In 2013, I travelled to Mafraq, northern Jordan. My primary purpose was to learn Arabic, but over the course of the year I caught a glimpse of what day-to-day life was like for a Syrian refugee. Each of the Syrian families I met had decided to leave the refugee camp and face life in Jordanian towns. Despite being prohibited from paid work, and facing extortionate rent, most were glad to have left the camps. This is understandable, as conditions in the camps were largely said to be unsafe and distressing. As we approach the war’s fifth winter, this report is simply the everyday stories of five people and their families, whose lives have been turned upside down by the Syrian conflict. It is important to remember–as the global community scrambles to deal with the situation–that behind every headline and political action, there is a human life with a unique story to be told.
Leila is one of these people. I was sitting in her home, a single room where she lives with her husband and four small children, drinking the deliciously sweet black tea that is traditionally served in Arab households. She told me that her gas bottle–their only source of heat and cooking fuel–had been stolen from her small lean-to kitchen outside, knowing that they would not be able to afford another.
Such is the experience shared by millions of Syrians who have been forcibly displaced by the ongoing civil war. Many live in cramped conditions, with makeshift cooking and heating contraptions. With winter months closing in, these homes offer little protection against the wind and cold. Families are increasingly feeling the strain, as life under these unstable conditions continue and a future full of uncertainty looms ahead.
Zeinab has just had a baby. She lives with her sister in a two-room apartment in the town-centre of Mafraq. Between them they have nine children. Her husband is in Syria, trying to earn enough money to sustain his family in Jordan. Her sister’s husband has been killed. Although rent is a constant worry, she stands by her decision to leave the refugee camp. “I used to take all my children with me every time any of them needed the bathroom”, she said. “I was too scared to leave them alone in the tent”.
Zeinab is not alone in her experience of life in the camp. Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan had a population of over 200 000 Syrian ‘persons of concern’ in April 2013. It is currently home to 80 000. Many families, like Zeinab’s, flee without their husbands and sons. The men remain in Syria, hoping to find the means to provide for their families, risking kidnapping and forced enrolment into any one of the many fighting sides. According to U.S. State Department and refugee reports, even children are forcibly recruited into warring factions and used as child soldiers or human shields. The lack of male relatives leaves many women and children inside the camps in a vulnerable position. UNHCR estimates that as many as 450 000 refugees have chosen to leave the camps and face life elsewhere.
Mariam came to Jordan after her husband and eldest son were killed in the same blast in their home outside Homs, Syria. Without any male relatives, life is very difficult for Mariam. Her eldest daughter is fifteen and approaching the age of marriage. Mariam knows that if she does not find a good, kind husband for her daughter soon, she may never marry. As an unmarried refugee woman with no male relatives, life will be very difficult for her daughter.
Mariam’s predicament is a common one and has led to one of the most tragic consequences of the Syrian refugee crisis – a huge rise in human trafficking and sexual exploitation of young Syrian women. A report issued by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) compared the difference in dowries of refugee and non-refugee women to show how Syrian brides are being “bought” at extremely low prices. According to IOM, the average dowry in Syria before the war might have been $1000, while the current average in the camps given to Syrian brides by foreign men is around $100. Refugee reports to IOM tell of girls given in marriage to men who disappear or divorce them shortly afterwards, “just to give a legal cover for sexual exploitation,” says Dr Amira Mohamed, a counter-trafficking officer at IOM in Amman. The desperation of Syrian refugee families leaves them vulnerable to this kind of abuse.
Amira is 22 years old and paralyzed in one leg from a childhood illness. Meeting her had a profound impact on me. She is intelligent; she loves reading and is a wonderful Arabic tutor. We were the same age – just two women in our early twenties – but our lives could not have been more different. Her disability meant that she would probably never marry. It also made being a refugee even more difficult. She, her elderly parents and eighteen year old brother, also paralyzed in one leg from an explosion in their building, had made the journey from Homs to Jordan largely on foot. Her leg gave her constant pain and hospital treatment for refugees was expensive. On top of this, her eldest brother had been picked up on the street and imprisoned. They did not know whether he was dead or alive. After eighteen months in Jordan, Amira and her family left and returned to Syria. Life as a refugee – the questions around her brother’s whereabouts, the bitter winter, and the pressure of paying rent and medical bills – had proved too much. “I would rather die in Syria than live a half-life here”, she told me on the day she left.
Despite ongoing conflict, since August, the average return of refugees to to Syria from Jordan has been over 100 people a day. The UN says that 86% of the refugees in Jordan now live below the Jordanian poverty line of 68 Jordanian dinars ($96; £63) a month. Families are facing desperate choices and many choose to return: better to suffer at home than in a foreign land, it seems.
Abu Mohammad also suffers a severe physical disability in one leg, preventing him from walking. Despite this, he has grown to love Jordan. Spending most of his day sitting with the shoe shop owner below his apartment, he waves enthusiastically to acquaintances who pass by. In spite of his burdens he wears a constant smile. He is one of the few refugees living in Jordan I have met who may truly enjoy life there, despite its difficulties.
Even with so many horrific stories of life as a refugee, it is not all bad. Abu Mohammad is an example of someone who has chosen to live his life as fully as is possible. Despite the hopelessness that often weighs down on the area, he is symbolic of an undercurrent of belief that things will get better. During my time in Jordan, I often felt weighed down by hopelessness, wondering what I was doing there, sure that nothing anyone could do would change the situation for the better. In those moments I would think back to the words of one Syrian woman who, having told me about her journey fleeing the bombs in her hometown, simply asked, “share my story.” She understood the potential in compassion, the power of listening to one another’s stories. Through sharing our stories perhaps, one day, we really can change this world for the better.