Inside the life of a Syrian refugee family living illegally in Jordan's capital city

AMMAN: Um Ahmad al-Halabi rarely leaves the old, beaten-down apartment her family rents in one of the Jordanian capital’s poorer neighborhoods. Even a trip to the supermarket could lead to an unwanted run-in with the police and, later, her arrest, she says.

“I live my whole life—day and night—at home,” 32-year-old Um Ahmad tells Syria Direct in an interview at her residence in Amman. “I’m too afraid to leave the house. Someone could start asking questions.”

The mother of two spends her time taking care of her young sons, Jude and Ahmad, aged 2 and 5. Jude, her youngest son, suffers from cystic fibrosis and requires Um Ahmad’s constant care while her husband—a registered, legal refugee—works to support the family.

Jude was born in Jordan and is considered a legal resident of the country by Jordanian authorities. Ahmad, who was only two years old when he and his mother crossed the Jordanian border by foot in 2014, is—like his mother—not permitted to live in Amman by local authorities.

Jordan currently hosts an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees who fled their homes over the course of the nearly seven-year-long civil war, according to official government estimates. Around 200,000 Syrians live in designated refugee camps in the country’s north and require special permission to enter and exit those settlements. The rest live mostly in Jordan’s major cities and their suburbs, like Um Ahmad.

Um Ahmad is one of an estimated 35,000 registered Syrian refugees living illegally outside refugee camps. Without a Jordanian government-issued refugee ID card permitting them to reside in Amman, Um Ahmad and her oldest son cannot receive the government-subsidized health benefits available to other refugees. Ahmad cannot go to school and the family cannot travel freely. If caught by the Jordanian police, Ahmad and his mother could be arrested and sent back to one of Jordan’s designated refugee camps.

The Zaatari refugee camp in March 2017. Photo courtesy of Thomas Coex /AFP.

Today, Um Ahmad—like thousands of other Syrian refugees living illegally outside the camps—is left with two difficult options: One, to live beneath the radar and avoid arrest, or two, to return to the Zaatari refugee camp and throw herself at the mercy of a complex legal process that could split her family in two.

In order to regularize her status with the Jordanian government, Um Ahmad must turn herself into the authorities and volunteer to be resettled in Zaatari camp. From there, she can apply for permission to leave again—a process that could take months, two representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tell Syria Direct.

The Jordanian government manages who can and cannot leave the country’s refugee camps—not UNHCR or any other humanitarian actor. Refugees inside the camps hoping to settle outside must do so through the Jordanian Humanitarian Commission, a camp-based, government-run body that manages requests on a case-by-case basis, Douglas DiSalvo, a UNHCR representative tells Syria Direct.

“[The commission is] a government committee, and UNHCR is neither a member nor observer,” says DiSalvo.

A divided family

When Um Ahmad’s husband, Abu Ahmad al-Halabi, fled his native Aleppo in northern Syria in 2013, he said goodbye to his family. Then, he booked a single plane ticket for himself to Queen Alia International Airport in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

With limited funds, the then-34-year-old couldn’t afford to bring his wife and young son with him. One year later, they followed him to Jordan, crossing the border on foot. In March 2014, Abu Ahmad’s wife and son entered Jordan’s Zaatari Camp.

At the time, the family was split in two. Abu Ahmad, having arrived legally via plane, had permission from the Jordanian government to reside in Amman. But his wife and young son had to remain in the sprawling Zaatari Camp, which by then had transformed from an empty patch of desert to the fourth-largest population center in Jordan.

Alone with her son inside the camp, Um Ahmad searched for a legal way to bring her family together. After several days of searching, she found and paid a Jordanian middleman to act as her sponsor, allowing her to leave the camp and travel to Amman.

But once Um Ahmad arrived in Amman and reunited with her husband Abu Ahmad, the man she had paid for sponsorship disappeared, she says. When she called him, she found the phone number he had given her was out of service. It was then, she says, that she learned the man had merely acted as a smuggler and had no intention of providing legal sponsorship.

“We didn’t know much about how these things work in Jordan,” says Abu Ahmad, now 37. “It was easy for them to lie to us.”

Even without the proper legal status, Um Ahmad chose not to go back to the camp once she got out. Instead, she stayed in Amman, where she has lived with her husband for the past three years.

In that time, another son was born—Jude—with full legal refugee status, unlike his older brother Ahmad. Jude suffers from cystic fibrosis, requiring constant medical care and extra attention from both his parents.

Umm Ahmad says she will not leave her children, but cannot take both with her if she returned to Zaatari. “My oldest son could come with me, but the conditions there are unacceptable for Jude—it could cause his health to deteriorate,” she says.

“There is panic and fear in my heart for my children and for myself whenever we leave the house,” Um Ahmad tells Syria Direct. “My heart burns for my son Ahmad, who can’t go to school and learn like other children" because of his legal status.

‘Regularizing’ legal status

Um Ahmad and her family say they have approached several humanitarian and non-governmental organizations in Jordan for legal assistance, but the Jordanian government is the sole actor who can regularize a refugee’s legal status.

“Despite its relatively positive treatment of Syrian refugees, Jordan’s conduct in regards to issues like this is problematic,” says Riad Soubh, a Jordanian human rights activist and former head of the government’s National Center for Human Rights.

An aerial shot of Zaatari camp taken on July 18, 2013. Photo courtesy of US State Department.

“Of course, the idea of refugee camps is great—they provide extremely important services to refugees,” Soubh tells Syria Direct. “At the same time, the camps are closed off, and this is a problem.”

Soubh and other human rights advocates have criticized the Jordanian government for its strict policies in regards to where a refugee can and cannot legally reside.

“Whether a refugee remains in a camp or leaves should be that person’s decision,” says Soubh.

In general, UNHCR advocates that refugees be “permitted to choose their place of residence and enjoy the freedom of movement, access to services, and opportunities for self-reliance offered by life outside of camps,” UNHCR representative Douglas DiSalvo tells Syria Direct.

Officially, UNHCR advises camp-registered family members to reach out to one of the organization’s representatives and ask to return to their camp, where they can begin the process of requesting family reunification in urban areas, says DiSalvo.

“While going back to the camp may not be appealing to refugees used to living in urban areas who might be understandably concerned about the possibility of a long stay,” Di Salvo explains. “[It] is currently the best way to regularize status.”

For Um Ahmad, splitting up her family again is out of the question.

“I could never accept [returning to Zaatari and] leaving my kids behind,” Um Ahmad tells Syria Direct. “Plus, I’m afraid I’d never leave the camp again.”

Um Ahmad and her family say they have exhausted every option available to them except for returning to the camp, including looking for a Jordanian citizen to sponsor their stay in Jordan.

“We don’t know anyone in Jordan who can sponsor my wife and son,” Abu Ahmed tells Syria Direct.

In 2014, the Jordanian government instituted a new policy tightening restrictions on sponsorships for Syrian refugees, requiring that the sponsor be a married, Jordanian relative of a Syrian refugee over the age of 35.

“If such a person existed, we’d need to pay a large sum of money that we just can’t afford,” says Abu Ahmad.

For activist Soubh, current Jordanian government policy towards families like Um Ahmad’s amounts to forced internment.

“When someone requires a sponsorship or special permissions to exit the camp, we’re talking about detention,” he explains. “It’s natural that people are going to try and break out.”

“The issue isn’t that people have violated the law, it’s that the law is wrong in the first place.”

Aya Emad

Aya is from Homs province in central Syria. She moved to Jordan with her family in 2013. Aya is a journalism student at the Amity Online University. She joined Syria Direct to practice journalism and help her people.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.