When I say “refugee”, what’s the first thing you think of?

The first thing you might want to think of is “It could just as well be me.”

In visiting Jordan, we have had the opportunity to explore not only the refugee situation in Jordan, but also the definition of a refugee. In the case of the Syrian refugees, we’ve discovered that they are very similar to ourselves.

Ryan and Dave outside a refugee’s home in Amman - by Ryan
Ryan and Dave outside a refugee’s home in Amman – by Ryan

The Syrian people are proud of their roots, dedicated to their country, and hopeful to return one day. They are also middle class citizens who, prior to the conflict, lived average lives like you and I. Beautiful homes, good schools, gardens, cars, toys, computers, books and a place they felt safe to call home. Doctors, lawyers, mini mart owners—they could have come from any country in the world, and some day, each and every one of us could be in their shoes.

To go from managing your own business, providing for your family, living happy and productive lives, to uprooting yourself from everything you know and own, unable to work without a work permit, hesitant to even leave your own home, is something that none of us imagine as being our “tomorrow”. And neither did these strong, resilient people.

On our first day, we were able to witness the lifestyle of an urban refugee. That is, a person who has made the decision not to stay in the refugee camps provided free of charge for them, but instead to rent their own accommodation for their family, living in a typical apartment in Amman. This may seem odd, but really, would you be happy going from living downtown, within walking distance to your local coffee shop and supermarket, to living in a structured refugee camp with limited supplies and electricity? I suspect not. Around 85% of the refugees in Jordan live outside of the camps. Two thirds of Syrians are currently living under the poverty line.

The first stop was to the UNHCR Refugee Registration Centre in Amman. This office opened in July 2013 and has a processing capacity of 500-600 families a day, or roughly 2,500 people. The staff here will stay overtime to make sure everyone who shows up during business hours is taken care of. The doors don’t close until the last person leaves.

A typical day at the UNHCR Anmar Al-Hmoud Refugee Registration Centre
A typical day at the UNHCR Anmar Al-Hmoud Refugee Registration Centre

This centre is where people go to be recognised as a refugee, providing them with legal protection under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Anyone can walk into the centre and declare themselves to be a refugee—you could go tomorrow. They will listen to your story, verify your identity, and interview you to determine your eligibility under internationally accepted criteria.

Depending on your situation, they will work to provide you with food vouchers, and in some cases, monthly cash assistance. The availability of both of these is, unfortunately, very limited due to budget shortages. For example, out of the roughly 700,000 known refugees to the UNHCR, only 23,000 are provided with cash assistance.

A biometric scanner used to properly and securely identify refugees - by Ryan
A biometric scanner used to properly and securely identify refugees – by Ryan

Using the most up-to-date technology available, and lessons from the past, the UNHCR has drastically cut down on fraud and corruption. Each person is registered with a biometric ID (an iris scan), and that same scan is actually used to withdraw money from your cash assistance bank account. All communication is done via cell phone, with free SIM cards provided by a local cell phone carrier, including toll-free calling to the UNHCR.

Speaking of toll-free calling, this centre handled 250,000 calls last year alone, with 15 dedicated staff members working two shifts every day on issues ranging from emergency assistance to questions about the camps.

The dedicated call centre staff for the UNHCR Mission in Jordan - by Ryan
The dedicated call centre staff for the UNHCR Mission in Jordan – by Ryan

The efficiency of this registration centre far and away beats any type of registration that we had encountered in the past, reminding us of the long wait to renew your passport, driver’s license or health card in Canada. The staff are dedicated, amazing people who assess, interview and support every single person who walks through these doors.

The director of the registration centre took us through the process from beginning to end, showing us what a refugee would experience each step of the way. This may well be one of the most challenging times of a person’s life when they turn up here, and the thought that has been put into this shows great respect.

Our group was split into two, as we did not want too many people crowding people’s homes here in Amman. It was important to address the urban refugees who are here in Amman as well as other cities in Jordan, as they make up a large portion of refugees here. These are people who have been to the camps or bypassed the camps altogether in search of finding a life much the same as the one they left in Syria. The sad reality is that these urban refugees are living under the poverty line, possibly getting some assistance through the UNHCR, which would include food vouchers from WFP (World Food Programme) and cash allotments per month. Even this is not enough, as it is difficult to sustain aid for so many refugees that only about 22,000 get anything to help their situation and only after going through a rigorous interview that determines their need.

The first family had seven members, and only the mother and father were present. The children were at school, which segregates Syrians from Jordanians. We could feel that it was a little uncomfortable and we started to ask some soft questions about their experience here in Jordan as refugees. You could hear the struggles they had from Syria and the bombings that happened, which lead to their eventual departure from their homeland. What really surprised me was that they did not have a support network or sense of community here in Amman, even though there are thousands of refugees all around them. They use their immediate family as support and rarely get out of their rented apartments. Syrian refugees are not permitted to work in Jordan, and it puts a huge strain on the family, especially if they are not receiving financial assistance from UNHCR or other affiliated programs.

An urban refugee family staying in Amman who kindly shared their story with us - by Ryan
An urban refugee family staying in Amman who kindly shared their story with us

The second family had six members, and they were more open to talking about their situation here in Amman. They faced many medical and social troubles that burdened their everyday existence. Hammond and his wife Allia have two sons and two daughters. They lost their eldest son back in Syria as he was killed by a sniper. Their youngest son Aman does not go to school as he needs glasses and his old pair broke and they cannot afford to replace them. Even when he did wear them, he would be bullied from other children at school or in the neighbourhood. The family does not get any cash assistance from UNHCR, but gets $10/month per family member from WFP.

I was surprised at how little community support was here in Amman for the urban refugees. Understanding where the people came from in Syria as well as knowing that they fled a civil war could be a large part of the segregation from the others. It seems hard to believe that they would not want to seek out other individuals who have faced the same atrocities as they did and cope together. I may never know why this is, but it will be interesting to see if this same situation exists in the organised refugee camps.

    Dave White