Syrian women and children refugees in Jordan wait for buses that will take them back to their war-torn country.
Syrian women and children refugees in Jordan wait for buses that will take them back to their war-torn country.

Credit: Dominique Soguel

RABAA SARHAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)–In the middle of the night, with just a few belongings, hundreds of Syrian refugees brace themselves for a quick journey to a dramatically different reality.

From a base in Jordan’s Rabaa Sarhan, just a few miles from the Syrian border, they piled onto five buses provided by the authorities and traveled to a drop off point agreed upon with Syrian rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

This was their arduous way of leaving the gray-lit world of the refugee and re-entering a homeland that has turned into a zone of widespread, deadly violence.

One of them was Umm Mohammed, the mother of two girls and one boy. “If my husband were here, I would not go back. For the sake of my children, I would not go back,” she told Women’s eNews.

The reason she said she had to go: Her husband was turned back at the border several times. “They are not letting our men in. My husband tried several times; he has documents, but they turned him away.”

Umm Mohammed was accompanied by her aging father, who tried to keep the family afloat as long as possible but was unable to make ends meet selling tomatoes. In all, they managed to live one year and three months in Jordan.

Most Syrian refugees living in Jordan come from the town of Daraa, the cradle of the March 2011 popular uprising against the Assad regime, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

The movement was met with brutal repression, including military crackdowns on protest hubs, which led part of the opposition to arm. The country slipped into a murderous civil war complicated by the influx of foreign fighters.

Concerned for their safety and for the security of relatives living in Syria, refugees interviewed by Women’s eNews declined to give personal details, including their full names, which they felt would put them or their loved ones at risk.

Of the refugees now turning back, most cited lack of opportunities to earn a living and harsh conditions in the camps as major factors driving their decision.

Red tape and the high cost of work permits in Jordan means that thousands of Syrian refugees work on the sly, at risk of arrest or deportation. Jordan’s Labor Ministry has documented the arrest of 15,800 illegal foreign workers this year, more than a third of them Syrians.

Joining Male Relatives

Besides the economic struggles, women often expressed a desire to rejoin male relatives who could not make it into Jordan.

During a month of reporting in Jordan, in September 2013, Women’s eNews encountered dozens of women who complained of the difficulties of life without husbands or other male relatives.

“It is better to die a quick death at home than die a slow death as a refugee,” said Umm Zaid, a mother traveling back with two children, both under the age of 5.

Umm Zaid, who declined to give her last name, had moved to the Jordanian town of Jerash with her husband less than a year ago. But he became crippled by shrapnel during the war and couldn’t cope with the stigma of being handicapped. He decided to go home. In the absence of a job or savings, she had no choice but to follow his footsteps.

“He couldn’t handle it here. My husband returned, so I must go. I don’t know how I will get home but he told me to leave it to God. I am scared of the shelling, just like my children,” she told Women’s eNews as she stood waiting for the bus, clutching the hands of her little ones.

Like Umm Mohammed, several other women said their husbands and brothers had not been allowed into the country in the first place, or had risked their lives reaching the border in vain.

Syria’s conflict has claimed more than 115,000 lives, a conservative tally, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitoring group. More than 2 million Syrians are living as refugees, the bulk of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey.

Water-parched Jordan, a country of 6.5 million people, is home to over half a million Syrian refugees, two-thirds of them women and children. They live scattered across cities or crammed in camps like Zaatari, a sprawling mass of tents and caravans.

In four visits to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan during September, the number of refugees in the arrivals area was small, aligning with indications expressed by human rights advocate Amnesty International in an Oct. 31 report that Jordan began to close its borders and limit its intake of refugees in May, after receiving a huge influx of refugees.

Inside, Zaatari’s largest crowds could be found near a basic tent, where Syrians would come to register their names for departure and wait for a truck to take them to a small base in Rabaa Sarhan, the starting point of their journey home.

Syrian refugees brave return home despite raging conflict

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Waiting for Intervention

Faize, a 50-year-old mother of four, decided to return to Syria after five months living in the Jordanian town of Ajlun. Waiting for the bus at night, she paced back and forth, gently bouncing a baby girl on her shoulder, her youngest child who was born in Jordan.

