Jordan's refugees - a human timeline of regional crisis

Jordan is straining under the weight of its over 600,000 Syrian refugees, with government officials and aid agencies warning of dwindling resources and capacity to respond to the ever-growing needs.

Yet Syrians fleeing the current conflict only make up one small portion of the country’s refugee population. For decades, the tiny Kingdom, with an indigenous population of only a few million, has opened its doors to families from neighbouring Syria, Palestine and Iraq.

IRIN went to Amman to spend time with this rich mosaic of people, to understand the feeling of temporary permanence, and to learn more about the refugees’ experiences and motivations as well as their hopes for the future. We chose to tell five stories from different generations of refugees, with the aim of showing how they have both been formed by and helped form their adopted country.

Most of the over two million Palestinians living in Jordan have some kind of Jordanian citizenship, but the type of passport they hold - depending on when they arrived and from where - afford them different rights.

So while some Palestinians have full access to employment, property ownership, public education and healthcare services, others need to obtain work permits and pay higher tuition fees at schools.

“Some of the professions, they are only open to Jordanians. However, there are some of the professions that are given priority over others,” said Reem Abu Hassan, Jordanian minister of social development. “There is a high unemployment rate [in the Palestinian camps], but again there is a high unemployment rate for the Jordanian society.”

Timeline
1948 Arab-Israeli War

Israelis refer to the events of May 1948 as their “War of Independence”; Palestinians call it the Nakba (Catastrophe). In a few weeks Jewish fighters carried out a series of attacks as they carved out a Jewish state, with the violence forcing over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, of whom 100,000 are estimated to have immediately crossed the River Jordan.
1967 Six-Day War

From 5-10 June 1967, Israel fought its neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights from those countries, respectively. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and refugees from 1948 were displaced a second time and were forced to flee. Over 300,000 people fled into Jordan from the West Bank.
1982 Hama Massacre

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of current President Bashar, laid siege to the city of Hama to crush an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood. While reliable numbers are limited, it is estimated that more than 20,000 people were killed and thousands fled into neighbouring states including Jordan.

2003 Invasion of Iraq

The US-led invasion of Iraq to depose President Saddam Hussein and his Baath party led hundreds of thousands to flee the violence. It is estimated that over 400,000 Iraqis have been displaced outside the country, with the UN Refugee Agency saying 48,600 refugees are currently registered in Jordan.
2011 Syrian Uprising/Syrian Civil War

In March 2011, pro-democracy protests in the southern Syrian city of Deraa were violently crushed, sparking a wider revolt. While initially peaceful, within a year the uprising had become militarized - with the crisis evolving into a bitter and ongoing civil war. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011 and over two million are now refugees. There are over 600,000 registered in Jordan.

By contrast, Iraqis living in Jordan do not have Jordanian passports and as refugees cannot obtain a residence permit that would allow them to work, unless they pay.

There is a widely-held perception that Iraqis in Jordan are well-off business owners, but while some are financially-independent economic migrants, many are locked out of employment and rely largely on aid and community support.

Syrian refugees in Jordan also struggle and face, like the Iraqis, restrictions on movement and labour, leading to economic hardship. According to Masara Srass, head of the refugee programme at the Syrian Women’s Association in Amman, many young Syrians who arrived since 2011 drop out of school early to take black-market work to be able to support their families.

This not only creates a parallel and unregulated labour force that violates international law and upsets Jordanians who also need employment, but also robs young Syrians of an education.

International NGO CARE estimates that as many as 60,000 children are actively working in Jordan, a number that has doubled since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011.

There are also themes that unite the different waves of refugees. Many are awaiting resettlement in a third country, particularly the Iraqis. Yet they are often left waiting for years - according to the US State Department, fewer than one percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled in a third country and those that are, are picked due to exceptional circumstances.

Yet all agree that their lives in Jordan are better than returning to their countries of origin and most have grown to call the country, for better or for worse, home. 

