In this piece, Hazar Oklah, Southern Responses to Displacement researcher, draws on her interviews with Syrian refugees, local residents and aid providers to describe the unequal impact of the Coronavirus lockdown on Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Oklah outlines how the Jordanian state, NGO and civil society networks responded ‘in solidarity and brotherhood’, when Syrian refugees first arrived in Jordan. These are themes we have explored in more depth in our Introductory Mini Blog Series. However, the legal status of many Syrian refugees in Jordan, particularly relating to their working lives, and their dependence on local, national and international humanitarian assistance for education and medical assistance, has led to increasing precarity during the lockdown. Syrian refugees working informally as day labourers without a Jordanian National Number have been unable to access government support schemes, and international organisations such as UNHCR have suspended assistance during the lockdown. Local charities, including faith-based groups, have struggled to meet the needs of Syrian refugees within the limitations of current curfews. In light of the ongoing pandemic, Oklah argues that ‘hopes for health, moral and financial stability for Syrian refugees have been disappointed.’
If you find this piece of interest please visit our Introductory Mini Blog Series or access the recommended readings at the end of this piece.
“I had to sell a gift my sons gave to me on Mother’s Day”: Syrian Refugees and Coronavirus “Post-stability Destabilization”
By Hazar Oklah, Southern Responses to Displacement Researcher
After more than nine years since the start of the Syrian crisis and the forcible displacement of Syrian citizens to neighborbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, hopes for health, moral and financial stability for Syrian refugees have been disappointed by the arrival of a new ‘guest’ on the international and national crisis scene: Covid-19.
An estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees are hosted by Jordan and Jordanian citizens share the stifling Coronavirus crisis with them, a virus which is expected to have an impact on the world for years to come. However, of course, the suffering of citizens, as rights holders, cannot be compared to the suffering of those who are, eagerly, waiting for local and international assistance to ensure that Syrians have access to meaningful livelihoods and basic needs.
After the detection of the first case of Coronavirus in Jordan in March of this year, the Jordanian Government took a package of actions to address the epidemic and prevent its spread, as work was suspended across the Jordanian Kingdom, leaving many without a livelihood.
Hundreds of thousands of people, including Jordanians, Egyptians and Syrians, rely on the Day Labor Work system to secure their minimum basic needs and the Jordanian government has issued the “Support for Day Labourers” platform which is allocated to day labourers who have a Jordanian Identity Number and are not registered in the Jordanian Social Security Corporation. However, this support is not offered to Syrian refugees: although the majority work as day labourers, they do not have a Jordanian national number. Without this support, the curfew has had a significant effect on their economic and psychological wellbeing.
Conditions faced by Syrian refugees in Jordan
In this piece, I draw on insights into the current situation faced by Syrian refugees in Jordan, based specifically on my recent interviews with a Syrian refugee, a Muslim preacher, and members of a Jordanian NGO.
One Syrian refugee living in Jerash City discussed the difficulties in paying for basic accommodation and utility bills, of having to sell meaningful possessions and not having access to vital health care and medicine.
“Since the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, we have not received any assistance. I have three sons who work as Day Labourers and now they are not working, the conditions we are experiencing are very difficult; we have accumulated payments of the house’s rent charge, electricity and water bills.”
“We have children aged one to three years, my grandchildren, and they have their own needs. I had to sell a gift my sons gave to me on Mother’s Day, a gold ring, for a much lower price, my circumstance was exploited by a woman here in Jerash. I did that in order to buy medicine for my grandchildren because I did not find anyone to provide us with drug assistance in the face of this crisis.”
Indeed, with most refugees in Jordan living outside of camps, it is notable that some international organizations and the UNHCR have suspended assistance offered to refugees when they have left camps in order to move into Jordanian villages, towns and cities. Suspending assistance has been justified as a means of encouraging refugees to depend on themselves, although they continue to have access to local charities and are able to receive assistance from mosques and local churches outside the camps. However, the curfew and other measures in place to stop the spread of Coronavirus have also stopped the flow of humanitarian aid to refugees by local charities, mosques and churches, as they are unable to meet with providers or aid recipients due to social distancing and curfew restrictions.
A Muslim Preacher in Jerash confirmed:
“The Syrian refugees do not rely entirely on the humanitarian assistance, because it is insufficient to meet their needs. They work as Day Labourers to empower themselves economically, and now that they are cut off from their jobs, they are back again to the instability.”
