AMMAN, Jordan — Farah slams the office door in tears, running down the stairs, through the parking lot and onto a hill overlooking downtown Amman. The 18-year-old tucks her headscarf in as she glares at the darkening sky, her father and brothers’ bickering still echoing in her mind.
Farah’s father hasn’t worked since their family left Homs in 2012. Barred from employment in Jordan, he watches the news all day, cursing the television scenes of Syria’s destruction until Farah’s brothers tell him to shut up. Ahmad, 17, has changed jobs three times in the last four months, making 13 Jordanian dinars ($18) a day for manual labor in restaurants and metalwork shops. Tamer, 15, doesn’t go to school either. He spends excess energy in fights with their father, pent up in the rented office they’ve turned into a makeshift home.
“They weren’t like this in Syria,” Farah said about her family, now in their third year as refugees in Jordan. Her mother works long hours at a physical rehabilitation center for Syrian amputees, leaving Farah to cope with tensions at home. She runs outside when it gets overwhelming, but not for too long. Young men leer at her on the street, whispering, “Ya Souriyeh, hey Syrian girl, come here.” Farah grits her teeth and ignores them, but still prefers not to be on her own.
Four years into the Syrian conflict, Jordan has become host to more than 620,000 refugees, of whom almost 80% are women and children. Amid evaporating aid, rising rents and crackdowns on refugee labor, single women head one in four of all Syrian refugee households. Many suffer psychological trauma, social marginalization, ongoing gender-based violence and little access to protection or information. Those who survive do so one day at a time, relying on female social networks for support. Women must reach out to one another, they say, because no one can survive this crisis alone.
Farah’s mother, Umm Ahmad, 39, used to work as a Red Crescent nurse with Iraqi refugees in Syria. Now she nurses disabled Syrian children in Jordan, making 150 Jordanian dinars ($211) a month. Their rent is 200 Jordanian dinars ($282), paid through her and Ahmad’s joint income. Nursing has always been her passion, Umm Ahmad said, but it’s different now that she’s a refugee herself.
“I am so tired in my mind. I’m always thinking, how to pay rent? What if I lose this job? If there was security in Syria I would go back immediately,” Umm Ahmad said. She stays in Jordan for her children’s sake, but fears they are stunted by trauma, anxiety and lack of education. “When we crossed the border, I felt like, ‘I want to die now,’” Umm Ahmad said. “My life means nothing. I am only living to keep my children alive.”
But at least Umm Ahmad’s family is together, the nurse said, unlike those of her patients. Sara, 22, was studying literature in Daraa when hit by shelling in November 2013. Seven pieces of shrapnel became lodged in her leg. Sara lost consciousness. Her mother and brother rushed her to the Jordanian border, where security forces stopped them but allowed Sara to cross for emergency care. Doctors amputated her leg. When Sara woke up, she found herself alone in Jordan, missing a leg and separated from her family.
“I couldn’t speak for two months,” Sara said, explaining how trauma numbed her world. Her family is still in Syria. They speak every few months, when her parents have sufficient electricity and phone reception. Sara had gotten engaged two weeks before the shelling. Her fiance canceled the engagement, not wanting or able to marry a handicapped girl on the other side of the border.
“I hate the word ‘refugee.’ People say it like we’re slaves, less than slaves,” Sara said. She’s learning to use a prosthetic leg, but doesn’t know how she’ll survive after leaving the rehabilitation center. Syrian women have priceless dignity, Sara said, but in Jordan, they feel like prey. “I feel like everyone wants a piece of me. Like any man could come get me, especially because I can’t live on my own.”
Fear and anxiety take myriad forms among refugee women, but single women are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence: harassment, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation and physical assault. The result is often isolated confinement, either self-imposed or enforced by family members for women’s “protection.” One-third of female-headed households surveyed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said they left the house never, rarely or only when necessary. Child marriage has also increased, rising from 25% of registered Syrian marriages in Jordan in 2013 to 31% in the first quarter of 2014.
