Journey to Jordan: By the thousands, Syrians are risking their lives to find refuge across the border

Story by Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek

Photos by Matt Kauffman // Video production by Melissa Tabeek

Editor’s note: Reporters Kauffman and Tabeek put together a multi-media presentation of video and photography to show another dimension of what displaced families from Syria have been through on their journey to Jordan. 

AMMAN, Jordan – Sameer Ahmed Darraj thanks God that his family of six made it safely to Jordan after suffering a siege in his hometown of Homs. He’s also grateful he found an apartment in Madaba, a small village southwest of Amman, to shelter his wife, two young children, mother and nephew.

But the trip to their second-floor flat is a struggle for this former Syrian chef-turned-rebel fighter. His legs were blown off by a rocket in April as he fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

“We try to remain strong and try to have a very strong heart,” says Sameer Ahmed Derraj. Despite the horrors they’ve witnessed, the Darraj family finds solace in each other’s company.

Darraj wages a battle still, but now it’s from the flat’s only bed where he recovers from the loss of his legs, severed above the knees and marred with deep, rough, vertical scars.

“When we were crossing the border, we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t make any sounds. When our daughter cried, we had to cover her mouth,” said Sammer, Darraj’s 39-year-old wife, of their escape. “We gave the other [daughter] medicine to make her sleep.”

As Darraj talks about the four-day journey to Jordan carried by comrades across the border, about how his wife kept falling as she lugged their youngest child, about the death of his friend by that same rocket, he speaks for thousands like him. Together, he and they form a new sort of army: Syrians who have fled to fight for their safety and their lives.

Since March of last year, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan has increased at an exponential rate. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood; in the past two months the amount of “persons of concern” registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has leapt from 13,933 to about 24,000 – an increase of about 70 percent. But the real number, including Derraj’s six who came illegally, is closer to 120,000, experts say.

While Jordan has long been a safe haven for refugees throughout the Arab world – some estimates say that there are already 2 million Palestinian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees in this country of 6.5 million Jordanians – the situation with Syrians is special. The influx from the north poses a dilemma. The Jordanian government has not officially recognized them as refugees, but rather “guests” of the country.

Unlike neighboring Turkey – which is harboring Syrian refugees in traditional tented camps – Syrians in Jordan are finding safety in cities and villages scattered throughout the kingdom, stretching already limited resources in a country that depends on outside aid. Safety does not always spell decency though; Syrian families sometimes numbering in the double digits are confined to a few small rooms inside overrun apartments.

“There are many cases of two to three families in one apartment and they could have seven or eight kids each. It’s pretty dismal,” says Aoife McDonnell, an assistant external relations officer at UNHCR.

Jawad Anani, a former government official and now private economic consultant, worries about what a continuing onslaught of Syrians will do to the strained resources of this struggling country.

“Jordan’s ability to put up with Syrians is limited. The private sector is paying for it now, but soon the bills will be mounting. We will feel it in the labor market with people looking for jobs. … Time will tell elsewhere where the pressure mounts and where the shoe pinches.”

Darraj, like so many who have come here, feels that pinch. Unable to work, he relies on the generosity of Jordanian strangers to pay his rent. These sympathizers also bring him food and supplies, such as clothes and blankets. He’s clearly grateful, but still, to him, Jordan is just a safe place to heal. He will not stay here.

His mother Salma sits quietly in the corner of the tiny room, emotionless, looking over at her disfigured son. In another corner, on their mother’s lap, are his two young daughters, both in pink tank tops and leggings. They too are staring at him, waiting.

“I am against the evil Bashar,” he says. “If they fix my fingers, then I will go back,” says Darraj.

His wife looks at his mother, a glance Darraj notices. To them, to everyone, he says again: “I want to fight again with the Free Army.”

(Click below to continue reading.)

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THE SPARK THAT BECAME A REVOLUTION

The Syrian massacres that started in March were, at the time, the latest government response to the uprisings across the Middle East. Those protests started in December 2010 with one desperate Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest what he felt was a corrupt and unjust government. His singular act launched a movement that became known as the Arab Spring. This fire has scorched its way across the region, resulting so far in tens of thousands of lives lost and the toppling of four governments.

To escape the confines of their small two-room apartment, Tajj, 39, sits on the rooftop with his four children and wife overlooking Amman. “I didn’t come here because I’m afraid of death. I came here for my kids,” says Abu Tajj.

In Syria, the blistering continues. Still intact, the government, observers say, is engaged in a merciless, unrelenting onslaught that so far has left 10,000 dead, according to UN figures. And until an end emerges, bordering countries such as Jordan will shoulder the burden of sheltering people who have fled their homes and families to save their lives.

“We can provide … we’ve been through this so much. We as a country have developed the stamina for it,” says Anani of the role Jordan has played.

Anani, a former deputy prime minister and former minister of foreign affairs, commented on the record about the Syrian-Jordanian situation, notable in a region where many are hesitant to be outspoken. Others, including humanitarian and aid workers, would only speak in secret, their comments wrapped inside requests that their identity be concealed for fear of upsetting the Jordanian government.

