Finding safety in the crowded rooms of Jordan's capital


Many Syrian refugees, renting flats or staying with relatives, grapple with insecurity in a city strange to them, writes MICHAEL JANSEN, in Amman,  Jordan

SHADI LEADS the way into the handsome stone-faced block in a leafy neighbourhood of the Jordanian capital and up an unfinished flight of stairs to the top floor. As we slip off our shoes at the door, his little daughters stare at us, huge-eyed, shy, clinging to their mother. The sitting room is furnished with three mattresses covered in flowered cotton and pushed against the wall, a television set, and sheets stretched across the windows.

Shadi, Mouna and the girls are refugees from the Damascus suburb of Muadammiya. More than 150,000 Syrian refugees live with relatives or rent flats rather than reside in tents near the border with Syria.

We take our seats and lean back against pillows. Shadi says, “We came six weeks ago. We had no problems near our house but we could hear clashes at night.

“I have a sister in Sweden who invited us to visit. The embassy rejected our request for visas because of the bad situation in Syria. We will stay here and apply for humanitarian asylum. We want to live in Sweden but if there is no progress with the embassy, we will return home.”

Shadi has a job, working in a shop selling clothing. His day ends at nine at night and our interview commences at half past. He earns $280 a month, the average wage of a low-level employee in both public and private sectors.

Mona brings us small cups of Turkish coffee and sits next to Shadi. “It is very expensive here. The rent is very high,” he states.

“We are homesick and we want to return to our family and friends. We are not comfortable.

“At the beginning of the crisis, 80 per cent of Syrians were with Bashar [al-Assad, the president], now he is alone,” he remarks.

“Because of the intrusion of the [rebel] Free Army, we are bombed, and armed elements kidnap and rob. No one knows who the men with guns are.”

Nadia, a thin-faced woman in a headscarf, and her four children, from the “hot” Damascus quarter of Qaddam, live three floors below with her sister’s family. We step over a large rag doll at the door and take seats on a sagging divan covered in threadbare brocade. On the wall opposite is a jagged line of black mould; on the windows, thin curtains in dingy pink.

“There were no Free Army in our quarter,” asserts Nadia, a Jordanian married to a Syrian. “We made a demonstration against Bashar and they bombed us. Our house was flattened.”

Three of her sisters, whose houses were also destroyed, are married to Syrians of Palestinian origin and cannot leave the country. The family took refuge in a school in Hajar al-Aswad, another conflict zone on the southern edge of Damascus.

“We came two months ago by taxi and had no problem at the border.

“I was pregnant and miscarried. A month ago, my husband, who is a police man, was arrested for no reason. He served the state for 20 years. We don’t know his fate . . . We lost his salary and his pension.”

She and her children depend on their relatives for food and shelter, like many other Syrians who do not apply or do not know they can apply to the UN for help.

By the time we climb back up two floors to the flat of Muhammad, his wife and sister are asleep. Here the divan and chairs are modern, the television of modest size, and the fridge is in the sitting room.

Muhammad begins, “We had a peaceful demonstration in our area against the governor of Homs who had a project to remodel the city and take our property without compensation. The government bombed although there were no armed people in the area.”

He arranges chocolates carefully on a plate and offers them to us. “Our house at the centre of Homs was next to a building that was hit. We had blast damage and did not feel safe. Homs is destroyed, dangerous.

“Eight months ago, we moved to Damascus. The Free Army helped us leave Homs.

“We came here three months ago. But we did not leave Syria officially. We have no stamps in our passports. We plan to apply to the UN for asylum documents.

“I used to work here before I got married, and made good money as an electrician. Construction is down so I was jobless for six weeks. Now I have a job but employers pay less than before. We are exploited.”

Muhammad walks us down to the ironwork front door and unlocks it. “We have thieves in this area.”

Amman’s dreaded traffic is light at midnight.