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Syrian refugees decamp for tough life in Jordan's cities

Refugees in Jordan's cities outnumber those in the Za'atari refugee camp at least 3-to-1. And while camp life is hard, urban refugees have problems of their own.

By Nicholas SeeleyCorrespondent / December 6, 2012

A Syrian refugee is pictured at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, in July.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters


Amman, Jordan

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her chilly, unfurnished home, a Syrian widow explains how she sneaked out of Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp. It cost 50,000 Syrian pounds, about $700, to pay someone from outside to sneak her past the camp's security. She was allowed to pay half up-front, and had a relative in Jordan who could lend her the money.

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From there she found an apartment in an urban slum: two dark, bare concrete rooms, crawling with damp. She says she lives mostly off her neighbors, who are also Syrian refugees. One of them found her a television in the garbage, and now it sits in the corner, tuned to a Syrian opposition TV station showing ghastly images of the war against Bashar al-Assad's regime back home. When a sheikh came through the neighborhood giving charitable donations to refugees, she spent hers paying off her debts.

Asked if she is glad she left Za'atari, she gestures at her surroundings.

"To live this way? It's not worth it," she says. "I will go back to Bashar, and die as a martyr. That would be much better than here, and dying in this situation."

Though much attention has been paid to the camp, refugees in Jordan's cities outnumber those in Za'atari at least 3-to-1. And while camp life is hard, urban refugees have problems of their own.

They have to pay rent, for one thing – often on apartments that are in terrible condition, and freezing in the winter. To stay fed and housed, urban refugees need jobs, and Jordan already has 30 percent unemployment. Without work permits, refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, and many end up working for next to nothing.

Interviewees in Jordan's poor neighborhoods describe scrounging for assistance: traveling around the city and waiting in long lines to register with charities or the UN, or to pick up occasional food packages, or gifts of furniture. For those who sneaked out of the camp, accessing even the most basic services seems impossible, because they lack proper identification.

"I always encourage people in Za'atari not to leave the camp," says Massara Srass, head of the Syrian Women's Organization, which provides assistance to refugees in Amman. "The problems you will face outside of Za'atari are bigger than in Za'atari."

Ways out of camp

There are lots of ways out of Za'atari. Some 6,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to Syria. For some others, the government employs a system of kefala, or sponsorship: Syrians who can find a Jordanian citizen to vouch for their whereabouts and welfare can leave the camp. They call it being "bailed out."

But kefala, government and UN sources say, is reserved for refugees with humanitarian issues like illness, or those with relatives in Jordan. Since the camp opened, roughly 6,000 people have been bailed out, according to the government's spokesman for Syrian refugee affairs, Anmar Hmoud.

But in the camp, stories abound that kefala can be bought, for prices ranging from $70 to $1,400. Officials say that's not so.

"What's happening now: Some Jordanians, and most of them are criminals ... try to convince the Syrians, if they give them 500, 1,000 [Jordanian] dinars, they can bring them out of the camp in a legal way," says police department spokesman Mohammed al-Khatib.


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