For Syrians in Jordan, sanctuary comes at a price of humiliation

Syrians have long hosted refugees from Mideast conflicts; now they are dependent on the kindness of strangers

The embroidery on this curtain reads, "Refugees, with the help of God, returnees.”
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

The cursive Arabic script lovingly hand-embroidered on a rumpled curtain reflects both the sorrow and the fragile hope of the 120,000 Syrians at Zaatari: "Refugees, with the help of God, returnees."

Here, in the sprawling refugee camp in northwestern Jordan, Syrians find themselves feeling the pain and anxiety of displaced Arab populations from conflicts past — the Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis to whom their own country had once provided sanctuary. A grinding civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people in two-and-a-half years has left more than 2 million Syrians scattered across the Middle East, and some 4.25 million having fled their homes inside the country. And the number of refugees and internally displaced people continues to grow.

There are almost 550,000 Syrian scattered across Jordan, each with their own tale of loss.

They are in the capital Amman, and other urban centers such as Mafraq and Zarqa, and even in sleepy hamlets like Habaka, some 47 miles north of Amman, with a population of just a few thousand.

Habaka is now home to Syrians like Em and Abu Mohammad and their three young sons, aged 16, 12, 4, who live in a single room without a kitchen, or even a sink. Like all of the people interviewed for this story, they chose to withhold their real names, out of concern for the safety of relatives still in Syria.

They were reluctant to leave their hometown of Yadoude, in Deraa province, despite the fierce shelling and grave danger. Em Mohammad and her sons held out until Jan. 16, when they fled to Jordan. Her husband followed on March 30. "I did not want to leave our country, our home, our son," says Em Mohammad.

The couple's eldest child, 20-year-old Mohammad, was detained early in the uprising by Syrian government forces on September 19, 2011. Several men who were snatched with him and later released shortly afterward told the family that Mohammad was in the notorious Adra Prison in the capital Damascus. The prison authorities acknowledged to his mother that they were holding him, but did not allow her to see him.

Abu Mohammad and his wife Em Mohammad in their one-room house. Because they fear for the safety of their son, still in Syria, they do not show their faces.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

A month later, after her initial trip to the prison, Em Mohammad was told by the guards that her son was no longer there. "I don't know if it's true, if they were lying to me, if he was inside or not," she says. "We don't know anything about him, where he is. He hasn't contacted us."

The family remained at home in case Mohammad returned — until the day a missile hit their house, ripping doors from their hinges. "In Syria, I could keep asking, keep trying to find him," Em Mohammad says, "but things got really bad, really, really bad. We couldn't sleep at night because of the shelling. If it wasn't for that, there's no way I would have left."

Em Mohammad and her sons made it to the Jordanian border with the help of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Like all new arrivals, they were taken to the Zaatari camp, a short drive from the Syrian border, where they spent two winter months in a tent.

They were compelled to leave, they say, because of the difficult environment — the dust, the dirt, the unclean water — that gave their youngest son, Abboud, hepatitis.

Syrians wanting to legally leave Zaatari must be "bailed out," a process that requires a Jordanian guarantor to make a small payment to the state of some 12 to 15 Jordanian dinars ($17 to $21) per person, according to Kilian Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR's camp manager in Zaatari. "Since the beginning of the year, I think 25,000 people have been bailed out," he says, "but most people are leaving without the bail-out system."

Some pay to be smuggled out, but Em Mohammad and her sons simply walked out one day. Although they left the camp illegally, they are still able to register in their new location, without any penalty. "Most people who have illegally left the camp show up in the urban centers," Kleinschmidt says. "The police very rarely round up anybody and send them back to the camp."

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They didn't need a smuggler, just a taxi driver to ferry the five thin mattresses and five blankets that were their only possessions. Those same mattresses now ring the perimeter of the single room that has been their home since then.

The family was directed to Habaka by relatives (who are also refugees) living nearby. They pay 35 Jordanian dinars ($50) a month for the room, a fraction of the $200 to $400 rentals on many apartments, but it's still too much for this family. Abu Mohammad, who worked as a driver in Syria, says he can't find work. His 16 year old son is also looking.

