Syrian Women Cooking
Two Syrian female refugees prepare traditional food at a charity in Amman, Jordan.

Credit: Dominique Soguel

Amman, Mafraq and Ramtha, JORDAN (WOMENSENEWS)–Salwa Eqta has two mattresses and a small collection of pots that she cannot use because her home has no kitchen or running water.

One mattress she used to share with husband, before he went back to Syria. The other mattress is for her twin daughters, Rawan and Rana, and the baby boy Qassem.

Their universe has been reduced to the damp walls of a doorless warehouse in the city of Ramtha, in northern Jordan. More than half a million Syrian refugees live here, the majority of them in poor communities.

“Our situation is plain for all to see. This is how we live,” said Eqta, who is from Homs, one of the first hubs of the Syrian opposition. “We had a good house in Syria, it was furnished. My husband was a painter there but he has no work now.”

The family eats only canned food bought with coupons provided by the United Nations.

“I cannot buy vegetables because I have no tap water to wash them. Since I arrived, I’ve been able to give the girls only one bath,” she said. Reflecting their mother’s care, Rawan and Rana look clean, their hair swept up into ponytails.

When the family first arrived in Jordan, they were placed in Zaatari refugee camp. But like countless others, they decided to leave. For Eqta, the threat of a harsh winter, poor sanitary conditions and insecurity proved too much.

The warehouse is rough, but Eqta says she prefers it to the shelling in Syria or Zaatari camp, where her daughters became ill from the dust and low quality of water. “Here the environment is better,” she told Women’s eNews.

Zaatari is the largest refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan but only 118,000 of the 569,000 refugees documented by UNHCR live there. Most refugees avoid the harsh conditions of the camp, where tents and caravans offer poor protection from dust storms, rain or snow.

Instead, honeycombed across poor pockets of major Jordanian cities and rural communities live hundreds of thousands of Syrians. They left home after Arab Spring-inspired protests gave way to an asymmetric war between a brutal regime that routinely bombs civilian areas and a fragmented opposition, which has also committed war crimes.

With rent in Jordan tripling since the outbreak of Syria’s crisis in March 2011, cash-strapped refugees often opt to live in shared apartments, dark basements, warehouses, garages and makeshift tents on barren fields or on the sides of roads.

Unwanted Advances

Aid workers agree that the most vulnerable of the Syrian refugees are female heads of household, with many reporting unwanted advances from landlords if they fail to pay rent or unsavory offers from community members or service providers, including aid workers.

No hard figures are available, but aid agencies report that survival sex is growing.

Economic pressure and cramped living conditions also translate to higher rates of domestic violence. Syrian girls, especially those from rural areas where the tradition already exists, risk an early marriage to cut family costs or to ensure their “protection” against unwanted male advances that could bring dishonor.

“If the situation doesn’t change, it is definitely going to increase the risk of sexual exploitation and survival sex,” Benedicte de la Taille, women’s protection and empowerment manager at the International Rescue Committee told Women’s eNews.

Unlike those in camps, refugees in an urban setting are largely invisible. Many are cut off from refugee services by lack of information or the difficulty of reaching schools or hospitals. The high cost of transportation in Jordan is a major obstacle for refugees seeking help.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs predicts the number of refugees in the region will nearly double to 4.1 million next year. The United Nations on Dec. 17 appealed for a record $12.9 billion to cope with the Syrian crisis.

The onset of winter–with dramatic sow storm Alexa buffeting the region–added urgency to that call.

With each day that passes, the pressure on Syrian refugees rises. To survive, families eat up their savings; borrow from friends, relatives, good Samaritans and depend on the charity of Islamic and international groups.

“The hardest thing is securing rent every month,” said Maryam (a pseudonym), who is living in Mafraq with her three children. She is one of the lucky few with cash assistance from the International Rescue Committee.

But when the maximum cash assistance a family can get is $170 per month, it’s not enough. Maryam told Women’s eNews that her rent is $282 while her family’s monthly expenses can run up to $635 without taking heating bills into account.

“Every refugee is saddled with debt. Many think of returning to the camps to avoid paying rent. I’ve been to many charities and organizations but most ask for documents that I don’t have. Not once have I been able to pay my rent in full,” Maryam said.

Living in a Tent

Twenty-two-year-old Fadia also lives in Ramtha, near the border with Syria, with her son Hassan and daughter Maryam. Their home is nothing but a tent pitched on the yard of a school that now accommodates Syrian refugees.

She and her children survive on U.N. coupons totaling about $135 a month, which works out to less than $1.50 per person per day. This kind of economic pressure is driving thousands of refugees back to Syria despite the unrelenting war.

“We want to go back. What else are we going to do? One year and four months in a tent is enough,” said Fadia, who also asked not to use her full name to protect her family’s privacy and safety.

Many of the Syrian refugees living in the northern cities of Jordan come from the impoverished province of Daraa, where protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad kicked off in March 2011.

The culture of Daraa and south Syria has much in common with rural areas in northern Jordan, with similarities buttressed by cross border economic activities and family ties that go back decades.

In such communities, men are expected to provide; women to raise the children after marriage. Syrian female refugees therefore often struggle to help provide for their families since they lack skills to get a job and in some cases find the concept of working outside the home taboo.

Fawziya al-Ahmed, who had engaged in domestic work and was taking a charity’s cooking classes, said she was “humiliated” to admit that she had to work for a living. “I am 52 years old and it is a shame to admit that I work outside. What else could I do? I cook and clean for Jordanians. If my house in Syria had not been burned down, if I had a house to go back to, I would leave immediately,” she said.

Others see work as a form of empowerment.

UN Women Provides Economic Opportunities in Zaatari Camp (Jordan)


Few Opportunities

Overall, only a small fraction of the refugee population benefits from cash assistance or food coupons such as those provided by the United Nations. Some refugees interviewed by Women’s eNews reported selling coupons in order to get cash for rent.

Syrian men have few chances to work under the table in Jordan and if they do, they run the risk of deportation. Many women interviewed by Women’s eNews said they gave up on going out to seek charity, discouraged by unsuccessful attempts or because they had no child care.

Instead, children are having to help families survive and women and girls are becoming increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. The nongovernmental organization CARE reported in April that 50 percent of Syrian boys aged 13 to 17 are working to support their families in Jordan. Fifty-five percent of female-headed households report no income.

“The plight of Syrian refugee women is especially invisible because a lot of times those women don’t feel comfortable going outside because of trauma or because of traditions that say it is best for you at home,” CARE’s Laura Sheahan told Women’s eNews.

“Having no income means they are incredibly vulnerable. If they cannot borrow money or find a way to make ends meet, they might be forced to make some terrible choices,” Sheahan added.

Women’s eNews interviewed a divorced Syrian woman living in Amman, Hala, who has been working in bars at night in order to send money to her mother and son who are still back in Syria.

“Clients come in and they immediately ask where are the Syrian women? We are seen as more charming and more beautiful,” she told Women’s eNews. Hala, who asked not to use her full name, remarried in the hope of a brighter future.

However, her husband, who already had a first wife and family, left her after only three months of marriage.