Four years ago in the middle of night Aintifar woke to the sound of shelling. Louder than usual she soon realised that her house had been hit. The house she lived in with her husband, who worked in construction, and five of her six children, the eldest, Muayed away in Lebanon doing his National Service. Her children had been injured by shrapnel and the family soon realised they had to leave immediately. With pretty much the clothes they were wearing and very little else.
Aintifar managed to get medical attention for some of her injured children but not her eldest daughter, 17 year old Hameen whose shoulder still bears the wounds today. To get it treated costs money, money the family don’t have. A Syrian doctor did offer to operate on Hameen for free but on the day of the operation Hameen became too terrified to let him do it and it had to be cancelled. The doctor then returned to Syria and the family haven’t been able to afford the help.
It took several months to get to the border from their home in Daraa, a town in southern Syria to Jordan. Moving from village to village until eventually they found a man with a car who for the equivalent of £5 drove them for 20 hours to the border and the Zaatari refugee camp just over the border in Jordan. Due to the children’s injuries they were processed through the camp immediately and ended up in the house we met them in today.
A flat in Irbid, the third largest city in Jordan. The rent is paid for by the UNHCR and they are given a monthly food allowance of £15 each by with World Food Programme. Eighteen months ago Aa’eda arrived into the world and so there are now nine members of the family living in the three bedroomed flat. Muayed was smuggled out of Lebanon and into Jordan because they were worried about him being injured or worse and also now lives with them.
Once upon a time Muayed had dreams of being a pharmacist but two years ago he had to drop out of college because the family can no longer pay the fees. Fees for oversees students are much high in Jordan than they are for Jordanians and there is no way the family can afford for him to attend college (education in Syria is cheap). Yet he, along with the rest of the family, are not allowed to work either. They are in limbo. For years.
That’s not to say they don’t work when they can. Twelve year old Abdullah told us how he sometimes gets work from a man who makes perfumes and allows Abdullah to sell them on the street for him. But it sounded like that work was scarce. We had earlier met Abdullah at school where he was in an Arabic class and as we started photographing him he proudly opened the pocket inside his jacket and showed us his fist full of marbles. Clearly his most prized possessions.
As he first served us hot, strong coffee (shared amongst us all from one small cup as is the Arabic way) and then endless cups of tea that wouldn’t stop until we shook our glass three times we asked Muayed what he wants for the future
I just want to get to Europe so I can finish my education
That is all this 20 year old man wants. He wants to be a pharmacist, to provide for his family and to help other people but a regime in Syria has put an end to all of that.
And of any hopes of returning to the land they call home. They can, of course, go back any time they like but should they do so they will be banned from re-entering Jordan for five years. So they can’t.
They must wait for the UNHCR programme that helps refugees get to Europe to process their claim. It takes years. Background checks are carried out to ensure family members have no links to radicalized groups and that their claims are genuine. Muayed keeps an eye on his phone because the call that it is their turn can come at any time.
It is refugees that have completed this process that the UK will take, but only 20,000 which is shameful. There are 690,000 in Jordan right now and the fact that we are only offering to take a tiny percentage is just despicable.
We had sat for over an hour, on thin mattresses on the floor of the windowless lounge, the TV silently playing in the background, whilst this family with relatively nothing had shared their coffee, their tea and their life stories with us. They happily posed for our photos, in return they only asked for selfies with all of us.
As we left Aintifar suddenly looked embarrassed as she remembered she had meant to share a gift with all of us.
She pressed a fun sized Twix into our hands and the enormity of all of this hit me. It wasn’t that they had shrapnel wounds, or had to flee their home that broke my heart. This lady who is feeding and clothing her family of 9 on less than £150 a month handed each of us a chocolate bar and it pretty much broke us.
Syrian refugees are not just a statistic. A newspaper article. Scroungers. Wanting to get to the UK for free houses and healthcare. They are hard working, skilled, vulnerable people who just want to educate their families and earn a living.
Is that too much to ask?
We are here with WorldVisionUk as part of their #BarefootCoatless campaign to mark the fifth anniverary of the start of the conflict in Syria. There is more information here: Help the #BarefootCoatless Campaign