the overlap of cultures. It was hard not be impressed by the worldliness of a leadership that has steered the country since it gained independence in 1946.
Jordan lives in a tough neighbourhood. It lost the West Bank to Israel in 1967 and withstood an attempted Palestinian coup in Black September 1970. Syrian tanks approached its border. In fact, throughout its history it has had to keep a wary eye on its warlike and more powerful neighbour. It was buffeted by both Iraq wars. And in 1994 King Hussein took the courageous step of signing a peace treaty with Israel.
There is now a Syrian refugee crisis. This week, I was proud to announce an extra $4m to help refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Australia's total assistance now stands at $20.5m, the fourth largest national donor. This pays for tents, blankets, food, packs of toiletries and child-protection personnel.
I have instructed Australian ambassadors to make urgent representations to other nations to increase their aid and am phoning foreign ministers to respond to this international appeal.
Why does Jordan matter?
Despite its challenges, Jordan embodies moderation. It is not a liberal democracy, but a nascent one in which the king is promoting reform and there are contested elections. Muslim Brothers have been in its parliament since 1989.
King Abdullah made a speech in Davos in 2004, which I was lucky enough to hear, referring to the need to "avert the clash of civilisations and help the overlap of cultures".
I explored this idea last Sunday in Amman with the leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities. Kamel Abu Jaber, a former foreign minister and now head of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, elaborated on what might be called the Jordanian example.
He said religious and cultural overlap was part of day-to-day life. A Christian minority of 6 per cent, of which he is one, lives and works with the Muslim majority.
This reminded me of an older Middle East where Christians, Jews and Muslims worshipped and worked alongside one another.
"I am a Christian by faith," said Dr Jaber. "I am a Muslim by culture and identity."
His colleague Professor Amer Adnan Al-Hafi noted that Christianity and Islam were the closest of religions: Muslims recognise Jesus Christ as a revered prophet, Christians as the son of God.
Jordan's respected ambassador to Australia, Rima Aladeen, made the important point that the Jordanian spirit was not just tolerance with its tone of condescension or passivity, but acceptance and respect.
Given the horror of sectarian bloodshed now manifest in Syria, this very language is welcome.
The world may have taken for granted the moderation of Jordan. But, as Syria's distress seeps across the border, it is now time to dig a little deeper and help it to bear this burden.
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