A high number of families with children have fled the war in Syria to the neighbouring Jordan. Poverty, trauma and insecurity cast a shadow on the lives of refugee families. Plan International’s early education centres provide safety and moments of joy for refugee children.
Two-year-old Hiba* rides around a room with a concrete floor on a plastic horse, and four-year-old Nadir* chases his little sister, laughing.
“When I grow up I want to become a police officer,” Nadir says.
The children’s mother Alia* (21) smiles when she looks at her children. At the same time, she is serving sweet black tea to her husband Abdel* (28) and mother-in-law Fatima*. The adults are sitting on a mattress covered with a fleece blanket that also serves as a bed and a sofa. This is the only piece of furniture the family owns.
Even though it is nearly summer, everyone is wearing a coat. The roof is made of corrugated iron that doesn’t keep the cold at bay, and there is no heating in this two-room rental apartment in East Amman.
“In Syria, we owned our cozy home. Now we have nothing: our living standard is below zero. But we have each other,” says Alia.
Alia and Abdel had been married for only five days when the Syrian War broke out. The newlyweds lived in Homs that was soon terrorized with bombings and battles.
Once the bombings escalated, Alia and Abdel first escaped to the outskirts of the city and then to a warehouse in the countryside. In addition to the couple, Abdel’s mother and three brothers as well as Alia’s sister crammed themselves in the dwelling.
Alia’s pregnancy was in its last weeks but there were no doctors or midwives in the nearby area. She went into labour when she was eight months pregnant.
“I was terrified and in so much pain. There was a traditional midwife in the village who said that I needed a Caesarean section or otherwise I wouldn’t make it. But there was no one to operate on me,” Alia explains.
When the little baby boy was finally born, Alia passed out and was unconscious for a long time.
The next day, the baby had a high fever. The parents knew that the only way of saving the baby would be to take him to a hospital in Homs. Alia’s sister smuggled the baby through the blockade. The new mother feared and prayed for ten days until she received news from the hospital that the boy is out of the woods and everything was well. The baby’s heart had been operated on. Abdel brought the baby home under the cover of night.
“I cried and kissed my baby. It took me many hours to believe that he really was alive,” Alia explains as her eyes fill with tears.
The war spread through the countryside, and a bomb destroyed the house where Alia and her family lived. Abdel’s was deafened in one ear and half his face was paralysed in the explosion.
The family decided to flee the country. As leaving the country officially would have required a lot of time and money, they decided to turn to human traffickers and paid for a ride to the border inside a truck tank. The driver let the people out in the middle of the night and told them to walk to the desert. That’s when the firing towards the fleeing people started, and Alia and her family ran back to the truck.
“Even though we were afraid for our lives, we had no other choice but to try again. The second time, we walked and walked until the Jordan border control received us,” Alia says.
First, the refugees stayed in a tent in the frontier zone. They had nothing to eat or drink, and Alia couldn’t breastfeed baby Nadir who was eight months old at the time. The boy was sick and cried with hunger. The mother was again scared of losing her child.
Eventually, the family made it to the Za´atari refugee camp where they received food and shelter. Soon they were able to move to the Jordanian capital of Amman with the help of relatives who had entered the country earlier.
Grey, rundown apartment buildings rise one after another in the hills of East Amman. Children play in the narrow alleys, many of them only wear broken plastic sandals.
This is where most of Syrian refugees in Amman live, as the area has the cheapest rents in the most expensive capital in the Arab world. Also the atmosphere in East Amman is receptive. The neighbourhood is mostly inhabited by Palestinian refugees and their descendants who understand what it is like to leave your home and past life behind.
Abdel worked as a baker and electrician in Homs but he has not found work in Amman. The people of Jordan are battling a high unemployment rate, and it’s especially difficult for refugees to find work. As the family has been registered as official refugees, they receive approximately a hundred euros a month from the UN. They are among the lucky ones: of the hundreds of thousands Syrian refugees in Jordan, a large part don’t have the official status of a refugee. They are left outside of official services.
Regardless of this, the allowance is not enough for the family; it barely covers the rent.
“This is the worst situation I have ever been in. I have no work, no money, nothing. I cannot even offer milk for my children, our money is enough for only oil and bread. We might have to return to the refugee camp if the situation does not improve as the living is free there,” Abdel explains.
Last autumn, the family heard that they had been granted asylum in the United States. Alia and Abdel took a course on the culture of California and the society of their future home country. After the presidential elections at the US, the asylum process froze. The family has started to believe that they are no longer welcome in America.
Alia and Abdel are also worried about how to provide early education and proper start for life for their children with no money. That’s why Alia was elated when she heard about the early education centre organised by Plan International and East Amman Charity that the children of Syrian refugees can attend for free.
In the club-like early education centre, the children play, sing, make crafts and learn the skills needed at school, such as numbers, letter and working in a group. What’s most important, they can be children.
“That my children can learn and be happy means the world to us. My son asks me every night when the next class is,” Alia smiles.
“I stopped going to school after the sixth grade. I wish my children could study for as long as they want – become doctors if they want!”
Alia also dreams of returning to Homs.
“Every Syrian refugee here dreams of going back home. But our homes have been destroyed and Syria is at war. At the moment, I would be content with a safe place where people would treat us as equals, with dignity, and where my children could eat their fill.”