The family hopes to move soon, with the help of the Norwegian Refugee Council which will find them a rent-free two-room space for a year, removing their main financial burden. Em Mohammad is looking forward to having a kitchen again.

As U.N.-registered refugees, the family gets 120 dinars ($170) of food coupons a month. They're also helped by relatives and Jordanian neighbors who have donated most of the items in the room, like the antiquated Hitachi fridge that belongs to the landlord. A small TV in the corner came from a neighbor down the road who said the children might want to watch cartoons. The frying pans, teapots and dishes drying in a multi-tiered dish rack fixed above a three-burner gas hot plate were also donated by Jordanians. "Honestly, if it wasn't for God, good people and these coupons," Em Mohammad says. She doesn't finish her sentence.

In many ways, Em and Abu Mohammad are lucky — they've been welcomed and helped by their Jordanian hosts. Abu Anas and his family have a very different experience.

Abu Anas sits with his wife, sister and four children in their two-room apartment. They, too, fear for the safety of relatives still in Syria.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

The 36-year-old, his wife, their four children and his sister arrived in Jordan in January. They escaped, they say, 15 days into a Syrian army siege of their rural village in Daraa province. "I decided that if they lift the siege, if only for an hour, as soon as they say we're allowed to get bread, that same hour, that minute, we have to flee," Abu Anas says.

The family didn't pack anything, fearing that the government soldiers at the checkpoint would realize the family wasn't coming back. All they carried, apart from the clothes they were wearing, was a blue gilded copy of the Koran.

Abu Anas' family also fled the Zaatari refugee camp soon after arriving. "It was bad in every way," says Em Anas. "The water was bad, the [communal] toilets were far [from the tent], so were the schools. There was dust, disease, there was nothing to make you want to stay there."

The family rented a room for 60 dinars ($85) in the town Zoubia, for about six months. "It wasn't fit for animals," Abu Anas says. The Jordanian landlord wanted them gone, and threatened to kick them out. That's when a social team from the Norwegian Refugee Council found them. "God brought them to us at the time," Abu Anas says. "Thank God we are here now."

"Here" is a two-room ground-floor apartment a short drive from Em and Abu Mohammad's place, near Habaka, and provided rent-free by the Norwegian NGO. It's a sparse space, crammed with clothes in a corner near the door, as well as a tattered teddy bear with no eyes and rows of stitching along its beige body. A thin curtain divides the narrow kitchenette from the main room, where children aged from four to twelve years old sit. One young boy, Mohammad, focuses intently on practicing his handwriting in an exercise book.

Abu Anas shows a photo of his dead 18-year-old nephew on his Nokia phone.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

They have recently lost close family members, including Em Anas' 45-year-old brother, a commander in the Free Syrian Army. Abu Anas has a photo on his Nokia phone of his 18-year-old nephew. The young man, head tilted to the left, looks like he is peacefully sleeping, but he's dead. Injured in a rocket attack, he was evacuated to a Jordanian hospital where he died. Abu Anas took the photo to send to his grieving brother, the young man's father, who is still in Syria.

Here in Jordan, however, the family's biggest challenge is financial. They receive food coupons, but say it's not enough. Abu Anas, who worked as a driver in Syria, has found work but he's embarrassed about what he has to do to earn the two to three dinars he is paid a day. "It's shameful to say," he says. "I never did work like this in my life, but I have to. I'm working in filth. Cleaning sewage tanks."

He keeps repeating a word often stated by refugees in Jordan - humiliation. "I cannot explain it," he says. "The difficulty, the humiliation. Excuse my language, but there's a saying — work in shit to avoid relying on shit, and at least I'm working."

The willingness to work in anything — and for much less than a Jordanian would expect to earn — has fueled resentment among Jordanians, who among other things also blame Syrians for a rise in rental prices. "We've seen houses that used to be 100 Jordanian dinars before the crisis jumping to 300," says a local NRC worker in Irbid. "It's a big challenge for the Jordanian community and Syrians."

Still, some Syrians are opening businesses in places like the capital Amman, injecting funds into the economy. Iconic, much-loved Syrian businesses like the Nafisa patisserie or Bakdash ice cream parlor have opened branches in Amman. ("Don't bother going to Nafisa" one Syrian said, "it doesn't taste the same. Nothing here tastes the same.")

