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Syrian tragedy plays out on Jordan's streets

The majority of Jordan's 550,000 Syrian refugees live in urban areas, not camps.
Syrian refugees walk along a road in the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq July 18, 2013. The refugee camp holds roughly 115,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan about 12 km (eight miles) from the Syrian border. REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool (JORDAN - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION) - RTX11QJ0

AMMAN, Jordan — The streets of Amman are filled with shops for Syrian food, sweets and fruits. Syrian stores are popular and known for their excellent services and good products, the owner of this brand new restaurant, Hazem Akkach, said proudly.

Akkach is one of the 550,000 Syrians scattered across Jordan, but his story cannot be compared to those of Syrian refugees on the daily news. 42-year-old Akkach opened his family business last month, and he is doing well — really well. He has many customers, and he can afford to rent a big house in the city center. However, behind this wealthy mask lies a dark story of fear, abductions and terror.

After the war in Syria started, his family members were terrorized, captured and tortured by criminal groups. In total, eight of his relatives were abducted in a short period of time prior to Akkach’s arrival in Jordan. Paying a ransom of $50,000 wasn’t unusual.

"My uncle, a 60-year-old man living in Damascus, was abducted in bright daylight by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. They kept him in a dungeon for 20 days without food. He almost died of his heart condition," Akkach told Al-Monitor.

Right after his family paid the several-thousand-dollar ransom, his uncle was released. He was in bad shape, but he survived. His younger cousin, who was abducted a few weeks later, didn’t make it. "The criminals killed him after they received the ransom," he said while looking over his shoulder. Even though he is not in Syria anymore, he remains suspicious all the time.

Akkach had no doubts about leaving his home country, as he didn’t want something like this to happen to him or his children. So he decided to start a new business in Jordan, with the same kind of concept he used in Damascus.

"In Syria, we were walking on thin ice. We were always afraid to get abducted," he explained.

Some of his relatives decided to stay in Syria. Asked if he had heard from them recently, Akkach showed a picture of his relative on a website with portraits of missing Syrians. He whispered, "My little niece, 16 years old, was abducted a few days ago. We are still waiting for a message from her kidnapper. I hope they don’t kill her."

Of the 550,000 Syrians in Jordan, 430,000 reside in urban areas like Amman, Zarqa and Mafraq, or in villages near the borders. Middle class citizens try to find a normal job, and the ones who can afford it — mainly richer entrepreneurs — move their businesses from Damascus to the Jordanian capital. Coming from the war, they all have a tale of loss. 

In an attempt to avoid military service, Adel, 26, and his mother, Um Adel, left Syria five months ago after he was called to join the army of Assad. But instead of finding a safe haven in the region, they ran into many problems.

"My husband tried to open up a small restaurant in an empty building, but the Jordanian government didn’t give him permission, not even a permission to find another legal job. After this, he had to go back to Syria," Um Adel told Al-Monitor.

She lives in a building where eight other Syrians and some Palestinian families live. Jordanians are not always nice to them, she said, because they are afraid that Syrians will take over their country. Um Adel cited an example of a moment when they no longer felt welcome.

"My youngest son was working in a shop when a few Jordanian men entered, heard his accent and all of a sudden threatened to kill him. And another shop owner kicked out all 180 Jordanian employees and replaced them with Syrians because they are cheaper. This caused a lot of anger."

Most of the refugees who try to assimilate into Jordanian society have a hard time paying for rent, food and other living expenses. Living in Jordan is "extremely expensive," Syrians complain, and many are unemployed. Registered refugees receive monthly cash allowances and food coupons from the United Nations.

Um Adel said, "I miss everything — my city, my house, my kitchen, my neighbors. I even miss the smell of the air."

Adel checks his mobile phone constantly while his mother talks. Suddenly, his face looks angry. "The regime bombed the school near our house. I hope not a lot of people died," he says. According to his mother, their old neighborhood has become a military battlefield between the Free Syrian Army and regime troops.

The increasing number of Syrian refugees weighs heavily on the Jordanian economy. King Abdullah II regularly asks foreign countries for more funding to support Syrians living in the refugee camps. Recently, the Jordanian government also announced that every Syrian who wants to work in Jordan needs a permit, which costs around an annual $500 per person. If caught, Syrians working illegally can be sent back to Syria. 

Um Mahmoud, her kids and her husband are living in a tent located about an hour's drive from the city center of Mafraq. Previously they stayed at the Zaatari refugee camp, which they refer to as "the camp of the devil." Syrians wanting to leave the camp legally need to find a guarantor to make a small payment to the state, they explained, so they found a Jordanian man who was willing to "bail them out" and left. 

Um Mahmoud is holding a crying 3-month-old baby in her arms who is wrapped in a thick blanket. Over the last couple of days, it has rained a lot. "He has pneumonia because of the humidity in the air. We didn’t have the proper materials to cover our tent after it was damaged, so the ceiling was leaking," she explained.

Before the war started, her husband worked as a farmer in Daraa, Syria. Although he didn’t make a lot of money back then they had a good life. Now they can hardly afford bread, milk and some plastic to cover their damaged tent.

"My husband occasionally works for a local constructor in this area. If the government finds out that he is doing so, he might end up in jail," she said.

A local shop-owner in a village in Mafraq province, Ali Shdivat, complained that everything became more expensive after the arrival of Syrians. Before, people could rent a house for $50, but now they are lucky if they can find an apartment for $120. The climate for Syrians in Jordan is becoming more hostile: Prices for food and rent are rising, and more Jordanians are unable to find work since the low-paying jobs are taken by Syrians. 

He added, "This village is packed with Syrians. Landlords are kicking out Jordanian people and renting the places to Syrians because they are willing to pay more. Jordanians do not like it at all."

Just around the corner, Mohammed sells shoes. He doesn’t have any problems with Syrians, he said, although his business is not doing well since they arrived.

"People do not have the money to buy luxury goods anymore," he said. "But I don’t think we should blame the Syrians. They cannot help it that there is a war going on in their country."

In the past, Jordan often served as a safe haven for refugees from conflicts, like those in Palestine and Iraq. Many of them never returned. Locals believe the same thing is going to happen with Syrians.

"Look at me, I have been living here for decades, but I am from Palestine. Until this day, I am not allowed to buy my own house. I feel like a refugee too, just like the Syrians," he concluded.  

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