AMMAN: When 37-year-old Abu Jilal came to Jordan in 2013, he thought he’d stay for a month or so until things calmed down in Syria and he could return home.
Born in Damascus, Abu Jilal moved around in Syria before the war—living in Homs and Daraa before settling back down in the Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood in southern Damascus and working as a car mechanic.
Two years after the revolution began, fighting between the Syrian government and rebels reached Abu Jilal’s neighborhood.
“There were bombings, shootings—life became too hard for us in Damascus,” says Abu Jilal. “I feared for my family, so we left.”
Abu Jilal gathered his family and fled south, to Jordan. Today, he lives with his wife and two children in a parking garage beneath an apartment building in Zarqa, about 30km northeast of the Jordanian capital.
With the building owner’s permission, Abu Jilal converted an unused maintenance closet in the garage into a small, windowless, two-room apartment where his family has lived for the past three-and-a-half years.
Abu Jilal makes coffee at home in Zarqa, Jordan.
“We don’t get sun often,” he says.
Abu Jilal’s neighborhood in Zarqa is built on the side of a hill overlooking the shops, businesses and garages of the largely industrial city. His street is on a steep incline and has no sidewalks, with pickup trucks frequently speeding down the hill into the city below.
“The kids will usually just play in the garage; it’s too dangerous for them to play alone on these busy streets,” Abu Jilal tells Syria Direct.
Abu Jilal holds his son outside his home.
One week before he agreed to be interviewed by a reporter, five of his relatives—including two small children—were deported by the Jordanian government back to Syria. After that, Abu Jilal requested that his real name and face not be published.
“I don’t talk about Jordanian politics,” he tells Syria Direct. “If we were back in Syria, I’d have held my head held high and let you ask whatever you want.”
But in Jordan, he says, he has a family to protect. “I support my wife and kids, and I give money to my parents as well. If something happened to me, they’d all end up homeless.”
Abu Jilal keeps pictures from Syria on his smartphone to remember where he comes from. Some are pictures of his family, such as the last photos of his brother before he was killed by an artillery strike in the Sayyeda Zainab neighborhood of Damascus.
Between photos of his wedding day, his children and family gatherings are snapshots of life before the war. One video, shot from the top floor of Abu Jilal’s south Damascus apartment building in 2010, shows heavy snowfall. A snow-capped Jabal Qasioun rises in the background.
“We had plenty of problems back then, too, but it was a beautiful place to live,” he says.
He swipes to a picture of an old, beat-up pickup truck. “I used to use this for work, and I’d take it all over Syria,” he says, with a touch of pride in his voice.
“It’s gone now, like everything else.”
Abu Jilal shows a picture of his youngest son on his cell phone.
For Abu Jilal, life as one of Jordan’s 655,000 registered Syrian refugees is a daily struggle. Despite escaping the war that has left much of Syria in shambles, he and his family have not found comfort in exile.
Abu Jilal works several jobs—illegally, and without papers—in Zarqa to support his wife, two sons and parents. If caught by the local police, Abu Jilal could face fines, jail time or even deportation.
Syrian refugees have not been granted any form of nationality or permanent residence in Jordan. Instead, they can apply for temporary work papers—a complex, bureaucratic task that only permits them to work in limited fields such as agriculture and manufacturing.
A Syrian refugee—even with work papers—cannot enter and exit the country freely, nor obtain a driver’s license. For college-age Syrians, affording Jordan’s expensive university tuition is often beyond reach. For older Syrians such as Abu Jilal, the livelihood they spent decades building vanished when they fled their homes.
Syrians in Jordan say they feel frustrated and alienated—even from one another. After six years of violence in Syria, they can’t go home, nor can they build roots living as exiles in a foreign nation that restricts their movement and limits their privileges. The social ties that once kept their communities tightly knit have begun to collapse under the stress.
“In three years I haven’t made any Jordanian friends. If I see a relative, it’s usually by chance,” Abu Jilal tells Syria Direct.
“It makes living here even harder.”
Abu Jilal’s oldest son poses for a picture at home.
