Dinner in the desert turned out to be fish, cooked the Syrian way. Back home, in the countryside around Hama, landowner Abu Hamza owned several fisheries. “The fish in Jordan are not so good,” he complains, scooping up a piece with some flatbread. “They are so small! In Syria, they were something else. So large and delicious.”
Abu Hamza now lives far from his fisheries, in a small, unofficial refugee camp in Khreibat Al-Souq, an area of southern Amman where thousands of Syrians are living in cheap rented housing alongside Jordanians. Unable to work owing to the difficulties involved in gaining a permit, he now spends his days playing the board game mancala with a neighbor, or smoking heavily while watching the Syrian news. “There’s nothing to do here. We’re just waiting for the war to end,” he explains.
In Jordan, Syrians are currently living in a diverse range of accommodation. While the West tends to focus on camps such as Za’atari, for many Syrians there is a life beyond the United Nations. Many have managed to rent cheap flats within the host community, while others, such as Abu Hamza, have independently established makeshift camps on unused land across the north of the country.
Sitting in a depression by the side of a busy highway, Abu Hamza’s camp is a hive of activity in the wide desert landscape. Giggling children and bedraggled goats guard the edges—small boys sledding down the gritty red dirt slope and pink-clad girls playing clapping games in a circle. When Abu Hamza arrived two years ago, there were just thirty tents. Today, there are seventy-five—all families from the same tribe originating in the countryside around Hama.
But despite the support of the community, life in Khreibat Al-Souq is hard. The cold desert winter makes sleeping in makeshift tents uncomfortable and often dangerous. One woman explained how three of her five sons had recently been in the hospital with severe chest infections, while another man (already in three pairs of trousers and two jackets) could think of little else but the cold. There are only two very basic water, sanitation and hygiene facilities within the camp, and no means of education for children over the age of 10.
Considering the harsh realities of refugee life, refugees such as Abu Hamza demonstrate remarkable resilience, working to create a sense of normality for themselves and their families among the abnormalities of existence in exile. For many families, this includes continuing to offer hospitality, a Middle-Eastern trait so often remarked upon ensuring guests are provided with sweet tea and cushions—or even three-course meals. For others, it includes novel self-directed projects to improve living standards: making a satellite hookup to provide access to the Syrian news for camp residents, creating a makeshift school from an unused UNHCR tent for a community’s smallest children, weaving strips of plastic onto a frame to create a wind- and water-proof door, or using a tire as a plant pot in which to grow onions.
In Abu Hamza’s tent, his oldest daughters swiftly appear with five chargrilled fish and several platters of salad and potatoes in tahini. Despite their financial, physical and psychological suffering, this type of spread is frequently seen when visiting Syrians living in Jordan.
One woman, living in crowded charity-funded housing in an isolated district in the east of Amman, showed shocking pictures of her ten-year-old son who had been killed in an explosion in Dera’a. Her twelve-year-old son is still in hospital a year after the explosion, with shrapnel wounds down his leg. Her sadness showed on her face as she clutched her Samsung camera phone and reminisced over the photos with her mother. Yet, immediately following the interview, she eagerly invited us to dinner, emphasizing that we must sample Syrian cuisine. “Food in Jordan is good, but it is nothing like back home,” she said with a smile as she laid out a feast of chicken and onion stew with yoghurt and mint sauce.
Elsewhere, in Za’atari camp’s district nine, Mahmoud, an extremely well-educated man who previously worked as a high-ranking official in Dera’a, has purchased a second caravan to serve purely as a guest room. He has built a porch outside, complete with water feature and seating. Inside, plastic flowers hang from the walls, a model of the Eiffel Tower—bought from a store within the camp—has been placed in the center of the table, and cushions are neatly arranged, plumped up and ready for visitors. The window looks out onto a small plot of land he has dug up between his caravans, where he is growing orange and lemon trees. He will not achieve a greening of the desert—the plants are small, vulnerable to the high winds and suffer from a lack of water in the dry desert landscape. But this is not quite the point. “I just want a better style of life,” he says.
Given the proximity of pain and terror in all of their lives, combined with the frustration of a makeshift existence in a host country, Syrian exiles’ ability to rise above their difficulties and grief is constantly surprising. While the world often presents them as passive victims, whose fate rests solely in the hands of global players, this is not the image they choose to present of themselves. Instead, they are fiercely determined to maintain a degree of normality in a world turned upside-down by war. They pursue ingeniously creative projects and attempt to maintain standards from back home, in a bid to ensure a degree of control over their lives.
Of course, Syrians would certainly not deny that at present they are surviving largely due to the support of the UN—monthly food vouchers are provided to all—as well as the generosity of local Jordanians, civil society groups and smaller NGOs. “The Jordanian Green Crescent has done so much for us,” says Abu Hamza. “They came and gave us blankets after the snow last year, and they often provide us with meat.”
However, purely treating the Syrians as recipients of aid is denying them the autonomy and normality they so fiercely guard. While decrying their circumstances and the horrors they have fled from, the image of “victim” is one they rarely put forward. Even in a camp such as Za’atari—which many Syrians call a “prison,” both for its security and the monotonous existence within—constant energy is invested in personalizing homes and attempting to break free from the refugee stereotype.
Back in Khreibat Al-Souq, the plates of fish have been wiped clean. Abu Hamza sits back, satisfied, and starts to brew tea on a small stove he has set up in the center of the tent. We praise the cooks, and Abu Hamza smiles. “My wife prepares fish perfectly,” he says, “even with just one small stove here in the camp.” We swap phone numbers and Abu Hamza adds us as friends on Facebook. His ten-year-old son grabs the phone and disappears to a corner of the tent to play Angry Birds. Abu Hamza laughs and turns back to us. “Yes, my wife is an excellent cook. You should see what she makes in Syria. You must be my guest there, once we’re home.”