As a result, official details of what’s been happening are hard to come by, but there is a documented migration pattern across the border into Jordan. Refugees have two options: Those with passports can cross legally through traditional border control stations, at which they receive a stamp. At that point, they’re free to stay with family and friends in Jordan, or rent their own flat.

Or – and now the more common route – is they pass unlawfully, without a passport, which involves walking or riding, hidden in cars, down dusty roads and through remote farmland. While they need to avoid military checkpoints set up to stop them in Syria, Jordan has an open-border policy, so they won’t be punished when they get here. Still, those who make it are funneled into one of three government-run transit facilities near the border, Al-Bashabsheh, Cyber City and Prince Hashem’s Sports Stadium. There, they wait until a sponsor pays 6 Jordanian dinar for adults, 3 for people 18 and under, to get them out.

Accounts of these facilities suggest the conditions inside them are horrible: overcrowded, dirty and unsanitary. It has been just over a month since Cyber City was opened to deal with the overflow from Al-Bashabsheh, and already there are reports of “deplorable conditions.”

“They have everything. Food, warm clothes, but conditions there are very bad. It’s dirty, there’s not a lot of health care. It’s unsanitary. There’s just one big bathroom for each building,” says Tajj, 39, a former car parts salesman from the under-siege Syrian city Homs who stayed at Al-Bashabsheh for one week in April.

Though there are estimates of more than 2,000 people living in these three encampments at any given time, the vast majority stays no more than a week. Once they pass through, they move on either as guests of Jordanian families who offer what little they have, or as renters in private homes when they can find the space.

ONE FAMILY’S STORY

Thin, narrow mattresses dotted with blue flowers are lined up against the walls of a small square room. A flimsy plastic rug covers the cement floor. There’s a fan blowing hot, stale air. The television is on mute, but it’s on all the time, broadcasting 24 hours a day of clips from the opposition in Syria. The images, uploaded from people’s cell phone cameras, show protests, burning buildings, dismembered bodies lined up on the ground.

Waleed holds his son Talal in front of his face for fear of retribution and to protect family still in Syria. They spent nearly a month traveling from Homs to the border, never staying in a place more than one night for fear of being caught by the Syrian Army. “God guided and opened the way for us,” says Waleed.

This room – in Mafraq, 40 miles from Amman and less than 20 from the Syrian border – is now home to a family of seven, displaced from Homs. Waleed, the 39-year old father, is there along with his wife, Taffa, and four of his five children ages 4 months to 15 years. Waleed is jittery and restless because he’s already been here for 43 days. But he is not too weary to talk about where he has come from, what has happened to his people, or his desire to go home.

Unable to speak English, Waleed, who is desperate to share what he knows, reaches for his cell phone. It tells a horrific story. First he shows a 90-second video of two young men kneeling together; a hand with a serrated knife appears on the screen and takes off their heads. Second, there’s a protest and yelling and screaming and a body falls dead; it’s a 10-year-old boy. Third is a mutilated body, killed by Shabiha, thugs who are fighting alongside the Syrian army.

The images, on TV, on his phone, combine to create the constant scroll that consumes his family, including the young children. It is the same for so many others who have sought refuge. They think of nothing else. They speak of nothing else, other than what they’ve seen and lost.

“Yesterday, someone from the family called and said someone took our cousin,” says Taffa through a translator. She has a round welcoming face, dark eyes, and is wearing a headscarf and jilbab – which is a loose full-length black robe. She’s 36 years old. “Every two or three days we get calls from relatives telling us about people they know who have been killed or gone missing.”

Waleed has a plan, though. He knows what to do. He prays.

“We believe in Allah. We should be patient because we believe in freedom.” He speaks slowly, using his thick dirty hands to sweep the room where he’s leaning on his knees and bare heels. He looks tired, with sunken cheeks and a prominent jaw. “I don’t know what will happen,” he allows. “I hope I will get back to my home, God willing. I hope to go back, but we’re waiting for the system of government to go.”

AND THEY LOOK NORTH, TOWARD HOME

Waleed and his family are the beneficiaries of the Islamic Charity Center Society, or ICCS, a Jordan-based community organization that provides aid to a number of causes but now focuses mostly on the Syrian crisis. The group gives Waleed the 75 dinar a month, or about $106, he needs to rent his small room. To date, they have provided services to over 2,000 Syrian families.

“Multiply this number by five and you’ll see the results” of how many individuals the group has helped, says Mohammad Shawakfeh, a 52-year-old school librarian who volunteers at the center in Mafraq. “I think we register more refugees than any of our other branches.” There are 56 offices here in total.

Mohammed Al Shareef, 39, works in Mafraq providing healthcare to Syrian refugees. Safe in Jordan, his heart hurts for his country. “I feel the country is part of my body and it is like somebody poured acid on it and melted it.”

While Jordan has long welcomed the displaced, some are worried the latest influx will overwhelm an already strained state. Unemployment is at an estimated 13 percent. In recent weeks, thousands of protesters have bemoaned high poverty rates and rising gas and electricity prices. Natural resources have always been sparse – Jordan is one of the four driest countries on earth.

