Kingdom of Refugees
Jordan is the sum of its neighbors’ wars. Three journalists follow a family’s quest for medical care and investigate the Syrian narrative in the kingdom.
Story by Emma Pearson and Katie Welsford. Photography by Tom Bradley.
It was July, two weeks into Ramadan. Our car was speeding toward Amman along the endless two-lane highway, slicing through the stoney plains of Jordan’s desolate eastern desert. Rarely frequented — except for transportation trucks making the arduous journey from Baghdad as well as the occasional tourist on his way to one of the area’s handful of early-Islamic castles and fortresses — we had the road to ourselves that afternoon. The Islamic State’s recent march across western Iraq just a few weeks earlier, as well as the piercing heat of the midday sun, had cleared the road of traffic.
In the back of the car, two-year-old Esraa lay slumped across her mother’s lap. Esraa was tiny and barely looked half her age, with scrawny limbs and dull, thin hair. Her face was gray and drawn and lacked the rosy hue you’d expect in a child her age.
Earlier that day, a small handful of Ritz crackers dug from the bottom of a bag had momentarily distracted the girl and betrayed her real age. She had piled them on her stomach, hid them up the sleeve of her mother’s cheap, synthetic abaya, and even slotted them back into the packet. But as we drove west along the sun-baked highway through what is referred to as Jordan’s “Panhandle,” her energy had begun to diminish. Her head lolled across her mother’s thigh, her face wiped of emotion. Leaning over, her mother placed her face close to the girl’s and began to gently blow air against her temples, stopping every so often to clutch her closely to her chest as the car lurched over the pot-holed road.
“I was up all night,” her mother had explained earlier that morning, as we sat with her and Esraa on the floor of their home, her eyes red from lack of sleep. Pulling down the girl’s trousers, she had pointed to a bulge protruding from the girl’s groin. “She won’t stop crying. It’s been like this for weeks. We’re isolated here and we can’t afford the transport costs of getting her to the city so a doctor can look at this lump.”
The pain of having to watch loved ones suffer is the very torture from which the family had originally fled, leaving their home in northern Syria for the deserts of the Kingdom of Jordan. But even in this land of refuge, where they had hoped for the dignity and autonomy denied to them in the war zones of Syria, it was happening all over again. With three extra seats in the car, we offered them a lift to Jordan Hospital in Amman.
Esraa’s mother, father and six older siblings had set up camp on a remote farm toward the Iraqi border in Jordan’s northern Badia region. These unending desert plains were, as T.E. Lawrence described in his autobiographical epic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a place of “unfathomable silence…steeped in knowledge of wandering poets, champions, lost kingdoms…crime and chivalry and dead magnificence.” The desert seemed to echo. Its emptiness broken only by the occasional dusty hamlet and rare vegetated wadi (valley), a world away from the well-trodden rust-colored sands of Wadi Rum — the gem of Jordan’s tourist industry.
Along with 110 other members from the Al Aboud tribe, Esraa’s family had fled the northern Syrian town of Idlib with just the clothes on their backs in the summer of 2013. In return for their occasional work picking tomatoes, a local farmer had allowed several members of the group to erect their tents on the infertile edges of his land, nestled amid spindly shrubs attempting to hold their own in the dry dirt.
“Where is the rest of your group?” we asked Esraa’s father, curious as to where the other members of the tribe had gone.
“Some have moved to Azraq camp,” he explained, referring to a newly-opened U.N.-run refugee camp located not far from Qasr al-Azraq, a third century Roman fortress where T.E. Lawrence and Sharif Hussein bin Ali had based themselves during the winter of 1917–1918 during the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. “They wanted the extra support. Maybe they will have an easier life there. Others have returned to Syria.”
“It’s not uncommon — this preference to die a martyr in Syria than to live in a foreign land,” Esraa’s mother, Aliyah, explained when she saw us frowning with confusion at the thought of returning to a warzone. “One boy went back to Syria. His father was sick and he wanted to see him. His father is still alive, but the boy is dead. Shot by a sniper.”
“They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.” — NoViolet Bulawayo, from her 2013 book, ‘We Need New Names’
Syria is a country that is no longer contained within its borders. Over 9 million of its people have been uprooted by a violent war that is devastating the country. Fleeing from the rubble under which so many others have been buried, Syrians have been forced into neighboring states such as Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. As refugees, they are weaving Syria’s story into the broader regional tapestry.
In Jordan, a country of 6.4 million, over 626,000 Syrians are registered as refugees by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — a number regularly challenged by the Jordanian government, which tends to claim double this figure. Wherever one goes, evidence of the war next door emerges. A lyrical Syrian accent floats past you as you sweat your way up one of Amman’s steep staircases; a Homs number plate hangs from a parked car in the street; a Syrian woman and her child beg at a set of traffic lights; a Jordanian radio station airs a program specifically for Syrian refugees.
