'He just wanted dignity': the tragedy that captured the mood of a nation


Anas al-Jamra carried more burdens than he could bear. As the eldest of 16 children, the fruit and vegetable vendor was the main provider for his parents, brothers and sisters, in addition to his own four young children.

But continuously harassed by police and city officials, who confiscated his stock, the 28-year-old began accumulating debt.

On 1 February, just days after his goods were confiscated by officials from Irbid municipality, he took his own life. His death highlights the struggle people face to earn a dignified living in Jordan.

“The night before he died he asked me for 500 dinars [£546] but no one I knew had that money,” says his mother, who is known as Umm Anas. “If I had known something like this would happen I would have gone to the streets and asked strangers for the money,” she adds, her voice quivering.

Anas’s death echoes that of Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit seller in Tunisia, who, in December 2010, set fire to himself in response to the humiliation and harassment he experienced at the hands of local authorities. His death ignited protests that brought down the country’s president, and reverberated across the region.

Almost a decade later, however, the inequality and economic deprivations that helped spark the Arab spring still linger.

In Jordan in 2018, those continued frustrations boiled over. The country was rocked by massive nationwide protests against austerity measures and deteriorating living conditions. A poll published last month by Jordan University’s centre for strategic studies found that corruption, unemployment and poverty are still seen as the most urgent issues for Jordanians.

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Youth unemployment in Jordan has risen dramatically over the past decade to more than 36%, one of the highest rates in the world. Widespread unemployment has pushed many people into informal street trade as a way of making ends meet.

According to Ahmad Awad, director of Jordan Labor Watch and a labour rights advocate, the informal economy accounts for nearly half of Jordan’s workforce. He says Anas’s death was not an isolated incident, but the result of austerity policies that have disempowered workers and weakened social protections.

In Irbid, street vendors find themselves in a vulnerable position. Many accuse municipality officials of making it difficult – some say impossible – to obtain licences for carts, stands and booths, which cost between 150 and 300 dinars a year. They say officials try to confine them to places away from the city centre, making it difficult to attract costumers, and then seize goods or demand bribes while carrying out inspections.

“They either confiscate the most expensive stuff or ask us for bribes,” says Mohammad al-Jamra, Anas’s cousin, who also works as a street vendor. “Municipality employees have confiscated vegetables worth more than 1,000 dinars from my stand.”

Anas’s brother Yazid, who also works as a street vendor, says city officials often confiscate the most valuable goods. He alleges his brother was targeted several times in the months leading to his death.

“[The municipality officials] said they brought the confiscated vegetables to the orphanage, but the orphanage denied it,” says Anas’s father, Mohammed Jamra, adding that his sons tried to recover the stock but were unable to find it.

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The inspector general, Moaiad Dhadhah, has said the municipality has the right to confiscate any goods sold without a licence. He argues it is necessary to “control” street vending.

“We don’t know what happened to the goods that were confiscated from Anas. We started an investigation to look into what happened, but it is still ongoing,” says Dhadhah.

But street vendors working in downtown Irbid say city officials are as selective about which vendors they target as they are about the goods they confiscate.

“Those who have someone behind their back don’t get their goods confiscated,” says a street vendor who wished to remain anonymous. “Only poor people like us get harassed.”

After Anas’s death, Jordan’s prime minister, Omar al-Razzaz, announced on Twitter that market spaces would be created for street vendors to use for free or for a nominal fee.

But caught between poverty, crippling debt, unemployment and authorities cracking down on informal work, Anas al-Jamra represents to some the loss of hope and the lack of options to make a dignified living in Jordan, where many feel that wealth and opportunities are restricted to a privileged few.

“He was very hardworking and responsible. He worked every day; sometimes he left the house at six in the morning and only came back at night after 10,” says Naif al-Jamra, Anas’s great uncle, while looking at a photo of his deceased nephew. “He just wanted to live with dignity.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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