Veterans of displacement 

Name: Abu Mohammed
Came in: Born in 1954
Came from: The West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Biggest hope: Educating his children and one day returning to the land of his parents
Where are they now? Retired from his small business because of health problems.

Abu Mohammed’s parents left historic Palestine in 1948. Fleeing the violence of the Arab-Israel War that most refugees refer to as Nakba (Catastrophe), they moved first to Lebanon and then to Syria before settling in Jordan.

Abu Mohammed was born in 1954 at the Irbid Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, about 85km north of Amman.

When Abu Mohammed was seven, the tented camp was relocated from a hilly area called Tal and people began building more permanent structures, leading to what is now a highly condensed urban area.

“In the beginning, it was only made of tents and then people gradually started building houses of mud,” the 60-year-old recalled. “They would start with one or two rooms. In the beginning it was truly a struggle. There was no water or electricity.” When it rained the camps became caked in mud, and the weak walls of the houses sometimes collapsed.

As a child Abu Mohammed remembers the struggle for basic resources. He told how his mother and older sisters would walk 3km to a communal tap and then carry barrels of water weighing 20kg on their heads. He said his worst memory was seeing men and women fighting over food distributed by aid agencies.

Irbid Camp is still standing today, though decades of building have turned it into an urbanized mass of concrete and it is now home to more than 25,000 registered refugees.

Abu Mohammed, who still lives in the camp, says it has become home for him.

"Personally I like to live in the camp because I got used to it. I [wouldn’t] like to live outside,” he said,

While his parents focused on basic survival, today for the father of six, the most important thing is education.

He said he sold off some land in the camp unofficially to pay for school fees in order to give his children a chance to be educated. He and his wife, who was internally displaced in 1967, have little formal education.

“I hope that they will live a better life than ours and have a better future than ours too,” he said.

So far their sacrifices are paying off. Abdulrahman, Abu Mohammed’s 18-year-old, is now a senior in high school and plans to study management in college next year. The couple’s eldest son, Mohammed, became an accountant and moved to Saudi Arabia.

“Palestinian mothers bear a heavier burden because they have a mission in life,” said Umm Mohammed. “The most important thing for us is to educate our children… I don’t think an uneducated person can lead a life similar to that of an educated one.”

  

While the family is settled in Jordan, with Jordanian citizenship and passports - they still have a sense of loss when they talk about Palestine.

“Over there [in historic Palestine], if they could just give me a tent and I would feel like I’m living in my country, I will be the happiest man,” Abu Mohammed said.

Education, education, education 

Name: Abu Khalid
Came in: 1967
Came from: West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Biggest hope: Educating his children.
Where are they now? Assistant pharmacist in Amman.

Abu Khalid was born in Aqabat Jaber refugee camp in the West Bank, before it was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War as the Jewish state captured the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula from Syria, Jordan and Egypt, respectively.

Having fled the Six Day War in 1967, Abu Khalid and his parents moved to al-Karameh, an area in the Jordan Valley. His father made a living on a rented farm for a year but they were forced to move to Amman because of the Battle of al-Karameh between Israel and an alliance of the Jordanian army and Palestinian factions in 1968.

After reaching the Wadi al-Rimam camp near Amman, the family bought a prefabricated shelter for 256 Jordanian dinars, his mother having to sell her gold bracelets to raise the cash.

The family of seven lived in that unit, under a metal sheet roof and without a bathroom, until they saved enough money to tear down the flimsy walls and rebuild better, yet still modest accommodation for his family.

In order to be able give their five sons a good education, Abu Khalid worked two shifts late into the night, and Um Khalid, his wife and a teacher by profession, gave private lessons on the side. They also borrowed money from family and friends to be able to afford the college fees.

“My wife and myself had one goal in life,” now 54-year-old Abu Khalid said. “We did not care about owning a big house, a big car or earning lots of money. Our only concern was to educate our children… We used to live in austerity for the sake of our kids, so when they grew up, we could pay for their education.”