The strain of another 120,000 people has some experts worried that this batch of guests will be the breaking point.

“The financial and economical situation in Jordan is in a bad condition. There are high levels of unemployment, high prices; all these things would prevent Jordan from being able to provide something that’s even decent for Syrian refugees,” says Amer Al-Sabaileh, a professor at the University of Jordan who holds a degree in education of peace and human rights from the University of Rome.

Sabaileh’s concerns are matched by at least one government official who knows too well the stresses facing Jordan.

“This thing is like a big pressure on the government, because now we are currently going through a financial crisis…We depend on countries like the U.S. and in Europe for money and aid and now more Syrians are coming,” says Ghazi Al-Zubaidi, an official working with non- government organizations in the Ministry of Social Development.

At the UNHCR, McDonnell, too, worries about the adverse effects a sizable and needy Syrian population will have on the neighborhoods – Amman, Mafraq, Irbid – sheltering the majority of them.

“The chances of available housing in those places is quite limited as it is,” she says, adding that the number of families willing to host is dwindling while Syrians continue to cross the border in larger and larger numbers.

“As the vulnerability of Syrians grows, support to host communities needs to continue, but at some point, camps” – traditional encampments with tents and a walled-off perimeter – “will have to be an option, a last option. It depends on our ability to assist them.”

While displaced Syrians are grateful for the help, all they want is to return to life as it was before the violence.

Syrian Mohammed Al Shareef, 39, is a man with a bounty on his head back home in Dara’a, a city on Syria’s southern border. His crime? The former hospital nurse secretly treated those injured in clashes with government forces in private homes around the city. To help the hurt recuperate safely, he had to build fake walls inside other rooms to conceal patients from the Syrian Army.

“I am wanted,” he says through a translator, though no translation is necessary as he points to his head and then drags a finger across his throat.

Al Shareef is one of six Syrian refugees who now works with the ICCS to provide services for those who have fled to Jordan.

As he speaks, Al Shareef is sitting in the center of what has become a primary registration hub for the refugees. First, visitors check in to discuss their basic histories. Next they stop at Shareef’s station to report any violence or attacks they’ve suffered on their journey to Jordan. Then, they see a lawyer about human rights violations they may have endured. Eventually, Al Shareef and his team will come up with an allowance for each family based on its size and need.

It will work like this for the foreseeable future, but there is not an infinite supply of funds. Most of the money comes from private sources – wealthy donors in the Gulf States, as well as a number of foundations abroad. But when the money dries up, it’s unclear what’s going to happen to people like Waleed who have no other source of income.

“If people continue to come,” says Shawakfeh of the ICCS, “they will only find the streets.”

The weight of this is crushing to Shareef. He scrolls through photographs of wounded new arrivals to Mafraq on his silver Sony digital camera. There’s one dated from that morning, taken at 8:27 in a local hospital Shareef visited to document a refugee injured as he tried to make the border. The man in the picture had been shot in the hip. He was missing an arm. There was a large open gash – maybe it was a burn – on his bludgeoned back.

“I have gotten used to seeing tortured people and Syrians being killed,” Shareef says wearily.

Some nights when he needs relief, he goes to a place close to Dara’a and looks north toward his home somewhere in the distance. When he’s there, sitting alone in the quiet, he does not have to wonder whether he will go back. His return to Syria is the only thing he is still certain of.

“I’ll go back,” Shareef says, tears welling up. He speaks for himself, but echoes what tens of thousands are saying along with him. “It’s just a matter of time. My father and mother are there. Even if it’s not safe, I will go back.”

Click on the image below to play a video of the the impact on Syrian children forced to flee their country with their families.

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5 thoughts on “Journey to Jordan: By the thousands, Syrians are risking their lives to find refuge across the border

  1. Excelent ,emotional and moving depiction of the Syrian’s flight from torture and tyranny to safety in Jordan and all the dilemas it creates for Jordan, economic and otherwise. Horrible descriptions of conditions in Syria but touching ,heartbreaking personal stories of the refuges longing for a homeland where they could live free from fear. Moving video and pictures.

  2. Hi, Melissa…

    They’re right when they say a picture is worth a thousand words. The video of the kids is indeed heartbreaking. They are so beautiful and innocent, who always seem to be hurt the most. You must all be changed by what you have experienced in the Mid East – we, here, don’t have a clue as to what these unfortunate, ordinary people have endured, with no answer in sight. It’s totally unfathomable to me how people can treat other people as they do – I think we as a species are unfinished and need to evolve into something much more “human”, but I don’t have much hope. Great job!

    • hi mellesa im mohammad shawakfeh from the islamic center/mafraq
      first of all i hope from the god you reach your country and family save and sound >>>> its such nice reporert you made hopping more sucsses in your life and joy
      its one work really different from any because it shows the world apart of the truth about what happening there and for those who don’t care remember what you accepted for the others its very possible happend to you>>>> no body are protected

  3. Pingback: Nostalgia Already? « Melissa Tabeek Blogging Through Jordan.

  4. Pingback: Brave souls, tons of inspiration « Off the Record

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