Studying abroad in Jordan, Northwestern students Keisha James and Wilson Shirley watched the president’s address on Syria while out to dinner at a restaurant.
Obama is seeking authorization for a military strike to the Middle Eastern country, where the U.S. government believes President Bashar Assad’s regime recently used chemical weapons to attack Syrian opposition forces.
“Watching the president’s address about how he wanted to strike Syria while you’re…very, very close to it makes it a lot more personal,” Shirley told Patch via Skype. “It makes you realize how real it all is.”
Shirley, a junior, and James, a senior, arrived in Jordan two weeks ago for a study abroad program at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy in Amman, Jordan’s capital city. So far, they say, the threat of conflict between the U.S. and Syria has not seriously impacted their daily life abroad—but it’s a major topic of conversation among the people they meet, from professors to taxi drivers.
“They actually bring up a lot of topics, like politics, some controversial topics,” says James, a Florida native. “Everyone seems to be very well informed.”
Most people are welcoming to Americans, because the two countries are close allies, according to Shirley, who grew up in Kentucky. But most Jordanians they’ve spoken to don’t support a U.S. strike on Syria.
“Because Jordan is a very good ally to the United States, they’re afraid of the effects a strike could have,” says Shirley. “And also because they’re sheltering a lot of the refugees from Syria right now.”
The United Nations refugee agency announced Tuesday that the number of refugees from Syria had reached 2 million, with roughly 515,000 of those refugees going to Jordan. Because of the huge influx of refugees, many of the resources that would otherwise be going to Jordanians are now going to refugees, according to James. That includes water and electricity, two resources in limited supply.
Residents are worried that a U.S. military strike would only increase the number of refugees, further taxing the country’s resources.
“People are feeling anxious,” says James. “People are pretty much convinced that the strike is going to happen, but they’re anxious to see what the aftermath is going to be.”
Shirley adds that while many Jordanian people are anxious, they’re also proud that the country has remained relatively stable despite conflicts throughout the Middle East.
“I think a lot of people have the attitude that Jordan can weather a lot that comes its way,” he says.
Although they don’t see a major military presence in the capitol city, James and Shirley say they are comforted by the knowledge that there is a heavy military presence at the border with Syria, about 40 miles from the capital city. Both say they feel safe in Amman, going to classes and exploring the city, and hope to venture outside of the capital soon to see other parts of the country.
At home, their families have become experts on politics in the Middle East, and follow the news about the region very closely. James says she talks to her mother daily, who updates her on everything she’s seen in the news or reading the paper.
“She’s very nervous about what’s going to happen,” James
says. “I’ve convinced her that I’m very safe here.”
Northwestern University’s study abroad department monitors the news from abroad daily, as well as travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State and several private security information services, according to Julie Anne Friend, associate director for international safety and security. If there appears to be an immediate threat, the university will bring students home immediately. If there’s more time to make a decision, Friend and a risk assessment committee will determine whether or not to suspend a particular program.
As for the students in Jordan, Friend said she wasn’t sure what a military strike would mean.
“The risks in this case are completely unknown. We don’t know if there will be a strike. If it does occur, we don’t know what the impacts will be on the region,” she says. “There are just too many ifs to say to students, ‘we won’t let you go.’”
From a bigger picture view, Friend notes that unrest in the Middle East has shortened the list of countries to which students can safely travel.
“Our options to send students to this part of the world are rapidly decreasing, and that is troublesome,” Friend says. “These are places that our country would benefit from learning more about.”
Both Shirley and James say they hope that the U.S. doesn’t go to war with Syria—not simply because they’re close by, but more importantly because they believe it’s not the right solution.
“We both agree that what’s happening in Syria is obviously a tragedy and needs to stop,” Shirley says. But, he and James say, they believe a military strike would be largely symbolic, not necessarily effective.
“Yeah, it’s a horrible situation and it’s been going on for two years now and it does need to come to an end,” says James. “I just don’t think the strike is the right route to go.”