 

For Um Khalid, the day her eldest son, Khalid, became a doctor was one of the happiest moments of her life.

The family now have Jordanian nationality and passports, but are still considered Palestinian refugees. This means they can work but they are not always treated equally, as the family has found out to their cost.

Abu Khalid told how when he applied for a position at the Air Force’s maintenance department: The officer rejected him because his documents indicated he was Palestinian.

“They didn’t want people of Palestinian origin,” he said. They wanted those jobs to go to Jordanians. “My papers were complete and ready. Why did [they] kick me out? Why did [they] reject me?

“I feel my life is in a limbo, I am between two fires,” Abu Khalid added. “I am not in my homeland and I can’t go back to my homeland. I am not comfortable here and if I return with the situation that prevails there, I will not be comfortable. I will not be able to live.”

Caught between two worlds

Name - Masara Srass
Came in: 1981
Came from: Homs, Syria
Biggest hope: To feel they belong in the country they live in.
Where are they now? Head of the refugee program at the Syrian Women's Association.

Masara Srass left Syria in 1981 shortly before the Hama Massacre, when the president, the late Hafez al-Assad, laid siege to the town of Hama, crushing an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood and killing tens of thousands of civilians. That attack was the final act in a crackdown that lasted several years across the country, with Srass' family among thousands fleeing.

She was 14 when she travelled to Amman with her family. They did not register as refugees but called themselves muhajiraat (migrants/travellers).

Srass is now the head of the refugee programme at the Syrian Women’s Association in Amman, which she and a group of others established in 2006 to provide a local support network for families coming to Jordan.

During her work, Srass hears many stories of loss, as well as the hope from Syrians that they will go back to their country soon. Sometimes, she says, she doesn’t sleep at night as the tragedy weighs heavily on her mind.

Srass carries her own dislocation burden; she holds a Syrian passport but has lived in Jordan for so long she says she feels like a stranger in Syria - she doesn’t really belong to either country.

“We have been here more than 25 years,” Srass explained. “I got married here, my husband is also from Syria, I had my kids here, [they] grew up here.

“Ten years ago when my daughter was 12 or 13 years old, I returned to Syria for the first time. When I went there, I was also shocked because the society was now strange to me. I could not find myself - neither here nor there.”

Unlike Srass, her husband, who runs a building materials company, has not returned to Syria in over three decades, she said. “His mother and sisters used to come and visit him. His brothers used to live in Syria but because of the crisis they left Syria in 2012 to live in Jordan. When he sits with them, he tells me ‘I cannot get along with them [like before]. The way they talk and dress is different from us.’”

Her daughter, now 22 and at university, feels differently. Since the 2011 uprising, Srass says her daughter felt like she “belonged” to Syria and started speaking up for the Syrian cause because she wanted to prove she was Syrian.

“My kids say they like to go visit Syria to go on trips, just as a vacation and to visit our family, but in the end they tell me ‘I want to go back to my country [Jordan] because that’s my country’” Srass said.

Anger and betrayal 

Name: Abdul Majeed Alhamdny
Came in: 2009
Came from: Fallujah, Iraq
Biggest hope: Resettlement to a third country and a better future for his two sons.
Where are they now? Unemployed.

Abdul Majeed Alhamdny was not in his office in the Iraqi city of Fallujah when a car bomb destroyed it. It was 2009 and he was already aware of the threats to his life, but the bomb was the last straw for Alhamdny, who decided to take his family to safety in Jordan.

The 59-year-old says he was targeted because he was a leader of a Sahwat council of Sunni Muslim tribesmen, who received funding from the US government to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-7.

Alhamdny added that he had also previously worked for a company supplying items like food, furniture, and cement to US troops during their occupation of the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Alhamdny insists that his role in the Sahwat (literally “awakening”) was non-violent, and that he was responsible for improving relations between the locals and the Americans. He is resentful that after five years he still has no news about his application for a third-country resettlement to the US and he says he feels “betrayed” by the coalition forces.

