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Invisible under the law: Syrian widows in Jordan suffer from missing documents and identification

Since 2011, Syrian refugees poured into Jordan and the vast majority of them arrived without identification papers, especially widows who lost their husbands in the war or whose husbands were among the scores of missing and forcibly disappeared. Without these papers, widows face intense legal challenges.

17 February 2021

AMMAN — In January 2013, at 21-years-old and while pregnant with her second child, Fatima became a widow.  Her husband was killed by a stray bullet during clashes between opposition factions and Assad regime forces at the Damascus University-affiliated Daraa College, where he was a student. 

Days later, due to the “severity of the battles taking place in Daraa province,” Fatima fled to Jordan with her family, she told Syria Direct. To do that, she had to repeatedly attempt to convince her husband’s family to let her keep her almost one-year-old daughter with her.

In the end, her husband’s family agreed, on the condition that Fatima’s daughter would return to them when she reached eight years old. The family also forbade Fatima from taking the family ledger—a booklet containing official records of births, deaths, marriages and other civil status information—with her and only allowed her to take a copy of it. The problem was not apparent to Fatima at the time, but she would later find that this would cause her and her daughter a great deal of trouble.

Fatima is one of many Syrian women who sought refuge in Jordan after losing their husbands during the Syrian war. According to five women who spoke to Syria Direct, Syrian widows face many problems related to not possessing official documents such as marriage certificates, their husbands’ death certificates, and family records.

Custody battle

Two years ago, Fatima’s daughter, who is now nine years old, faced two kidnapping attempts by her father’s brother in the Jordanian capital of Amman, according to Fatima. The first time, “he tried to kidnap her from school, but failed.” The second time, he abducted the girl from in front of her house, but Jordanian police caught him within hours and returned the child to her mother. The girl’s uncle was later released after Fatima dropped the complaint against him due to “intervention by tribal intermediaries, and [the uncle] pledged not to approach my daughter whatsoever,” Fatima said. 

Although Syrian and Jordanian laws are clear on child custody, some refugee widows’ lack of legal knowledge has caused problems for them, to the extent of losing their children. This happened to Yumna Ibrahim, 36, a refugee widow who lost her children following a dispute between her and the family of her husband, who died months after arriving in Jordan in 2012 due to injuries he sustained in Syria. 

Following the dispute in early 2013, Yumna left her husband’s family home, where she had been staying, for her father’s residence. She took her infant son with her and left her other two children with their paternal grandmother. After a few months, she discovered that her husband’s family returned to Syria and took her two children with them. 

“I tried to get my children back by contacting my husband’s family, but they refused,” Yumna recounted to Syria Direct. Later, “I found out that the children’s grandmother traveled with them to Germany, where their oldest uncle lives.” This sent the mother into a “mental shock,” as she described it, since reaching her children “became very difficult, and their little brother has grown up without knowing them.” 

In an attempt to reunite with her family, Yumna went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman to ask that her file and that of her remaining child be added to the resettlement files in Germany “to find my other children.” She has done several interviews with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for resettlement in Germany but has not received permission to travel. “I don’t know my file’s fate,” she said. 

Under Article 171 of Jordanian Personal Status Law, a divorced or widowed mother has the right to custody of her child as long as she does not remarry. If she does remarry, she can only maintain custody if she marries a close family relative (mahram). Additional general conditions for anyone with custody of the child include, according to Article 171, “the guardian be an adult of sound mind, not suffering from an infectious or serious illness, able to educate and safeguard [the child] religiously, morally and keep them healthy.”

Proving death for guardianship

In 2017, the UNHCR in Jordan informed Fatima’s family that they had been selected for resettlement in the United States. At the initial interview, Fatima’s father asked the UNHCR employee to include Fatima and her two children’s files with the family so they could all travel together and not “leave my child and me alone in Jordan,” Fatima said.

To do so, the UNHCR asked Fatima to provide them with her husband’s death certificate, the family ledger and the consent of her children’s paternal grandfather for them to travel. Because Fatima did not have any official documents, the employee declined to add her file to her family’s, and thus her father decided to give up on traveling as well. 

Unlike Fatima, Umm Muhammad, a refugee widow from Syria’s central city of Homs, obtained proof of her husband’s death. He died under torture in an Assad regime prison in 2013, one year before she and her children arrived in Jordan. 

The 35-year-old was able to get her husband’s death certificate through a family friend in Homs. This made it easy for her to prove “guardianship” of her two children when the IOM stipulated “the presence of a guardianship document for the two children to complete the resettlement file for Belgium,” she told Syria Direct. That was done in a single day through one of the Sharia courts in Amman, after “the judge asked me to bring two witnesses to testify before him that my husband died, that I was the mother of my two children and that I did not kidnap them.” 

