While Studying in Amman, Jordan with the Middle East Study Program (Fall 2015), I had the opportunity of befriending a Syrian refugee who left a refugee camp and moved into a more urban setting. I was honoured to visit them in East Amman, in a neighborhood known as Hashmi Shamali, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital city of Jordan. While I was there, I learned about both the Iraqis and Syrians who live there, and how they are part of a large but often overlooked refugee demographic of urban refugees. Urban refugees are categorized as refugees who, for personal or other reasons, settle in urban areas rather than camp. For one family, a single mother of eight who watched her husband be killed, moved out of the camp for the safety of her two daughters who are at risk of being raped at the camp.
Unable to work by law, many refugees in Amman spend their days seemingly without a sense of purpose. Though some find odd jobs, they are often sent to jail (they must pay bail) or in some cases sent back to Syria. Such work is not reliable and does not pay enough to support the average family. Additionally, urban refugees are often punished for leaving the camp, meaning that food cuts and other aid is not given if they choose to leave.
While doing home visits with an organization I was working with, I encountered stories of many refugees who do not know how they would put the next meal on their table. Some turn to begging, while others try and figure out how to scrape together enough money to afford crossing to Turkey and Europe. Notwithstanding ongoing violent conflicts, many small minorities have returned to their native countries, preferring to die at home rather than as strangers in a foreign land. This was story of one of the women I spent time with, who escaped with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. Her son, who was a doctor in Syria, could no longer stand how he was treated, and decided to return Syria to join the rebel army. When we visited, she had gotten news that he was shot in the leg.
Jordan is considered to be an expensive country, and Amman is the most expensive city in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Cost of Living Report 2015. I can also attest that living in Amman, everything costs more. Even in a less expensive area, such as Hashmi Shamali, many refugees quickly exhaust their funds. The concentration of refugees in East Amman has affected their ability to access public services and has left them largely hidden from the view of wealthier residents.
In addition to problems securing food and shelter, many refugees are dealing with psychological trauma, PTSD, and a loss of identity. These very real and crucial issues are not always given the same attention as basic needs–it is hard enough to make ends meet, without added costs of mental health treatments. Though I may not be an expert on mental health, leaving psychological problems untreated can lead to depression, anxiety, and gender- and family-based violence, all of which are known to plague vulnerable populations subject to forced migration.
Some may believe they can understand the life of a refugee by visiting a camp, they are only seeing a small slice of the refugee experience. Understanding the dynamics of urban refugee life in a city like Amman is crucial to effectively meeting the needs of Syrians and Iraqis who continue to flee their home.
Spending time with Syrian refugees was a redeeming factor during my trip: I was welcomed into homes by Syrians as a friend and never once felt out of place or threatened, as I faced racism and sexual harassment outside on a daily basis.
Urban refugees are invisible to the international world, as they are trying to forget and move on with their lives. They are camouflaged in a city with thousands of years of history.
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