As refugees, Alhamdny, his wife and two sons are entitled to shelter, food, health care, education and other basic support. They live in a small apartment in a condensed area on the outskirts of Amman. But refugees like Alhamdny usually cannot get a work permit in Jordan unless they work in jobs that are not in competition with the Jordanian labour market - usually unskilled or vocational jobs that Jordanians would not take.

 

“You are walking a dark path and you can’t figure out where it’s ending,” he said, frustrated that he cannot support his family. “I don’t have a future here. The [Jordanian] government can barely feed its people. We all know that the Jordanian government does not have resources.”

“I don’t want my son to be a useless person because his father used to work with the Americans, was defeated and came to live in Amman,” he says. He wants his sons - aged five and 16 - to have a better education than the one currently provided for them in the public schools of Amman, and to also go to school without being bullied as Iraqis.

Alhamdny dreams of leaving Jordan and starting a new life as a citizen. “[Heaven] is where I can have an identity card,” he says. “Here I just hold this paper from the UN. But when you go to a country that embraces you, you will have an identity [card] and you will be equal to other citizens.”

Still tender 

Name: Um al-Harith
Came in: 2013
Came from: Quneitra, Syria
Biggest hope: To go back to Syria one day and her children to become successful.
Where are they now? Seeking to establish a sewing business.

Um al-Harith will never forget the day they took her husband away. It was a Friday afternoon in 2011 and he had just come back from prayers. He was working on the family cherry farm in Quneitra, a rural area in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone the Syrian and Israeli border, when Syrian security officers arrested him. They then searched her home and took her husband away. They said it would only be “for an hour”, but that day was the last time she would see him.

After a year of waiting for news, Um al-Harith took her four children to al-Sanamayn on the outskirts of Damascus, the town where her father lives. For a week she travelled back and forth to the capital to inquire about her husband, but discovered nothing.

The 42-year-old says he was never formally charged and she believes he was mistaken for somebody else.

Unable to stay with her elderly father who could not support her and the children, Um al-Harith took the family to a mosque on her way to Jordan.

They stayed there for seven months and because of roadblocks surrounding the city and the mosque, it was not easy to leave or get food, so they relied on local people to bring supplies.

“Six bombs hit the mosque while people were in the praying area,” she recalled, adding that no one had been hurt in the mosque but the attack had deeply affected the people sheltering there, especially the children.

Her son, Harith, six, was praying when the bombs hit. “I stepped to the back [because of the noise],” he says. “The bomb hit the dome.”

Harith’s sister, Ala, seven, saw a funeral of a girl her own age at the mosque, and this triggered a breakdown and she started coughing up blood.

In December 2013 they left the mosque and crossed into Jordan.

“The journey was very tiring,” recalled Um al-Harith. “When we reached Zaatari refugee camp I was tired for more than a month, but when we arrived to Sahab [a city in northern Jordan] we felt safe.”

Um al-Harith decided to leave Zaatari - the largest refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan - after a month to go and live with her relatives in Sahab.

She and her children share an apartment with her niece and her five children. Many of their other relatives live in the same building. They split the monthly rent of 180 Jordanian Dinars (US$250) per month, which does not include electricity and water.

 

The women of the building often sit outside together and talk, but Um al-Harith rarely joins them: “There is a nice place to sit outside the building but I don’t go out,” she says. “Until now, I cannot believe that my husband died.”

As a refugee Um al-Harith receives some basic aid from UN agencies and other NGOs but she is unable to work and says life is a permanent struggle. Each month she receives food stamps worth 120 dinars ($170) and sells her half for non-food items like shampoo, soap and to pay for her children’s school bus.

While trying to piece her life together, Um al-Harith, still hopes for the day she can return to her country. “I miss the land I used to walk on, I miss my husband - he is everything in my life,” she says.

da/jd-lr/cb

 

Note: The original version of this article stated that Masara Srass'
family fled the city of Hama in 1982. In fact they left the city of Homs
in 1981. IRIN regrets the error.