THE BLOG
06/05/2014 11:34 BST | Updated 03/07/2014 06:59 BST

Jordan's Urban Refugees Are Struggling to Find Peace After Syria

This spring, I met with a number of Syrian refugees and their families who are currently living in the Jordanian capital, Amman. An increasing number are choosing urban life over that of the camps in the north of the country, but things are far from easy. Inner-city life is a trade off between independence and social discrimination; I wanted to understand the reasons why, and what the future holds for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

My visit centered on a downtown district popular with refugees called "Jabal Amman." I was led by a proud father to his home, which was tucked away in a rabbit warren of concrete stitched together by washing lines, whose wet clothes had no chance of drying in the cold morning air. Two of his girls, each no older than four, bobbed and shrieked excitedly around his waist as we stepped through pools of spring sunlight that ran down the grey steps.

Life was better here, the father explained as we settled ourselves on thin mattresses in their living room. The floor was bare; save for a blue UNHCR straw mat, which formed the centerpiece of the dark room, a memento from the road.

Getting out of Syria hadn't been easy, he continued; the family of nine had piled into a minivan and set off from their home in the Homs suburbs, after remaining there had become too deadly. While Lebanon was much closer, Jordan was a safer bet in the long run. The continuing exodus of Syrians now means that Lebanese border towns are dangerously overcrowded; the country's total registered Syrian refugees hit one million this April.

Exhausted, after a 300km journey by van and foot through a warzone, the father and his flock crossed into northern Jordan and arrived at Zaatari refugee camp. The sight of the UNHCR's mega-camp was a welcome relief, but it didn't last long. Life inside was depressingly substandard. It was mid-winter and after unprecedented snowfall, the camp's irrigation system was failing: people were living in waterlogged tents, pathways had become lost under the mud and the overflowing raw sewage presented a real danger to everyone. So no sooner had they arrived, they made plans to head on to Amman.

The problem with choosing city life, over that of the camps, is that people lack the direct, round the clock care that the UNHCR can offer in places like Zaatari. Syrians in Amman told me of how they visit "cowboy" doctors, who illegally charge fees in exchange for services, as they are faster to access than the free medical aid offered by UNHCR in the city.

Others spoke of locals' discrimination against them, with their children being bullied on the streets as well as in school. And because of this, I case upon case of fractured families. Children were staying behind in Zaatari, so as to keep a social life with other Syrians, whilst their parents pushed on towards the urban sprawl in search of employment, hoping to establish a future for their children.

This, at least, was not the case for the small flat in the concrete warren. The remaining family members had filtered in to hear their father tell his story, with each fresh face glowing from the cold. And with all accounted for, piping hot, sweet Arabic tea was served and set down on the straw mat in front of us. No matter how hard up Syrians were, traditions were never neglected.

Talk soon turned to money. Finding good employment is impossible, the father conceded, as he drew a solemn sip from his cup. Before the conflict, he had been an engineer for an oil company, earned a good wage and was often deployed overseas when needed. But now, he was bringing home just $15 per day, working illegally as a construction hand in a job that lacked the stability of his last.

The UNHCR also provided them with a stipend of $140 per month, but even this was not enough to pay for their rent, utilities and food. He demonstrated the sacrifices made, by flicking a dead light switch on and off - their electricity had recently been cut.

With their savings depleted after escaping Syria, the future looks extremely uncertain. They are able to seek humanitarian assistance from charities based in the city, but this is largely limited to bedding, clothes and education. In a country that now holds an estimated 600,000 Syrian refugees, there is just not enough money to go around.

Thus, they cannot leave and are falling out of favour with many Jordanians who, despite being historically open-armed to refugees, are now blaming them for the city's rising rent prices, lack of jobs, and the escalating problem of rubbish.

It was hard to say whether the family would have been better off weathering the storm in Zaatari. They had gained the freedom of the city lifestyle, but the difficulties faced in reclaiming a normal life here were taking their toll.

As I left, I complimented the father on his children, noting an especially shy, sweet girl who had not uttered a word during my visit. "She would talk if she could," he replied, leading me back into the sun. "She's been witness to many terrible things and needs treatment for PTSD. We just don't know where to look."

She was only five.