Under Syrian law, the process is not so simple. According to Law No. 4 of Syrian Personal Status Law, “guardianship” is a right granted by a judge, taking into account the children’s interests. After the father, the guardian is the paternal grandfather or uncle, unless the mother provides the Sharia judge with a request to obtain guardianship to issue a passport or travel with her children. The judge may also appoint a guardian of their choosing. 

“Neither parent may travel with the child outside the Syrian Arab Republic” during the marriage or the period of custody, Paragraph 3 of Article 150 of the same law states, “except with the other’s permission unless the best interest of the child requires otherwise, and the assessment [of that] belongs to the reasoned decision of the judge.” But if the father dies and guardianship transfers to a paternal family member, the mother can only obtain permission for travel if guardianship is surrendered to her or through a legal petition reviewed by a judge taking into account the best interest of the child.

In the early years of the Syrian revolution, Syrian refugees poured into Jordan and the vast majority of them arrived without identification papers, especially widows who lost their husbands in the war or whose husbands were among the scores of missing and forcibly disappeared. Without these papers, especially spousal death certificates, widows face intense legal challenges in terms of resettlement, travel permissions for their children, and accessing inheritance. 

Syria Direct attempted to contact the IOM’s Amman office multiple times regarding the procedures followed in such cases but received no response.

However, according to a legal source working with an international organization providing legal services to refugees in Jordan, “if the wife has a death certificate issued by the Syrian Ministry of Justice and certified by the Syrian Embassy in Amman, she can obtain a document of guardianship over her children for travel from a Jordanian court, after it has been certified by the Chief Justice Department in Jordan and the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” 

Conversely, many legal problems arise “when the wife requests our help getting a certified guardianship and the husband is missing, not dead,” the source, who requested anonymity on grounds of not being authorized to speak to the media, told Syria Direct. “In this case, the solution would be for a lawyer working for the IOM to prove the wife’s social status through the Jordanian Borders and Residence Department by obtaining the latter’s notations indicating whether there is a record of the husband entering or exiting Jordan.”

Bribery is the way in ‘Assad’s Syria’

Hiyam al-Abdullah, a 32-year-old refugee woman living in Amman, has been unable to prove her husband’s death in the official Syrian registry, which preventing her from carrying out the “inheritance inventory procedures” to get her and her three children’s share. 

In 2013, three months after Hiyam and her children arrived in Jordan, her husband was killed in the city of Daraa while he was “fighting with the revolutionaries, making him a terrorist in the eyes of the Syrian regime,” she told Syria Direct. That has posed a large obstacle to al-Abdullah’s family’s efforts to get his death certificate. 

While her father-in-law attempted to get the death certificate from the Civil Status Directorate (al-Nufous) in Daraa through a lawyer friend, “no sooner had the procedure started to take its legal course than the lawyer was called to one of the security branches, which forced him to halt the process.”

Recently, Hiyam contacted a lawyer in the capital Damascus to find out if she could obtain a death certificate for her husband. The attorney confirmed this was possible in exchange for “a sum of SYP 150,000 [$49 according to the exchange rate of SYP 3,035 on the parallel market],” which does not include the fees for the lawyer completing the transaction but is mostly bribes. 

In some cases, a bribe might be paid more than once and to more than one party, as in the experience of Sumaya al-Hamad, whose husband died of cancer in May 2013, days after the family fled Daraa province for Jordan. 

Four years after the fact, al-Hamad, 48, had to get her husband’s death certificate in order to complete her daughter’s marriage contract in Jordan. That went smoothly since the death also took place in Jordan. 

In 2019, al-Hamad had to return to Syria to bring back to Jordan her minor son, who left for Syria on his own without telling his mother. Upon arriving in Syria, “I went to al-Nufous [the Civil Status Directorate] to register my husband’s death,” she told Syria Direct. “The employee stamped his death in the family ledger. Then the case was referred to the Sharia judiciary.” 

“After receiving the death certificate, I told the Chief of Staff at the Sharia court in Damascus that I wanted guardianship over my minor children. He replied that the children’s uncle must be present since their grandfather is deceased, so that he may relinquish guardianship.” When the case reached the judge, “I told him that the children’s uncles died under the bombing, and that nobody was left except one living in Lebanon, and that he would not agree to grant guardianship to me,” al-Hamad said. “The judge’s response was to reject my request.” 

However, at the end of the session, a woman working at the court told al-Hamad that she could help her “in exchange for money.” Indeed, the mother was able to get a guardianship document the same day. “In Jordan,” al-Hamad remarked, “the employees deal with you with compassion, especially when they know that I am a widow and I am sick. They have treated me with humanity and respect in our interactions. But in Syria, the employees deal with you on the basis of money: pay and take whatever you want, regardless of who you are.” 