About nine miles from the Syrian border sprawls Za’atari camp: an endless sea of white tents and caravans that blend into the rocky sun-scorched desert. Planned by the Jordanian government and UNHCR, the camp was opened hurriedly in July 2012 on Jordanian military-owned land in response to the seemingly endless flow of Syrians crossing into Jordan in desperate search for safe haven. Since opening, Za’atari camp has swelled. With a population of over 80,000 (largely from the southern Syrian city of Dera’a) the camp has multiple schools, mosques, playgrounds, hospitals and streets lined with stores set up by entrepreneurial refugees selling everything from mobile phones to wedding dresses. It is best understood as a pseudo-city, a “makeshift metropolis” as one New York Times article described it in 2013.
Za’atari has served as the international media’s lens into the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan. With so many war-scarred Syrians living in such a concentrated area, the scale of the crisis is painfully evident. But there is no singular narrative to the refugee story in Jordan. Only 16 percent of Syrian refugees reside in official, U.N.-run camps, such as Za’atari. The majority live beyond the camp fences, setting up homes wherever they can — in tiny isolated villages, congested suburban neighborhoods, informal makeshift camps, rented apartments and charity accommodations. Two thirds of them are living below the Jordanian absolute poverty line ($96 per month), and as the conflict continues, many are falling increasingly into debt.
One in 10 are like Esraa’s family: unwilling to surrender their autonomy in formal refugee camps yet unable to afford standard housing; they have established their own makeshift settlements. While some are tucked away on private farmland, others can be seen dotted around the northern reaches of Jordan: small collections of tents by the sides of roads, gatherings of grain-sack and plastic sheeting on abandoned scrubland. Informally erected, access to water, food, education and medical care is, at best, sporadic.
Elsewhere, more fortunate families are scraping together the funds to rent apartments in the country’s cities, towns and villages. In line with the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, Syrians are technically eligible to gain work permits in Jordan. Yet acquiring the permits has become notoriously difficult, and the vast majority of Syrians are left working illegally in poorly paid irregular and informal employment, plumbing the depths of their savings and relying heavily on remittances from relatives, loans from friends and neighbors, and assistance from relief agencies. The variation in living conditions can be vast — from an elderly couple from Dera’a living in a half-constructed concrete outhouse without glass in the windows, to an apartment in the upmarket Amman district of al-Rabiah serving as a bachelor pad for five young Damascene students.
From this struggle, a commercial scene for Syrian culture has emerged, catering to the difficulties of life in exile and to refugees’ nostalgia for home. Shadows of Syria begin to appear. Among long-established Jordanian institutions, Syrian businesses have sprung up, importing the taste of Syria to Jordanian soil. On Amman’s multi-colored Medina al-Munawarah thoroughfare (a technicolored consumer heaven) a small stretch of stores confronts the taste buds with a plurality of Syrian foods and flavors: succulent chicken shwarma marinated in pomegranate molasses from the Damascene fast-food chain Djaj Anas, freshly squeezed juices from Orange al-Sham, gummy Arabic-style ice cream rolled in pistachios, and hot, creamy sahlab straight from Souq al-Hamidayah’s famous Bakdash ice cream parlor. This culinary diversity reflects Syria’s enviable former position along ancient trading routes.
This diffusion of one land into another extends beyond what can be simply eaten or observed; Syria is also weaving its way into Jordan’s soundscape. At the ancient Roman city of Umm Qais, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Tiberius and even Mount Hermon, the harsh reverberation of shelling from just across the border in Syria regularly interrupts the tranquillity of the site. Elsewhere, voices of war and exile lodge themselves in the airwaves — on the radio, in flickering images on TV screens in private homes and in snatched conversations in the street. But it’s not always talk of the war. Syria continues to inspire those who are exiled beyond her borders and scenes. Stories from days gone past are treasured by refugees attempting to keep their beloved homeland alive — her fertile gardens with vine-covered trellises and tiled fountains, her ancient fortresses encircled by swooping swallows, her streets filled with men selling produce fresh that morning from the countryside and elderly gentlemen slowly shuffling home from Friday prayers.
“Did you ever visit Homs before the war?” Zeina, a young Syrian mother, asked us as we sat perched on cushions on the floor of her ground-level apartment in an inexpensive suburb of Amman. “Look at my posters. We have them on the walls so we remember Syria as it should be. Not the Syria of today.” Cheap, glossy pictures of Homs’ clock tower, of Aleppo’s ancient citadel, of Hama’s norias and of Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque are taped haphazardly to the walls. These ancient sites are now encircled by the conflict and many have been damaged in crossfire, aerial bombardment and looting.
