Syrians waiting on Jordan border: ‘Families are building a life here’

Between southern Syria and northern Jordan lies a no-man's land, where 75,000 Syrians wait in the hopes of receiving permission to enter Jordan.

The demilitarized zone is called Rukban, and some of its residents have waited months or years there after fleeing violence in Homs, Daraa and other Syrian provinces.

Last winter, harsh cold and wind shredded some of the tents that people had been living in.

“This year, I wanted to protect my children from the bitter cold,” says Abu Mohammed, 60, a building contractor originally from rural Homs province. Abu Mohammed arrived in Rukban in January with his wife and six children.

To prepare for another winter in the middle of the desert, Abu Mohammed built a simple mud house earlier this month from dirt, water and hay. It was the first such home in the camp, and when other residents saw it, a business was born.

Abu Mohammed hired and trained other young camp residents and began building mud houses. At a price of $140 per home, Abu Mohammed and his assistants have already built 150, he tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

 “We’re building them because we’ve been here for a long time,” said Abu Mohammed.

For now, Rukban residents are stuck after Jordan sealed its borders and cut off humanitarian aid after a border attack in June.

One of Abu Mohammed’s mud homes. Photo courtesy of Abu Mohammed.

The UN is currently negotiating with Jordanian officials to resume humanitarian operations in the camp, Amnesty International reported this month.

In the meantime, Abu Mohammed says, “we’re looking for ways to adapt to life in the desert.”

Q: Why are you building mud houses now? Don’t you want to go back to Syria?

We’re building them because we’ve been here for a long time and we’re still waiting to enter Jordan. Many families have started building a life here, and we’re looking for ways to adapt to life in the desert.

Also, winter is approaching.

Last winter, strong storm winds ripped our tent while we were inside. This year, I wanted to protect my children from the bitter cold. Mud houses are more resistant than tents and better at protecting people from the cold, rain, heat and wind.

I’m not the only one. Other residents asked us to build them homes because they’re afraid of the winter. Their tents won’t protect them from the bitter cold.

If we build the houses now, they’ll have time to dry under the sunlight before the rain, snow and winds arrive.

 Inside Abu Mohammed’s home. Photo courtesy of Abu Mohammed.

Q: How many houses have you built? How much do they cost?

We’ve built about 150 homes so far, I can’t give you an exact number.

The cost of a house depends on its size. A house that is 4X6 meters costs $140, while a bigger house costs more. This is excludes the price of the tent that covers the roof.

Q: Can other residents afford houses?

Not everyone can afford them. Some people can’t even afford a kilogram of wheat to make bread. Most people who built houses have relatives in the Gulf who are sending them money. Poor people don’t have that.

Q: How do you build them?

We have basic tools – we pour a mixture of dirt, unsanitary water and hay into wooden and iron molds. We get hay from Bedouins in Syria. We get the water from artesian wells and water that has accumulated beneath water tanks.

After the mixture dries and becomes a brick, we start building. When we’re done, we coat the entire house with mud, inside and out, to give it a smooth texture.

Finally, we cover the roof with a burlap tent to protect the house from sunlight and rain.

Q: Do you expect more aid deliveries?

I’ve been in Rukban since January this year. Now it’s September and Jordan has closed its borders. When I first came here, I hoped that my family and I would enter Jordan. But nine months later, I’m still here.

We haven’t received aid for two months. Are we just going to rely on basic aid that doesn’t address our needs? Aid that doesn’t include flour or bread, a main staple?

Most families are depending on money sent by relatives abroad to meet their basic needs.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.