Many Syrian refugees living in Mafraq, Jordan, live in homes that are barely habitable. Photo by Elizabeth Whitman.
Nestled in a mass of concrete houses in a poor neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, is a bare two-room apartment, home to a 30-year-old Syrian named Maher, his 24-year-old wife Nour, their young son and daughter, and five members of his wife’s family. Only a few rays of sunlight filter into the apartment’s damp outer room, and all nine people sleep in the more habitable inner room on cushions given to them by their neighbors. Maher’s family has a small combination heater-stove courtesy of a charity organization, no refrigerator, and a four-foot-square bathroom with a squat toilet. The walls are peeling so badly that picking at the paint is a pastime for the children.
Maher, who asked that their real names not be used for the sake of family still in Syria, fled his hometown of Homs, Syria, with his wife and children in mid-February of last year, after the Syrian Army began shelling the area. The four of them moved to another city in Syria before fleeing in January to Jordan. They wound up in Za’atari in northern Jordan, the country’s biggest camp for Syrian refugees. Maher once had a Kia and a job installing satellite dishes, but now he spends his days looking for work in Amman or helping friends find aid organizations from which he, too, has sought cash assistance, blankets, heaters and clothing.
But Maher is growing desperate. He arrived here with 500 Jordanian dinars, or about $700; then he spent 300 of that to pay a driver to help him escape from Za’atari and another 150 on his first month of rent. (Syrians don’t need a visa to enter Jordan, but they’re allowed to live outside the refugee camps only if they cross the border legally—which Maher and his family did not—or are bailed out by a Jordanian sponsor.) “Here in Amman, the circumstances are better than Za’atari,” Maher allows, sipping from his Turkish coffee before lighting up a cigarette. “We come from cities—we can’t live in a camp.” For Syrians who have spent their lives in an urban setting, adjusting to Za’atari’s crowded, dusty and often smelly tent city is especially difficult—and because leaving the camp is not hard, the decision to escape to a city like Amman is an obvious one.
Konady Kone, UNICEF’s camp manager in Za’atari, says it’s impossible to know exactly how many Syrians leave Za’atari—but it’s “a lot.” From the main gate of the camp, people can easily walk to a nearby farm. “The fence is broken,” he explains. “In five minutes, you’re on the main road. And the taxis are waiting.” He flashes a wicked grin.
“It’s better that we fled the bombing back in Syria,” Maher says. But the fifty dinars he was left with will not last him much longer. “We need help.”
Maher’s story is not uncommon among the 470,000 Syrian refugees the government estimates are living in Jordan. Eighty percent of them reside in cities and towns, not the highly publicized camps. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, or UNHCR, the UN’s relief agency, is overseeing the response to the crisis. It too would like to see the Syrian refugees living in local communities rather than the “alien, artificial environment” of the camps, says Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s representative to Jordan. The Jordanian government, however, wants to direct the refugees to camps funded primarily by the UN. Outside the camps, refugees use public resources, such as schools, and consume subsidized goods, generating “significant direct and indirect costs” for Jordan, according to the government’s latest response plan, to the tune of more than $251 million in 2012 and a projected $489.1 million in 2013. (In Jordan, water, bread and household gas are subsidized, as is healthcare, while government schooling is free.) Carsten Hansen, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which plays a leading role in running Za’atari, acknowledges that the camps are “the absolute least desired way of hosting refugees,” as well as the most expensive.