Syrians in Jordan struggle with limited funds, options


October 24, 2013

October 24, 2013

By Syria Direct news staff

This is the second installment of a two-part series looking at the lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

AMMAN: What is increasingly looking like a long-term stay is resulting in financial and political pressure on the more than 530,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan as they struggle to survive in a country that will not legally allow them to work.

Syrians now living in Jordan still insist their stay in Jordan is short-term. But international aid organizations such as the IRC say that it is time to be realistic and plan for the future.

“Given that this will be a protracted humanitarian crisis, the international community needs to begin longer-term planning,” Ned Colt, an International Rescue Committee (IRC) spokesman, which carries out aid operations in Jordan, told Syria Direct.

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A child sits outside a 240-square-foot tin container known as a “caravan” in north Jordan’s Zaatari camp, Jordan, which 120,000 Syrians now call home. Refugees arriving at the camp live in either a canvas tent or an unheated caravan, depending on what is available. Photo courtesy of Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri.

The anti-Syrian rhetoric has increased in Jordan in recent months, with parliamentarians and other Jordanian political figures calling on the government to close the border and stop allowing Syrians free passage.

In a country of 6.2 million people, the additional strain of the refugees is a cost that Jordan, one of the most resource-poor countries in the world, cannot afford.

Part of the problem, Syrians and international observers say, is that Syrians are not allowed to work legally in Jordan, in theory creating an additional 530,000 indigent persons whose expenses must be defrayed by someone else.

Some refugees have found menial jobs, cleaning the floors in a mall or working in the kitchen of a restaurant, making a fraction of what a legal worker would.

Amani, a former kindergarten principal from the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyet a-Sham, holds a degree in Arabic literature, but is afraid to work. Her son works a night shift in a fast food restaurant in Amman for about $200 per month.

“Every time Labor Ministry officials come to the restaurant, the owner hides the Syrians because if he is caught he will pay a fine,” Amani said. “What can we do? We have to live – should we start begging for money?” she asked.

Amani said her husband, formerly a university professor, is in a regime prison after he joined the FSA and set up a brigade in Moadamiyet a-Sham. She has had no news of him for months and her savings have run out.

“We came here a year ago and I sold all my gold and jewelry to survive,” Amani said.

The inability to obtain official work permits “is the thing that makes Syrians angriest,” says Hussein, a 25-year-old refugee from Damascus who now lives in Amman.

“I hope to return to Damascus,” Hussein said, when asked about his future.

The problem, says Mahmoud a-Shara, a former television producer from Damascus, “is securing an adequate source of fixed income to support one’s family.”

“Syrians do not have real opportunities to work,” says a-Shara. “Most live in poor, desolate conditions and rely on their savings or aid from charities.”

Mohammed al-Awiad, 41, a former journalist with the Syrian state media who defected, says he works at night and under the table for a small salary that does not cover his rent. “I work in hiding because I cannot legally be employed,” he says.

Syrians tell of their cars being spit on, harassment by police in the streets, and regularly being told they are the reason rent, crime and other costs are mounting in Jordan.

The Jordanian daily Al-Ghad ran an article this week quoting economists who say that “Syrian refugees are strained the capacity of Jordan’s economy.” The local economists “point out that the negative repercussions are not just economic but also social and create higher crime rates.”

The backlash against Syrians in Jordan adds another element of pressure to a vulnerable population. “I worked for two months in a bookstore but was always hiding from the authorities,” said Mahmoud, 26, a furniture maker. “Jordanians tell me, ‘you ruined our country.’”

On Monday, the Jordanian Labor Ministry announced it would continue arresting Syrians and other foreigners working in Jordanian illegally, with deportations to begin on November 11th.

Syrians represent the latest wave of refugees seeking safe haven in Jordan. At least 700,000 Iraqis have fled the violence in their country over the past decade, with an uncounted number having returned, along with Libyans, Palestinians and even Lebanese.

“Tensions between refugees and host communities escalate as competition increases for scarce resources like jobs, housing, access to school,” says IRC spokesman Ned Colt.

Another challenge facing Syrians is that they are not permitted to open bank accounts

While 80 percent of Syrian refugees find their own housing, 120,000 Syrians are living in the middle of the north Jordanian desert in the Zaatari camp. More than 90 percent of Zaatari residents come from the southern province of Daraa and struggle with their new lives in tents or small tin containers known as “caravans.”

On a recent visit to Zaatari, the wind whipped the dust off the ground and the unrelenting, blazing sun reflected off the rough stones and sand, intensifying the disorienting effect.

Zaatari residents struggle with boredom in addition to the untreated traumas, whether physical, mental or sexual, that forced them to leave Syria.

“Many Syrian children have faced family upheaval and have witnessed horrifying sights,” said Ned Colt of the IRC’s Amman office. “We all also need to do better at providing psychosocial support for Syrian children, both inside and outside the country,” he said.

Tariq Hamshu fled his hometown of Daraa city and now lives in Zaatari. He earns 10 Jordanian dinars, or about $16, per day working for the International Rescue Committee, an NGO that operates in the camp, but is otherwise unoccupied. Hamshu wants to leave Zaatari, but is trapped inside until he can come up with a 500 dinar fee ($705) for the Jordanian authorities that would allow him to move out.

Another option is for a Jordanian to sponsor him so he can leave the camp, but Hamshu, a former goalkeeper for the Daraa football squad, says it is tricky.

“If I flee, my guarantor will need to tell the police,” Hamshu said. “Because of that responsibility, it is very hard to find someone to guarantee you unless they know you well.”

Crisis not slowing down

With more than two million Syrians now living in neighboring countries, the refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing down.

“The war is now well into its third year and Syria is hemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” the UNHCR said in a recent statement.

The Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, where the US government reports that 1,429 people were killed in the August 21st neurotoxic gas attack, have witnessed an exodus in recent months, activists say. The result is a human traffic jam along the Jordanian border.

Nayef a-Sari, the 20-year-old manager of the pro-revolution Daraa Media Office, says that “huge numbers” of people have fled the Damascus suburbs since the chemical attacks and have been unable to cross into Jordan due to overcrowding.

The lucky ones take shelter in schools, a-Sari says. Others “lie between trees, using the ground as their beds and the sky as their blankets.” Food and medical supplies are dwindling, he added.

On the other side of the border, Syrians in Jordan cling to the hope of a return home.

“Being a refugee is a harsh and bitter experience,” says Mahmoud a-Shara.

“It is the forced separation of a person from his nation, his house, his sources of well-being for him and his family – it is an experience that will have tragic results.”

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