It doesn't take much to expose the anti-Syrian backlash. Jordanian taxi drivers, for example, need little prompting to unleash a torrent of vitriol accusing Syrians of taking their jobs, using the country's scarce water resources, and fomenting crime.

Syrian activist and volunteer Bayan poses amongst other activists at the apartment where a group of activists runs a Syrian charity in Amman, Jordan.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

“It’s as if being Syrian is now a charge, a crime,” says Bayan, a 26-year-old Syrian activist and refugee. She volunteers at a Syrian charity in Amman run by young activists providing food, blankets and clothes to needy Syrian families, and arranging psychological support for children and treatment for the ill. She also works with the Qatari Red Crescent in Zaatari refugee camp, and encourages families to remain in the camp where resources can be more efficiently directed to them.

For Bayan, and many thousands like her, the refugees’ plight is not simply dislocation and dispossession; it is an experience of constant humiliation.

"When I enter a house (in Amman) and there is a man there who can't work, when I see a man like that crying in front of me because I am helping him, the talk stops. There are no words," she says. "This position, to me, is worse and uglier than seeing somebody wounded in front of me. To feel like you were living in dignity, in your country and now you are in need of charity in a country not your own, this position can break a person, and it happens all the time."

It's not much easier for some residents of Zaatari refugee camp, like Abu Abdo, 56, and his family of five. They were living in Damascus, but were internally displaced in three different locations before they arrived in Jordan on May 1.

"We're just wasting time here, passing it," he says, sitting cross-legged in one of the three caravans his family has arranged in a U-shape, creating an internal courtyard, just like the houses in Syria. The courtyard is also bordered by a tent, inside which the family dries the excess bread they don't consume. They sell it for a few cents a kilo, to traders who use it as livestock feed. It brings in about $6 a month, Abu Abdo says. Like many families in Zaatari, they also sell part of the food aid they receive, to buy vegetables and other produce.

Despite their hardship, Syrian hospitality — whether in a home in Amman, a caravan in Zaatari, or under shelling in Syria — is paramount and constant. Em Abdo insists on serving coffee and sticky baklava sweets. "These are Syrian sweets," she says as she lays down a small plate. "Not from Syria but made by Syrians inside the camp."

The family lives in a newer section of the camp, that unlike older parts, is not lighted at night. The communal toilets are less than 100 meters away but still too far for Em Abdo, 43, to dare go to in the dark. "There is no security in the camp," Abu Abdo says. "It's a black spot."

His 17-year-old daughter, Bayan, who is taking a course in the camp to be a beautician, is accompanied by a family member to and from classes. "It's not bad during the day," Abu Abdo says, "but there are troublemakers."

"Here, I can't move freely," Bayan says. "I won't go to the market alone, or to school alone. I used to in Syria."

Her father jokes that he might marry her off to ease his burden and concerns for her safety. She retorts that she wants to finish her studies, a view backed by her mother. "If you want to marry me off the sheikh must ask me if I agree to this marriage," Bayan says. "I will tell him no! Then, let him try and marry me!" Everybody laughs, but some families here have married off their teenage daughters, in the hope that a husband might better protect them. There are whisperings in the camp of rapes, and other gender-based violence.

Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR camp manager, readily acknowledges the poor security situation, but says it's better than it was. He also admits that many of the so-called "street leaders" among the refugees who were supposed to be community representatives have exploited their positions of relative authority, which enable them to put forward names for small employment initiatives in the camp, and get other things done.

He's working to isolate these "bad guys" among the street leaders, but says it's a gradual process. "You're not doing this from one day to the next. This is like cleaning out the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or something," he says.

In the meantime, residents like Abu Abdo must deal with these local leaders, some of whom are corrupt. "They are all thieves," Abu Abdo says. "I am so upset about it. We fled oppression only to find that some here are oppressing their own, and worse." He's so angry with his street leaders that he says he wouldn't mind seeing "a few Scuds hit the Zaatari to get rid of these corrupt people."

He says he's stuck here. He can't leave the camp because he can't afford to pay rent in Jordan. He can't return to Syria, because he doesn't think he has a home to return to. "There is no return," he says bitterly. "There is no hope that we will return from here any time soon."

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