7 min read  | Diaspora & Refugees

After years of separation, Syrians in Jordan reunite with loved ones through ‘tourism’


April 20, 2022

AMMAN — “I was afraid of dying before seeing them again,” Umm Ahmad said. For a decade, she was separated from her children and grandchildren—refugees in Jordan—by a border closed to Syrians since 2013, save for exceptional cases. 

The 60-year-old mother and grandmother reached the Jordanian capital Amman from Damascus in mid-March after a journey that took eight hours but felt “like a year,” she said. She was finally able to make the journey because of an October 2021 decision by Jordan’s Ministry of Interior allowing Syrian nationals to enter the country as part of tourist groups, provided that tourism offices submit a request to the ministry in advance and hold the visitors’ passports until they leave the country. 

Reunited with her family in Amman, Umm Ahmad forgot all the loneliness and longing that had been her constant companion since spring 2011, “just by holding them again,” she told Syria Direct. The days of her visit to Jordan “were the most beautiful days of my life,” she said. Umm Ahmad saw her three sons again, and got to know her grandchildren who were born in Jordan. She told them “bedtime stories, and about Damascus and the family home” in the Rukn al-Din neighborhood. She prepared some Syrian dishes “to evoke the time before diaspora and exile.”

Her son Ahmad, who made the arrangements for her to come, felt a mixture of joy and sadness seeing his mother. Her face “brought back the smell of the country and childhood, and made me remember the faces of those martyred during the revolution,” he said in a trembling voice.

Limited benefit

At the beginning of this year, Ahmad, a 35-year-old father of two who fled Syria in 2012, approached a travel agency in Amman with the goal of bringing his mother to Jordan. He was given a quote of 180 Jordanian dinars ($254). The cost included round-trip bus fare, a COVID-19 test for those who have not been vaccinated, as well as securing two guarantors: one bringing the traveler, and another with Jordanian citizenship.

Syrians returning to their country after visiting Jordan are also required to exchange $100 for Syrian pounds at the official exchange rate of SYP 2,184 to the dollar as a condition of return. The exchange rate on the parallel market is SYP 3,925 to the dollar, meaning that returning travelers effectively lose money in the transaction.

For Syrians visiting Jordan today, the cost is lower than it was immediately after the Ministry of Interior’s decision went into effect in late 2021. But it remains burdensome for the estimated 674,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, around 80 percent of whom live under the poverty line and work in vocational and trade sectors, some as day laborers. The high cost of arranging a visit prevents some from benefiting from the decision and meeting their family members, multiple refugees told Syria Direct.

While Ahmad was able to lean on financial help from his uncle living in Europe to get the money to bring his mother to Jordan, Muhammad al-Hariri, a Syrian refugee originally from al-Ghariyah village in Syria’s southern Daraa province, could not do the same. For months, he deducted part of his salary—JOD 350 ($492) per month—to save up the money for his father, who lives alone in Syria after his wife’s death, to come. Al-Hariri also borrowed money to cover part of the cost. 

“A person will pay any price to see loved ones after years of absence,” he said.

The increased opening of the Syrian-Jordanian border, if conditionally, to Syrians “has become an outlet for refugees to meet their families,” said Rajeh Mustafa, an administrator at one company working to bring Syrians to Jordan. It has also helped revitalize the activity tourism offices in Jordan.

With entry procedures eased for Syrians coming to Jordan as part of tourist groups, the number of arrivals has increased, an official at the Jordanian Society of Tourism and Travel Agents told Syria Direct. He estimated that about 7,000 Syrians have entered the country since last October. 

Following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, the Jordanian government restricted movement through official border crossings with Syria, and closed them entirely in April 2015 after battles between regime and opposition forces led to the latter taking control of the Naseeb border crossing. 

