Syrians forge solidarity to survive harsh winter in Jordan

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 • by Paul Jeffrey in Amman

As Syria’s civil war drags on, those who have fled the violence for neighboring countries face an increasingly difficult time surviving as winter storms bring snow and freezing temperatures to much of the region.

The United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told the BBC on January 14 that meeting the needs of the refugees was an “almost impossible” challenge with “no solution in sight” to the disaster.

More than 600,000 people have fled Syria, according to the UNHCR. More than half of those are in Jordan and Lebanon, where International Orthodox Christian Charities, a member of the ACT Alliance, is responding to the needs of thousands of refugees. The actual numbers may be much higher, as many refugees have yet to begin the registration process with the UNHCR agency.

With no official refugee camps in Lebanon and Zaatari the only one in Jordan, those fleeing the violence in their homeland are forced to find shelter wherever they can. Some cluster in makeshift tent encampments in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Others crowd into urban apartments in the region’s cities. Yet the hardships they have faced since their arrival have only deepened in recent weeks as some of the worst winter storms in 20 years lashed the host countries.

Issa’s story: ‘Life is difficult for us in Jordan’

Souad Kasem Issa fled Syria last year with her family to take refuge in Jordan’s crowded capital city, Amman. They stayed with friends for two weeks until they found an apartment to rent. Yet they quickly fell behind on payments. They couldn’t pay the water bill that got shut off, so now Issa buys water from a neighbor and lugs it up three flights of stairs so she can cook and help her family stay clean.

Like many refugees, if she’s evicted she faces a choice of moving to the overcrowded Zaatari Camp or moving back to Syria, though she’s not sure where they’d go, as the family’s house in Homs was destroyed in the bombing.

She says she and her husband and six children are likely to be killed if they did return. She fears that’s the fate of her relatives back in Syria; she has tried phoning them but they don’t answer. So she stays where she is.

“Life is difficult for us in Jordan, and I wish our country were safe enough that we could return and live our normal life. There is nothing better than being in your own home, your own country. But the most important thing for us now is to feel secure, so we’ll stay, no matter the difficulties,” she said.

Issa, whose husband is disabled but has a part-time job cleaning a nearby shop, applied to the UNHCR for assistance, but her registration, and the assistance it will likely produce, remained pending five months later. She would check on her status but says a taxi to the UNHCR office costs five Jordanian dinars, about seven U.S. dollars, each way. She says she doesn’t have that much. A bus would cost less than half as much, but the trip would then take all day.

Three of her children attend school, while the other three remain with her in their cold apartment. She says she can’t afford the school fees to send them all.

“I can’t buy anything but rice and oil and bread, just what we need to keep us going. I owe 60 dinars on the electricity bill and I expect they’ll soon cut it off. I’m three months behind on rent, and I expect the landlord to come asking for it. Yesterday I saw a toy I wanted to buy for Nour Eddin, my five-year old son, but I realized I couldn’t afford it and I started to cry,” she said.

Ordinary kindnesses help close aid gaps

While official aid may lag behind the refugees’ needs, their new neighbors show the Syrians hospitality. Issa’s landlord, Isam Alhuniti, has helped the family with food and blankets, even though they owe him back rent. He says he once lived in the U.S. and a daughter’s medical expenses bankrupted him. It was some Catholics and other social service groups that helped his family survive.

“Thank God for our humanity,” he said. “Most of us are willing to share what we have for others to survive. And I may soon end up like them. I own the building but have taxes and other bills to pay, and I can’t pay them if no one pays me rent.”

Issa’s family has also received assistance from International Orthodox Christian Charities after an IOCC volunteer in the neighborhood, Dhamyah Mahdy Salih, became aware of the family’s plight.

Salih is a refugee from Iraq, and said she and her family were welcomed warmly to Jordan almost a decade ago. So today she’s repaying the kindness.

Salih says that when her family came to Jordan from Iraq, they assumed they would go home eventually. So they spent their money on rent and food, and on paying ransom for a son in Iraq who was kidnaped. Soon the money was gone. Her husband tried to get a job, but was twice arrested by the police for working without the right documents. It was ordinary Jordanians who helped them survive, so Salih says that today she is merely returning the favor to someone else.

“I’ve suffered the same difficulties, so I want to help. It’s a heritage of my family, to help others as I was helped,” she said.

Alhuniti, Issa’s landlord, says there’s nothing unusual about the solidarity that has made it possible for the Syrian refugees to survive in Jordan.

“The borders that separate Syrians and Iraqis and Jordanians are small borders, and we can easily reach over them,” he said.

Read the ACT Alliance Appeal for assistance to Syrians affected by the conflict here.