Nationality, Class, and Iraqi Migrants in Jordan

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Zachary Sheldon is an ACOR-CAORC Fellow and a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He writes below about his ongoing research which is focused on the Iraqi communities living in Jordan and particularly the experience of Iraqi young adults who have come of age in Amman.

Today, there are about 140,000 Iraqis residing in Jordan. This number can seem very small when we compare it with approximately 1.2 million Syrians in the country, or even the some 600,000 Egyptian guest workers. While the Iraqi population of Jordan has shrunk from its high point of about half a million in 2008, more affluent Iraqis continue to play a highly visible role in Jordanian society.

While scholars in the West busily analyze Middle Eastern societies through the lens of religious and sectarian differences, more secular distinctions of nationality and class shape day-to-day life for migrants in Jordan. Here, people from Iraq to Syria to Sri Lanka are legally subject to different rights of residency, work, and mobility, based on their nationality. These legal distinctions find a cultural parallel in popular stereotypes about the various nationalities being more or less suited for certain kinds of work. Where do Iraqis fit within this complex mix of statuses and stereotypes? What concepts and rules give these distinctions their authority? And what other experiences and identities are covered up by these broad assumptions? My research addresses these questions in order to help us understand how the very recent crisis of mass displacement in the Middle East is being shaped by long-existing forces of history, culture, and political economy.

The interior of an office building under construction overlooking the King Hussein Gardens in West Amman. Photo Z. Sheldon

Today, the most visible and prominent Iraqis in Jordan are affluent medical experts, investors, and industrialists. But this has not always been the case. In the early 1990’s, Iraqis who had fled the spasms of revolt and repression that followed the Gulf War were seen as poor and desperate, best known for selling bootleg cigarettes in front of the Husseini Mosque in Amman’s historic downtown. By 2007, the Jordanian government was attempting to paint its Iraqi guests as an economic burden in order to secure badly needed international aid for its own citizens. But, contrary to this claim, investments by Iraqis who arrived after the 2003 American invasion produced highly visible new hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, while Iraqi consumers became prominent participants in West Amman’s transformation into an endless expanse of malls, boulevards, and cafes.

The ambiguous legal status of Iraqis in Jordan raises other socio-economic concerns. Jordan has always maintained an unofficial tolerance of its Iraqi “guests.” Yet full legal residency is tied to individual financial means, requiring a deposit of 20,000 Jordanian Dinars (about 28,000 USD) in a Jordanian bank. And, unlike Syrian refugees, Iraqis have no agreed-upon means to acquire legal work permits. Even university-educated, middle class Iraqis must work longer hours for lower pay in a precarious labor market. Wealthier investors are shut out from entering all but a few sectors, such as real estate development and export manufacturing. This means that even affluent Iraqis watch their savings steadily shrink as they try to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in one of the most expensive cities in the region while they wait out the violence in their home country or anticipate a long-delayed refugee resettlement decision.

The entrance to a factory floor in the industrial suburb of Sahab. Since the closing of the border between Jordan and Iraq, the once-prosperous investment is imperiled by debt and lack of demand for its products. Photo Z. Sheldon

ACOR’s support of my ongoing ethnographic fieldwork has enabled me to explore the implications of this longer-term trend first-hand. At the same time, long-term fieldwork enabled me to discover new developments that complicated what I thought I knew about Iraqis in Jordan. While conducting participant-observation research with the staff of an Iraqi-owned restaurant, I learned that most of the cooks were new arrivals hailing from the Christian towns that surround the city of Mosul. Around the same time, I began working with Welfare Together, a charitable organization founded by a prominent Iraqi businessman. Welfare Together serves more than 500 needy families of all nationalities in the Al-Hashemi Al-Shamali neighborhood of Amman. About a third of their clients are Christian Iraqis from the Nineveh Plain, an area surrounding the city of Mosul, who had arrived since the Daesh organization seized the area in 2014.

An embroidered shawl depicting scenes and symbols of life in Al-Qosh, a town in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq. These decorative shawls, which are produced by female artisans over the course of months, are traditionally worn as the outer-most layer of the women’s festive outfit. Photo Z. Sheldon

Through conducting fieldwork with the charity, I learned that many of these newest arrivals were in need of medical treatment, financial assistance to pay children’s school fees, warm blankets, heaters, and home repairs to get through the coming winter. The popular association between Iraqis and upper-class status and the idea that the Iraqi refugee crisis was old news had obscured the needs of a new migrant population with very different circumstances.

Meanwhile, Welfare Together, which is supported entirely by private donations, is doing all it can to provide for people’s immediate needs. The organizing committee, a diverse group of Iraqi and Syrian men and women who are all residents of Al-Hashemi Al-Shamali, meet every week to arrange cultural and education outings to museums and films, or to bring families to enjoy themselves with a picnic at the Dead Sea. These events let migrants enjoy Jordan’s enclaves of art, culture, and leisure that would otherwise be walled off by socio-economic and geographic barriers to entry.

A Christmas display put on by Welfare Together and the Iraqi Business Council. Although it’s hard to see in the photograph, the small white papers on the tree bear messages of peace and good will in Syriac, the liturgical and spoken language of many Iraqi Christians. Photo Z. Shedon

Welfare Together’s most important work may be broadening the perspective of the most well-off Iraqis. At a recent three-day event at the Iraqi Business Council, affluent supporters of Welfare Together were given a chance to get to know the organizing committee, to learn about the distinctive artistic traditions of the Christians of the Nineveh Plain, and, of course, to purchase a variety of handicrafts to support the organization. On the one hand, such charitable events undoubtedly fortify the social boundary between the haves and the have-nots by casting one group in the role of benefactors and the other as dependents. On the other, they offer the rare chance for two segments of Amman’s Iraqi population to encounter one another as members of a single national community and raise the possibility of much-needed sustained support. Further fieldwork will explore just how the dynamics of class and nationality will play out between Amman’s settled Iraqis and its newest arrivals.


Zachary Sheldon is a pre-doctoral ACOR-CAORC Fellow, Fall 2017. His project is titled “Guests in the ‘Garden’: An Ethnography of the National Present among Iraqi Residents of Amman, Jordan.”

Zachary Sheldon received his B.A. in Anthropology from Tufts University, and his M.A. in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology from the University of Chicago. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Read his ACOR Profile to learn more about his ongoing fieldwork in Jordan, and reach him via email at zdsheldon@uchicago.edu.

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