A shopping street in Amman on October 24. Photo by Madeline Edwards.
AMMAN: Just one grey-haired customer sits silently inside 35-year-old Marwan’s barbershop.*
Outside, it’s a familiar scene for this Aleppo-born father of five, who’s lived in Jordan since before the war. Uniformed schoolgirls walk home from class down narrow streets lined with cinder blocks. Men leaving noontime prayers at a nearby mosque stop at a vegetable stand to chat and buy groceries.
In this working-class corner of Amman, an array of Syrian accents as far-flung as Raqqa, Homs and Aleppo have become increasingly commonplace as families fleeing the war across the border further north have settled down in the modest apartment blocks surrounding Marwan’s shop.
That could soon change, however, as more Syrians in Jordan mull a potential return home.
Last month, the Jordanian government agreed to reopen the Jaber-Naseeb crossing that connects Jordan with Syria’s southernmost province, Daraa, after months of talks with their Syrian counterparts. For the first time since the crossing closed in 2015, servees taxis and commercial trucks are ferrying passengers and goods across the border. The Syrian government, meanwhile, is doubling down on its calls for millions of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere to return home.
But the reopening of the border—known as Naseeb on the Syrian side—has left refugees in Amman with a difficult choice: to continue eking out an often difficult, yet established life in Jordan after years in diaspora, or to finally return home to a country that is in shambles.
In Marwan’s barbershop, talk often turns to the topic of return. Most of the men coming and going through his doors these days are Syrians displaced by war and strapped for cash—bricklayers, porters and painters tired of the low pay and expensive rents that often define diaspora life in Jordan.
Marwan has already lost at least one regular customer, he says, a 45-year-old Syrian man who returned via Naseeb just days after the border crossing reopened last month.
“There are other families who also left,” Marwan adds. “They were living in pretty bad conditions here [in Amman].”
Marwan’s barbershop in Amman on October 24. Photo by Madeline Edwards.
‘Embrace of the nation’
Across Amman, just steps from an upscale shopping mall, more than 200 people from across Syria line up outside the Syrian embassy one weekday morning.
It’s been only a few days since the border reopened and many of the people in line say they’re already sorting out the paperwork needed to return to Syria.
Some have already been in line for hours, resigned to a long wait: old men in dishdashas smoke cigarettes on the concrete barrier dividing the embassy’s entrance from the highway while others squat in an adjacent empty lot, drinking coffee from a van kitted out as a mobile convenience store.
“You go over there to the booth,” explains one man standing in line, pointing to a table where dozens of women and men are filling out paper forms, “then you wait your turn for about five hours, and don’t actually get anything done!”
For Syrian refugees here in Jordan, the actual steps for return—and with it, effective relinquishment of refugee status with UNHCR—can be something of a labyrinth. Official information on the process, as well as how many people have actually gone through it, can be difficult to come by—although Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad reported on November 1 that some 600 to 700 vehicles were leaving to Syria via Naseeb daily since its opening last month.
Those with passports can simply leave for Syria through Naseeb. But refugees who entered Jordan irregularly, or who simply lost documents during war or displacement, may have to navigate complex procedures of appointments and paperwork—and the long waits in between—before renewing them and beginning the process of return. That includes a visit to the Syrian embassy in Amman for obtaining temporary travel documents, or navigating Jordan’s Interior Ministry building for permissions if they plan on coming back to Jordan later.
After noontime prayers in Amman. Photo by Madeline Edwards.
For the Syrian government, resumption of travel and trade across Naseeb fits into a broader narrative of a country emerging victorious from seven years of war.
In a speech last month at the UN General Assembly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem claimed that the situation in his country had become “more secure and stable,” with the Syrian government and its allies now in control of the majority of Syria.
“Every displaced Syrian is a priority for the Syrian government,” al-Muallem said in his speech. “The doors are wide open for all Syrians abroad to return voluntarily and safely.”
The Syrian government has repeatedly called on Syrians displaced abroad to “return to the embrace of the nation,” and has introduced a series of recent policies—including an amnesty measure for army deserters currently abroad—toward that end.