Zeina and her family are originally from Babr Amr, in Homs — a district of the city, which, in 2012, witnessed one of the most intense assaults of the conflict. They have made the most of their lives in Jordan, never failing to praise the support they have received from the kingdom. Her father, a historian and author, is busy penning his experiences of war, while Zeina dedicates all of her spare time to volunteering with the local branch of the Jordanian Green Crescent, assisting both Syrians and Jordanians in her community.
Sitting with the women of her family, helping to prepare Zeina’s favorite recipe, Lahm bi’Ajn (an Arabic-style pizza with spiced minced lamb), the topic of conversation seemed to always work its way back to their homeland. Kneeling around the low wooden table, a production line had emerged: Zeina deftly kneaded the dough, the two of us in our fumbling way rolled handfuls into small flat circles, Zeina’s sister spooned on the lamb from her aluminium basin, and her mother arranged the completed pizzas on a vast flat tray, ready for the oven. As we worked, our fingers greasy and our stomachs yearning for the food to be ready, stories were shared of family feasts before the war, the colors of their hometown in the spring, their grandmother’s resting place — their conversations moving from humorous to mournful. As the sun dropped and the muezzins began their call to prayer, the thin, white kitchen curtains billowed around us, seemingly sheltering us from the world as we retreated into a past that is now lost.
Since its independence as a sovereign state in 1946, Jordan has been shaped by violence beyond its borders and those desperately seeking refuge from it. First came the Palestinians, many seeking safety in 1948 following the conflict that formed the state of Israel, another wave arriving in 1967 after the Six Day War. The fact that over half of Jordanian citizens today are originally from Palestine has created something of an identity crisis surrounding what it means to be “Jordanian” and it is still not uncommon for socio-political opinions to split along the East Banker Jordanian — Palestinian Jordanian divide.
Then came the Iraqis. A wave of middle- and upper-class refugees arrived in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, as crippling sanctions were imposed and Saddam embarked on his brutal campaign against Shi’as and Kurds, many of them buying up properties and businesses; and then again, a second wave arriving following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Today, 58,000 Iraqis remain in the country, many having established permanent lives in and around Amman.
Now, with yet another influx of refugees from yet another seemingly intractable conflict, patience among some is running thin in a country with already limited resources. Classrooms are now crowded, and many schools have had to offer a double-shift system (Jordanian children attending in the morning and Syrians in the afternoon). Hospitals, too, have grown overcrowded, housing and accommodation prices have risen, and competition for jobs has increased. Many Jordanians are also citing security concerns, with fears rising that armed militants and regime intelligence agents are infiltrating the country in the form of refugees.
In response, regulations have been changing. In November 2014, the government repealed free medical treatment to Syrians. The announcement coincided with several reports claiming that the doors of the border are now only just ajar, with some Syrians even being turned away. As Andrew Harper, UNHCR country representative to Jordan, commented, “In September , we’ve had around 6,000 people cross into Jordan; in October, we’ve had around 500 people; and in November, we’ve had very, very few people cross the border.” Since early 2014, there have also been several instances of the government enforcing its policy that orders Syrians to only live in official camps or rented accommodation. Several informal settlements have been dismantled, their residents relocated to official camps in an attempt to keep all refugees accounted for.
While emphasizing this hostility is no doubt valuable to a Jordanian government keen to distract its citizens from unrelated political issues and also to attract more much-needed foreign aid, it is masking the extensive solidarity shown by many Jordanians toward those whose country has been torn apart by war. Cross-border tribal and familial relations are common, with connections between towns and villages on either side of the Syrian-Jordanian border holding strong, easily traversing the “line in the sand” that was crudely drawn by the British and the French back in 1916.
While the U.N. camps can only be effectively run by larger international NGOs, local Jordanian charities have sprung into action to help alleviate difficulties faced in the host community, working in material assistance, running social clubs and raising awareness of refugee rights. Countless individuals have also stepped forward, many choosing to sponsor Syrian families by covering their living costs for agreed periods of time or allowing them to live cheaply or rent-free in Jordanian-owned property.
“I can’t sit back and watch them suffer,” said Khaled Al-Sheikh, a Jordanian-Palestinian friend, as we sat eating juicy lamb kebab and spiced kofte off of aluminum platters at his favorite restaurant in west Amman. Co-manager of an Amman-based software company, Manchester University graduate and Bob Dylan enthusiast, Khaled’s energy for giving practical aid to the victims of the Syrian conflict is matched only by that of his almost perpetually present grin. “Jordan took the Palestinians and gave us a good life. Now, the Syrians are our guests. I must act like a decent host.”