Although the border was reopened in late 2018, the movement of Syrians was only in one direction—from Jordan to Syria—for the purpose of a final return or a visit, save for some exceptions in which Syrians were allowed to enter Jordan. This meant that for Syrians who fled political persecution or had reason to believe they could be wanted by the regime, for years they had no way to see their family members unless their loved ones were somehow able to enter Jordan. 

‘High-level’ normalization

Loosening strict measures to combat the COVID-19 virus, the Jordanian government reopened its land border with Syria in September 2021, alongside a package of measures “aimed at revitalizing the two-way trade and tourism movement while ensuring adherence to safety and security protocols,” according to a press statement by Jordan’s Ministry of Interior. 

The border reopening coincided with a meeting between Jordan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Yousef Hunaiti, with the Syrian regime Minister of Defense, General Ali Ayyoub, in Amman on September 19. Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh also received a Syrian government delegation that included the Ministers of Economy, Water Resources, Agriculture, and Electricity on September 29. 

But normalization between the two countries reached its peak on October 3, when Jordan’s King Abdullah II received a phone call from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss bilateral relations and ways to strengthen them. The call was the first in nearly a decade. 

The same month, Jordan announced that flights would resume between Amman and Damascus, alongside measures for Syrians to enter through tourist groups. 

The measures “did not specifically target Syrians,” according to an official Jordanian source who asked not to be named. Syrians were prominent in the decision because they are the group most benefited “due to the shared border and the high percentage of refugees in Jordanian territory, compared with other nationalities covered by the decision,” he said. People from Libya, Nigeria, Colombia, Pakistan, Albania and Moldova were also covered by the October 2021 decision.

Eased entry measures for Syrians fall within the framework of normalizing official relations between Jordan and Syria, which began in February 2019 with the participation of the Speaker of the People’s Assembly of Syria in the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Amman. And in March 2020, Jordan’s Minister of Industry and Trade at the time, Tariq al-Hammouri, met with his Syrian counterpart Mohammad Samer al-Khalil in Damascus. 

Parting again

Al-Hariri remembers the moment he met his father, who is in his seventies, in front of a travel agency in Amman this past January. At first glance, his father Abu Muhammad did not recognize him. “Twelve years of exile and hardship were enough to change our features,” the son said. 

It was a touching reunion between Abu Muhammad and his son, who left Syria in late 2011 and settled in the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha, just across the border from his native Daraa province. “My father’s tears were enough to reopen my wounds,” al-Hariri said. He had never seen his father cry before, “even in the darkest circumstances.” 

The visit, which was limited to 14 days, was over all too soon, before al-Hariri could get enough of seeing his father. The visit was “very short, compared to all this absence,” he said. Still, it was a chance to “cheer up my father, who has nothing left in Daraa but his brothers.” 

For Jumaa al-Yousef, a Syrian refugee who has lived in Madaba governorate southwest of Amman since 2012, the entry measures allowed him to bring his sister for her to go to a hospital in Amman. 

Al-Yousef’s sister has an eye injury that nearly claimed her vision. He was able to bring her to Jordan this past January “at the expense of our brother living abroad,” he explained to Syria Direct. But she had to return to Syria “before the treatment was finished,” and al-Yousef is now working to bring her back again “to complete her treatment.” 

Aside from the hospital, during his sister’s visit the two spent days together “in which we were happy like we hadn’t been for 11 years,” as he put it. Before she had to return to Syria, the two visited touristic and archaeological sites in Jordan’s governorates together, “from the Roman amphitheater in Amman to the Dead Sea and Irbid, in the kingdom’s north,” he said. 

Saying goodbye to her children and grandchildren to go back to Damascus earlier this month, Umm Ahmad could not hold back her tears. Still, she says she was happy to have the opportunity to meet her grandchildren. “The word grandma is worth a lifetime,” she said.

For some Syrians, fear persists that the recent, long-delayed visits with loved ones could be their last, al-Hariri said. In January, at the end of two weeks with his father following nearly a decade of absence, the two said goodbye once more, “each afraid that we won’t meet again.”

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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