“Many cases of early marriage happen because women feel they are leaving abusive situations to a potentially better one,” Daniela Greco, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) women’s protection coordinator, said. But child marriages usually worsen the brides’ situations, Greco said, adding that domestic abuse constitutes more than half of the IRC's gender-based violence caseloads. “Most perpetrators are the women’s intimate partners or primary caregivers,” Greco said.
Jordan’s social and legal context provides little protection for Jordanian women, let alone refugees. Jordanian law allows rapists to escape penalty by marrying their victims. Murder is punishable by death, but perpetrators who raise an “honor” defense — that is, they killed their wife or sister because they caught her committing adultery — have their sentences reduced. Fifteen to 20 of these “honor” killings take place each year.
Fear of social rejection and financial deprivation keep women from going to court, said Samar Muhareb, director of ARDD-Legal Aid, a Jordanian nonprofit that provides pro bono legal assistance to vulnerable women. “In many communities, one word will take away your identity, history and life. ‘She’s seeking a lawyer, so she must have another man in her life,’ they say, and it’s over. Even if it’s not an honor killing, you get shame and isolation.” Vulnerability doubles for refugee women. “Their only safety net is marriage.”
But some Syrian women are finding alternatives. Farah, for example, was terrified when she entered Jordan as a 16 year old. She used to stay home all day, crying and fighting with her mother. Several months into asylum, she started attending weekly art classes at a center run by the Jordanian Women’s Union. Soon she was talking and laughing normally, and entered a Jordanian school.
“I like Jordan because I decided to like it,” Farah said. “We didn’t deserve to become refugees, but we’re not the only ones. Look at the Iraqis and Palestinians. What if we all gave up on life? I have my family here and I’m studying. Those are the most important things.”
Farah used to have a 14-year-old neighbor, she said, a girl upstairs who was married to another 20-year-old Syrian. The neighbor stayed home alone all day as her husband looked for work. “I tried to teach her and invite her to the center, but her husband said no,” Farah said. Then they moved away. “That’s crazy to marry at 14, right?” Farah leaned forward, brow wrinkled. “I’m 18 and I still feel so young. She’s just a little girl.”
Refugees’ gender roles are shifting, Greco said. Syrian women are taking up household leadership because traditional male breadwinners are across the border, killed in conflict or unable to work for fear of detainment. “It’s not natural social change. It’s a sudden push caused by displacement and violence,” Greco said. Under unprecedented public exposure, Syrian women may become icons of victimhood and sexual exploitation. But that’s not what they want, Greco said, especially when given a chance to assert themselves.
“Violence is not something you choose. It’s oppression, someone else exercising control over you. Why would you choose to define yourself like that?” Daniela said. “How many people have asked Syrian women, how do you describe yourself?”
Social networks empower refugee women by providing support, understanding and an alternate “safety net” in female connection. They can also challenge social norms that put girls at risk. When Huda, 16, started attending an IRC program for adolescent girls in Mafraq, she and her mother both thought early marriage was normal. “I thought marriage would make things easier for girls,” Huda’s mother said. “We didn’t think about the risks for violence.”
Umm Huda’s priority is her children’s resilience. When they crossed the border in April 2014, her 3- and 7-year-old daughters saw the approaching Jordanian security forces and started screaming, thinking they would shoot. “We adults were afraid, too,” Umm Huda said. “But I wanted to teach my children to be strong. My daughter would beg me to let her sleep with us in the middle of the night. I’d say, no, we’re safe. I swear to God, darling, we’re safe.”
Now Huda and her mother are against child marriage. Huda sleeps through the night on her own. She isn’t going to school, but loves her adolescent support sessions and wants to do a research project on child labor.
Both mother and daughter resent the portrayal of Syrian women as vulnerable and easily exploited. “Syrian women are in need. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our honor,” Umm Huda said. She glanced at Huda. “We are weak, but we haven’t forgotten our dignity. We cannot let people take advantage of us. I am Syrian. I am still Syrian and I am proud to be Syrian.”
*Refugee names have been changed for protection. The author has been employed by ARDD-Legal Aid in the past.