“I am scared of going back. I came because of the shelling and the shelling hasn’t stopped in my hometown,” she told Women’s eNews.

Faize said she sees no end to the conflict without foreign intervention against Assad.

That perspective was intensified by the lack of military reprisal against the Assad regime after the Aug. 21 chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus.

There is no precise casualty count from the attack, but based on reports from the field, the French organization Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 3,600 persons were treated for symptoms consistent with neurotoxic agents at three different hospitals in the first three hours following the attack.

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition alliance, put the death toll at more than 1,300, including hundreds of children. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he believed the attack constituted a war crime.

The Syrian regime was widely blamed for the attack and the international community seemed poised to make — at a minimum — a symbolic strike. Instead, the Assad regime agreed to a program of chemical weapons monitoring and disarmament brought about by U.S.-Russian negotiations.

“We waited a month, then another, hoping that action would be taken by the international community. But then we realized that action was a long way away. Only God can solve the Syrian crisis,” Faize said. “Every day he [Assad] is using stronger weapons against the people. If the world had really stood with us, he wouldn’t have lasted a month. They warned him, don’t strike with chemical weapons; what did he do? He struck and struck again and no one did anything.”

One category of refugee most at risk of being turned back at the border is “unaccompanied Syrian men who cannot prove that they have family ties in Jordan,” Amnesty International found in its recent report.

In a late September meeting with Women’s eNews, an interior ministry official in Jordan acknowledged that the kingdom had tightened security along the Syrian border in the past months, particularly with regards to the transit of men.

He said the policy reflected concerns that men could form “sleeper cells,” entering the kingdom pretending to be refugees in order to prepare an attack. Jordan, compared to other Syrian neighbors, has been less destabilized by the conflict next door.

Sporadic Neighboring Violence

Lebanon, the most influenced by Syria’s war, sees sporadic flashes of sectarian violence. And Turkey, which shares a porous frontier spanning 544 miles with Syria, witnessed twin car bombings on May 11 of this year. The attack hit the border town of Reyhanli, where there is a high concentration of Syrian refugees, and killed 51 people.Turkish authorities blamed the Damascus regime for the attack.

The Jordanian- Syrian border –just 233 miles long and naturally defined by the Yermuk River and its tributaries – is much easier to control. Nearby fighting and harsh summer heat are two of the barriers to refugees trying to reach safety.

New arrivals, both men and women, complain that they wait for days before being let in.

Jordanian officials say their borders are always open and that the only thing preventing refugees from entering the country are the violent clashes raging next door. But they do acknowledge that men come under greater scrutiny than women.

“Men are more likely than women to enter Jordan for a short time, enough to settle in their wives and children before returning to Syria to fight or to safeguard their land and livestock,” said Brigadier Aid Al-Qararea, an official of the Jordanian gendarmerie who is stationed in Zaatari.

He said that men are typically allowed in if they are traveling “with their wife.” That is rarely the case as women and children are the first to leave when the dangers of staying in a conflict zone become life or death.

Some men traveling alone try to “marry” at the border just to be allowed in, officials said.

Reflecting the growing intensity of the war next door, the number of refugees from Syria who have entered Jordan rose from a total of 90,000 in September 2012 to over 500,000 in the country by September 2013, according to U.N. figures.

The entry of Syrian refugees suddenly dropped to nearly zero in May 2013, according to data compiled by the United Nations refugee agency and cited by Amnesty International, expressing concern over growing restrictions on refugees.

In the months before, the daily average of entries was 2,000. Since then, the number of daily arrivals has dramatically fallen, rarely exceeding more than a few hundred people per day, according to U.N. figures.

On the night of Sept. 29, as hundreds of refugees prepared to leave under the gaze of Jordanian security forces, the registrations section of Rabaa al-Sarhan center was completely empty, its neat rows of plastic blue chairs clearly untouched.

“No refugees are coming today,” said Al-Qararea, blaming shelling on the other side.