Jordanian citizens’ responses in support of refugees from Syria
The solidarity and brotherhood demonstrated by many Jordanians and their sense of human responsibility towards Syrian refugees was manifested in its best form by describing the Syrian refugees as “Our Syrian brothers”. Looking at Syrian refugees through the eye of brotherhood is, I believe, one of the purest human relations on earth. Before the Coronavirus and lockdown I noticed on my social media feed that many Jordanian people showed great concern for their Syrian refugee brothers and sisters: they launched humanitarian initiatives to assess their needs and provide Syrians with food, drink and medicine if they live in the same building or street. And because the Jordanian government was aware of the great suffering that the population is going through, the General Iftaa’ Department called for rich people in Jordan to pay their zakat (alms-giving, which is one of the pillars of Islam) early and not wait for Ramadan, because of the exceptional circumstances caused by the Coronavirus. In spite of these responses, however, in effect many families have been unable to meet their basic needs because of the state’s suspension of work.
In an interview with Mrs. Maha Al-Hemsi, the Executive Director of Darb Jerash Association for Social Development, I was told:
“I have not heard about any support provided to Syrian refugees in the Coronavirus crisis except from ordinary people who live in the same area where the Syrian refugees are and that is because they are aware of how difficult their life is. This service may have been provided once.”
“Personally, I have assisted the refugees by connecting them with those who can provide assistance because there is no clear system of how to provide services during the curfew.”
Global assistance to refugees and the Coronavirus pandemic
Al-Hemsi added later that Darb Jerash Association has been restricted regarding planning to develop a new system to deliver aid to Syrian refugees during the pandemic:
“We are a local institution but we are supported by international organizations, and we are now calling upon the international organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and other global organizations to support us in serving the Syrian refugees in this crisis. Civil society institutions cannot move forward without their support. This requires a long time and the Syrian refugees desperately need assistance and immediately.”
In terms of this international support, Almamlaka TV reported on its website that at the beginning of April, the European Union adopted a 240 million-Euro aid package to support neighboring countries which are hosting Syrian refugees under the COVID 19 pandemic. The package includes 27.5 million Euros to provide comprehensive, equitable and quality education to Syrians in refugee camps in Jordan; and 22 million Euros to improve Jordan’s public health system, including disease prevention and management, especially through primary health care; and 11 million Euros to improve local and refugee women’s access to livelihood opportunities in Jordan.
Syrian refugees and distance education
Many Syrian refugee students, who have already had their education suspended because of the war in Syria, have expressed their fear that their education will be interrupted yet again because of Coronavirus. Although the Jordanian Ministry of Education has introduced e-learning through the “Darask” platform for all students in Jordan from grade 1 to grade 12, many refugee students are unable to buy data bundles and don’t have access to smart devices that support this type of education. Many Syrian families have multiple children enrolled in schools, but only have one smartphone, which makes the process difficult.
In a telephone interview with Mrs. Safa’a, a Syrian refugee in Jerash and a mother of three children, she commented on the subject of distance education:
“I have three children in the seventh and fourth grade and kindergarten who are enrolled in the Jordanian public schools. I was able to enter the educational platforms launched by the government because of the availability of the internet service at my home, but the internet is usually slow and the data bundles are lost quickly because most of the material posted on this platform is educational videos and I open different videos for three children and I have one smart device at home, which is a great pressure on us.”
In order to reduce the burdens of distance education in Jordan, ILearn Jordan, in collaboration with the UNICEF and the Ministry of Youth in Jordan, have launched the “My Education in Your Hands” campaign. The campaign aims to support the government’s efforts to enable equal access to e-learning through providing disadvantaged families and refugees in various locations across the Kingdom including Al-Azraq, Khirbat Al-Souq, Al-Baqa’a, Deir Alla, Az-Zarqa, Tafila, Jerash, and Souf Camp, with access to electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones. ILearn Jordan and its volunteers have been collecting devices from donors, taking into account general safety procedures, eventually delivering the devices to families after inspecting the devices and applying the needed maintenance.
For many people who had started to feel secure and stable as they adapted to a new life in a new country after years of war and dispersion, Syrian refugees have returned once again to insecurity and an unknown, challenging future. The Coronavirus pandemic is a strong slap that has crushed the secondary dreams for many, and has deprived Syrians of their most basic right: a decent standard of living.
If you found this piece of interest please visit our Introductory Mini Blog Series or access the recommended reading below:
Akay Erturk, S. (2020) The effects of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Turkey
Akay Erturk, S. (2020) Taking refuge in time, space and place: The case of Syrian refugees in Turkey
Akay Erturk, S. (2020) Syrian refugees and the transformation of Turkey’s rural areas
al-Mehdi, D. (2019) The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey
Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction
Carpi, E. (2019) Syrian Faith Leaders in Displacement: Neglected Aid Providers?
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Refugee-led local responses in the time of COVID-19: Preliminary reflections from North Lebanon
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon Face an Uncertain 2017
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey
Ozturk, M. (2018) ‘Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa
Featured image: “A Syrian refugee student from Jerash who is taking an online exam from home, as part of the Distance Education”