“These people have nothing while I have everything I need,” he continued, as he signaled to the waiter for the bill. “I have a second flat, bought as an investment in 2010. It’s empty, so I have loaned it to a bunch of students from Damascus. They all fled their homes to avoid conscription. They’re young and far from their families. If I can do something to help stop their pain, then I can go to bed happy.” In between business meetings, he hurtles through Amman in his beat-up car, managing the logistics of distribution from aid containers arriving in Amman and arranging outings to playgrounds for refugees with young families. “All these kids have ever known is war. They need an escape so they can be children again.”
On the outskirts of Amman, the car slowed, inching its way through the Ramadan rush hour. “Where are you guys?” asked Khaled on a cellphone, his voice barely audible over the cacophony of car horns. We shut the car windows and turned up the volume on the speakerphone. “Don’t go straight to the hospital,” Khaled continued, “come to the medical center at The Green Crescent in Taibeh. I have spoken to the doctors, and they’ll see Esraa right away.”
Taibeh is one of the city’s more down-market neighborhoods — a 30-minute ride from downtown Amman, beyond the Al Jwaideh prison and the meat district where smoky barbecues line the busy road. With relatively low rental rates, many Syrians such as Zeina and her family have ended up here, and local NGOs have followed, distributing cash, clothes and food to those struggling to make ends meet. Walking through the area with Zeina and her younger brother, they regularly pointed out house after house, each known to be sheltering Syrian families. “This building has a family from Ghouta living in its basement. That house over there has a widow and her children from Hama.”
The Green Crescent center is the hub of this community. The low-ceilinged basement is brightly lit with fluorescent tube-lighting and cluttered with chairs, freezers full of food donated from local stores and tables covered in second-hand clothing. On each of the floors above, similar activities take place. The pale brick building is a warren, its hallways always bustling and constantly overwhelmed by the needs of those in the local community: queues of Syrian women patiently wait for their monthly cash assistance, poorer local Jordanian families sift through second-hand children’s clothing to take home to their youngsters and offices full of Jordanian and Syrian volunteers assess sheets of data to determine which local families are in the most need of additional assistance.
The doctor at The Green Crescent medical center was quick to see Esraa. It was an inguinal hernia, he explained. Part of Esraa’s intestine had pushed its way through her abdominal wall, creating the protrusion her mother had pointed out. While a fairly common ailment (particularly in infants), left untreated, Esraa’s intestine had become incarcerated and was obstructing her bowel.
“She will need an operation to remove it,” the doctor explained to Esraa’s parents. “It’s very simple, and one of the most common pediatric procedures. She will quickly make a full recovery. We can refer you to a private hospital so it is sorted today, or you can wait for an opening at one of the state hospitals in a week or so.”
Khaled offered to pay for the private care so that, for this family at least, there would be no more waiting. “Three hundred forty dinars,” he said, about $480. “What is that really? The girl could have been my daughter. Thank God, my daughter is lucky. She is healthy and has everything she needs. She has never had to live in a war zone. If I can help this family, I must. Jordanians and Syrians, we are the same.” That night, the family returned home, back to their cramped tent in the vast, empty desert.
Today, Esraa is healthy and behaving as a child of her age should. She is curious and playful, innocently unaware of the brutality her family fled and their struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy in exile. But in a land so permeated by a war beyond its borders, she is just one story among countless others. Wherever you cast your gaze, there are others.
In just one apartment building, on a quiet road on the edges of Amman, a 15-year-old girl lies on a mattress, slowly dying of hepatitis that was left untreated in Syria. An 8-year-old boy is deaf from a barrel bomb that fell near his house. A 12-year-old stumbles as he attempts to regain the use of his shrapnel-pierced right leg, and a woman treasures a couple of images on her mobile phone, the only visible reminders she has of her young son who was killed when a shell burst through the family home.
“The more stories you hear, the more people you meet, the more you see Syria’s tragedy,” Khaled said to us after he placed Esraa’s family in a car to take them home. “When you realize it is all happening in our midst, you become buried by the weight of it all. Sometimes it is the few stories that end happily that hit the hardest. They remind you of the thousands of others that don’t, the thousands of others that remain unheard and submerged in the corners of our peaceful country.” The Syrian landscape in Jordan is both elusive and all-encompassing. Beyond the bustle of the “travel guide” Jordan — the breath-taking Petra Treasury, the turquoise waters of Aqaba and the vibrancy of downtown Amman — the struggle of thousands attempting to navigate life on new and unfamiliar soil is played out on a daily basis.
Jordan can’t escape the war. It cannot remain untouched by the suffering of its neighbor — nor does it wish to. Each refugee brings a piece of their country with them: memories of the past, pains and sorrows of the present, dreams for the future. Rebuilding their lives around Jordan’s history and landscape, around bustling souqs, ancient fortresses and echoing desert plains, they weave the war into the Jordanian consciousness and etch Syria’s fierce quest for survival into its terrain. Wherever they settle, Syria goes too.
To protect the identity of persons mentioned in this article, some names have been changed.