Last year, Abu Jilal started working with the Refugee Utility Project (RUP), an American-registered NGO based in Zarqa that provides aid to needy Syrian families.
Well-versed in politics and well-traveled in Syria, Abu Jilal is an invaluable part of the organization’s leadership, says RUP co-founder Scott Mehan.
“He’s a smart man, but too humble to tell you,” says Mehan. “He knows how to liaise between his Jordanian colleagues and Syrian countrymen like none of us are able to.”
A California native, Mehan holds an M.A. in international development from Bethlehem University in the West Bank, and has worked with Syrians in Jordan for the past two years.
“Syrians here aren’t nearly as social or outgoing as they were back in Syria, and that’s something you’ll hear from both Jordanians and Syrians themselves,” Mehan tells Syria Direct.
“It’s almost to the point where people say ‘they’ve gone underground’—they try to avoid problems and stay out of the public eye as much as possible.”
While some—especially those who work illegally and face deportation if caught—“go underground” to avoid any issues with the Jordanian authorities, others feel humiliated about showing those around them the extent to which the war has taken a toll on their livelihoods.
Sometimes, Mehan will send one of his Syrian colleagues to visit a family and gift them tea and snacks before his team conducts a site visit. In Syrian culture, it’s considered shameful if the host can’t offer something for their visitors, and some of RUP’s families refuse to have guests unless they can offer drinks or a small meal.
“When we meet with a new family here and go into their dwelling, the first thing they say is, ‘Sorry, we used to have so much more than this,’ or right away tell us about what they did back in Syria—they try and sort of give us their resume,” Mehan says.
“They try to show that they aren’t poor people, but rather they’ve been forced into poverty,” Mehan explains. “Nobody wants to be a beggar; especially if you’re raised not to be one—especially if you had a life years ago and now you’re a welfare case through no fault of your own.”
The frustration is felt by all of his clients, Mehan tells Syria Direct.
"Closing themselves off is probably a psychological reaction that comes with feeling humiliated.”
‘A hierarchy of needs’
Tasneem Zuheir, a Jordanian therapist who works with Syrian patients, tells Syria Direct that Syrians are too preoccupied securing their basic needs to worry about building and maintaining relationships with others.
Abu Jilal gives his youngest son chocolates.
“The refugee in Jordan focuses on bread and medicine—his worries end there,” she says. “It’s not a healthy social life.”
Typically, Syrians only have access to low-paid, under-the-table jobs and work long hours, Zuheir explains. “Putting food on the table is often not the duty of just the man; the mother—sometimes even the children—must work so family can survive.”
Musa al-Amoush, a Jordanian psychologist who conducts research on the Syrian population in Jordan, says that expatriate populations often remain tightly knit, even while displaced to other countries. This is not the case with Syrians in Jordan, says al-Amoush.
“In Jordan, Syrians often see one another as competitors for work and aid,” he says. “So, they distance themselves from one another.”
‘Welcoming stages are over’
The influx of around 1.4 million registered and unregistered Syrian refugees in six years of war has put extra strain on Jordan’s economy. In early April, Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Mulki told reporters at a press conference in Brussels that the country has reached its “maximum capacity,” a direct result of the Syrian crisis.
With a 15 percent unemployment rate among Jordanians, a five percent increase from 2010, the labor market is saturated. In 2014, an estimated one-third of Jordanians lived below the poverty line—double the poverty rate in 2010, the World Bank reported.
Jordan’s economic woes mean that for Syrian refugees, “the welcoming stages are over,” Refugee Utility Project director Mehan says. “That was years ago at this point.”
While international NGOs and aid organizations, such as RUP, have accompanied the waves of Syrian refugees and set up operations in Jordan, those programs focus exclusively on refugee families, a fact that Mehan says leaves out Jordanians struggling with poverty in their own lives.
“Everyone is frustrated,” Mehan says. “There’s no sustainable solution in sight.”
For Syrian refugees, their biggest frustration, Mehan says, is “sitting around doing nothing. To do that for four weeks would be great.”
“But for four years? That’s a prison sentence.”
Photos by Hussein Amri.