Still, despite having a document proving guardianship of her children, an officer on the Syrian side of the border with Jordan stopped al-Hamad while she and her son were going through the Jaber-Nassib crossing. He insisted that “the guardianship document I have allows me to take custody of my children’s property only, not to travel with them.” She called the children’s uncle to tell him what happened. “He sent me a signed, dated paper on WhatsApp expressing his approval for my child’s travel,” she said. However, this did not convince the officer who only allowed her to cross with her son “after I paid him a bribe.”

According to Article 170 of Syrian Personal Status Law, guardianship of minor children “goes to the father, then the paternal grandfather has trusteeship of the child and his money, and they are obligated to carry it out.” As such, the mother cannot spend the minor’s money or even travel with them without the guardian’s consent or his assigning guardianship to her.

The health and relief aid puzzle

When Fatima crossed the Jordanian border in 2013, she went into labor and was taken to a medical point in Zaatari camp in northern Jordan. After giving birth, the camp administration asked “me for the original family ledger,” she recalled. “After long discussions in which I informed them that I left days after my husband’s death and had no identity documents, they went easy on me, and the child was registered on my card.” 

Despite the camp administration’s cooperation in Fatima’s case, the legal procedures for registering the birth of a refugee with a deceased husband are, according to the aforementioned legal source, for “the wife to obtain a temporary guardianship for her children from the Sharia court for documentation, which does not qualify her to travel with them but rather guarantees that they stay in her custody, to raise a legal claim” to register the birth. Then, “when the case reaches our organization, the mother signs a power of attorney and we start the procedures before the Magistrate’s Court to get a decision to register the birth.” 

According to Umm Muhammad, in 2014, the Caritas organization refused to accept her request for help with her child’s tonsillectomy. The organization justified their decision that “my husband is not present, and they need the father’s approval to perform the surgery,” Umm Muhammad told Syria Direct. This prompted her to contact the UNHCR office in Amman for help. The latter contacted Caritas “and informed them that my husband had died and none of his relatives are in Jordan. Consequently, they agreed to do the operation.”

Also, according to the widows Syria Direct spoke with, most humanitarian organizations providing support and aid to Syrian refugee widows in Jordan ask for death certificates for their husbands. In rare cases, a widow can convince those organizations of her eligibility for assistance without the certificate.

For Fatima, her family is her sole provider. When she went to an association to register her children to benefit from aid for fatherless children, “they did not accept to register them because nothing was proving their father’s death,” she said. 

Fatima asked her husband’s family for help in issuing the death certificate, but they “refused, under the pretext that I deprived them of seeing their granddaughter, especially since they couldn’t visit her after the border crossings were closed” as part of Jordan’s COVID-19 response. 

Hiyam explained the insistence of the humanitarian organizations serving widows on an official proof of death is due to “discovering the lies and deceit of many women who falsely claimed to be widows; the truth is their husbands are still alive, either in Syria or in the Gulf countries.” Such false claims “have negatively impacted those of us without identification documents, and prevented us from benefiting from any relief aid.” 

Complex vs. solvable issues

According to the legal source, Syrian refugee widows in Jordan can be classified into four categories based on the legal issues they face. “There is a group of women whose husbands were detained or went missing in Syria and entered Jordan while pregnant with a child that they gave birth to in Jordan,” but do not have identification documents. In this case, “we rely on witness testimony that the husband has been missing for many years and is not dead.” The source estimated that “some 70-80% of these cases can be solved.”

The second category includes “women who arrived in Jordan after the death of their husbands.” In this case, “we reach a dead end. When we go to court to file a case for proof of death, the claim faces many problems and is then dropped as the husband died outside of Jordanian territory” and it is “outside the jurisdiction of Jordanian courts.” 

The third category relates to women “who entered Jordan without a marriage certificate to their spouses who went missing in Syria, or proof of divorce if they are divorced, and they later got married again in Jordan through a contract of a sheikh outside the court.” “This category requires work for months,” the source explained, because “we have to go through the procedures of documenting the second marriage, then proving the lineage of the children from the first marriage, and after that proving the lineage of the children from the second marriage. These issues are gradually resolved by the courts.” 

The fourth category includes women struggling with cases “involving forgery, such as a wife entering Jordan under a pseudonym, or entering as being one of the husband’s family’s daughters, not their son’s wife, in order to facilitate entry procedures.” The biggest problem here is when the wife remarries in Jordanian territory and gives birth to children, who are registered under her false name.”

“Some of these kinds of cases are referred to the public prosecutor and punished with imprisonment,” the source added. “Here, we are waiting for the government to correct the situation in such cases.” 

*For safety reasons, all sources’ names have been substituted for pseudonyms.

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

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