Syrian refugees in nearby Lebanon have already been traveling “voluntarily” by the busload into neighboring areas of their home country since earlier this year, pushed to leave by deplorable living conditions in exile as well as a climate of anti-Syrian xenophobia and other ill-treatment.
Observers including UNHCR have questioned whether returns from Lebanon are indeed voluntary and safe, with refugees seemingly choosing between instability in Lebanon and returning to a country still in the midst of war. At the same time, Lebanese officials—and Hezbollah—seek to encourage returns.
Last week, meanwhile, Lebanese authorities announced at least 20 returnees had been killed since crossing the border back into Syria.
Nevertheless, at least 2,000 Syrians are estimated to have returned from Lebanon since earlier this year, although the Lebanese government claims as many as 55,000 refugees have gone back to Syria as part of individual or state-facilitated returns.
Amman in October. Photo by Ammar Hamou.
Unknown numbers of the roughly one million Syrian refugees residing in Jordan have begun leaving as well since Naseeb’s reopening, though official statistics are not yet available. Prior to the reopening, refugees sometimes returned on an individual basis while in recent years others were forcibly deported from Jordan, according to human rights groups.
UNHCR officials could not be reached for comment.
‘Starting a new life’
Rami Abu Muhammad weaves his way through the half dozen other Syrian employees folding zaatar herbs, cheese and mashed potatoes into savory muajanat pastries before disappearing into the back of this busy Amman bakery to prepare a fresh batch.
When business lulls for a few moments, 29-year-old Rami takes a break behind the shop, settling down in a plastic chair where a coworker has stashed a pack of cigarettes.
“Here in the bakery, we’re mostly Syrians, and we talk together,” Rami says, with an accent that quickly gives away his Damascene roots. “We’re encouraging one another to return [to Syria].”
“There’s one Jordanian guy who works with us,” he laughs, “and we ask him: ‘When are you going to come visit us in Damascus?’”
Rami has yet to visit the Syrian embassy himself—though he intends to get his affairs in order for a move back across the border “when the moment is right,” he says.
The decision to move back home to Damascus is, for Rami at least, a pragmatic one. He completed his mandatory military service one year before war broke out, and says he has nothing to fear from the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence) agencies that keep many refugees away.
More importantly, Rami and his family own a pastry shop in their home neighborhood near Damascus’ City Center that they now rent out to tenants after fleeing Syria six years ago. When they left, Rami’s wife was pregnant with their first child, and Syria was spiraling into a bloody civil war that the couple had no appetite to raise their family in.
So they packed up and moved to Jordan, where Rami accepted the Amman bakery job for just 300 Jordanian dinars ($422) per month—a tradeoff in exchange for raising his children away from the fighting.
Raw economics can be enough for some refugees. With a 15 percent unemployment rate among Jordanians, a five percent increase from 2010, the labor market is saturated. Jordan’s economic woes mean that for many Syrian refugees here, a stable life in exile is especially hard to come by.
But with the bombs now silent around Damascus since earlier this year, Rami says he started seeing a “new life” for himself and his family back in Syria—after the conflict ended in Damascus and the border reopened—one pinned on income from the bakery he still owns there.
“My [bakery] in Damascus is like the one here [in Amman],” he argues. “Why should I stay here and work for someone else?”
“When I go back to Damascus, I’ll be starting a new life.”
But for some, Syria is already in the past.
Marwan’s single customer, Abu Wissam, is still sitting in the barber chair having his hair cut.
For Abu Wissam, a Homs-born grandfather who raised his children decades ago in the city’s historic Bab Dreib district, there is barely any of home left to return to.
Since he arrived in Jordan six years ago, fleeing an area of Homs that became a rebel-held stronghold before being besieged and shelled beyond recognition, all four of his adult children as well as a son-in-law have died as a result of Syria’s war.
His last son simply vanished one day several years ago inside Syria. Nearly a year later, acquaintances handed Abu Wissam his son’s military notebook—a form of personal identification issued by the Syrian government—and a few of his belongings, supposedly lost along a bus route north to Turkey.
“They said he had been killed.”
“I don’t want to go back,” he says, before addressing the growing numbers of refugees around him planning to return.
“Best of luck to them, whatever ends up happening to them.”
* Syria Direct has changed all names in this report to protect the identities of sources.