I’m just back from a truly eye-opening trip to Jordan for UNICEF with a TV documentary team. We’ve been travelling the country meeting Syrian refugee families, some in formal camps like Za’atari and Azraq and others in “host communities” in the capital Amman and provincial towns. All have fled the fighting in Syria and made the dangerous journey, often with small babies and children, over the border into Jordan.
Some have been living in Jordan for several years, others have just arrived. All have incredible stories of hardship and survival – as a film-maker, what struck me is how every single person we met is a living and breathing movie in their own right.
Whilst media attention has been largely focussed on camps like Za’atari (which is now the second largest in the world), the reality is that more than 80% of refugees are actually trying to eek out an existence in towns and cities alongside local Jordanians and refugees from other countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. In theory, they have more freedom than in the camps (which require refugees to apply for exit permits if they wish to leave) – but actually, many seem to be living in isolation, struggling to make ends meet, relying on hand-outs from neighbours, and desperately trying to make life as normal as possible for their children, who have been through some truly traumatic experiences to get this far.
Hearing stories from refugee children and their families first-hand, I was struck by their incredible resilience in the face of such adversity. Hussam, a sparky 15-year-old, gave me a hair-raising account of how he and his family left their town in Dara’a in the south of Syria, paying smugglers to find them a good route on foot and by truck across the desert, hiding out in abandoned buildings in case they were discovered by “men with guns” (including ISIS), and fearing for the smallest children and pregnant women in the group he was travelling with. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with all that as an adult, let alone as a fifteen-year-old child.
Many refugees are living in towns near the border with Syria. We went to one town, Al Ramtha, about 5kms from the border, which has periodically suffered the fallout of shelling from fighting going on near Dara’a on the Syrian side of the border. Here, as in many other towns, refugee children and their families are living a fairly hellish existence, it seems. Saddam, 13 years old, told us how he goes to work on farms to try and earn money for his family (his mother is too ill to work, his father is still back in Syria). The work he has to do (climbing high ladders to separate the fruit on trees so it will grow better) sounds back-breaking and he’s often out on the land for 12 hours or more, getting paid just 5 Jordanian Dinars for the day (minimum wage in Jordan is, I’m told, more like 5 Jordanian Dinars PER HOUR). His sister Hala, 15, also works long hours on the farms – she says the “chemicals that make the plants grow” frequently give her and the other children “allergies” and if the boss isn’t happy with their work, their pay is withheld.
In the suburbs of Amman, we met street children, some as young as seven or eight, who run the gauntlet of the local police to earn cash – it seems it’s worth the risk to put food on the table for their families. At a local UNICEF-supported Makani centre in East Amman, which provides schooling and psychosocial support to refugees, we spoke to many children who said that keeping their education going is the only difference between a life of child labour and the chance to have a future: these seem to be the “lucky” ones but still, they are living in abject poverty in the seedier parts of town.
We met many refugees who are looking to relocate or be reunited with family overseas. Many have applied to Germany, Norway and Canada, where close relatives (fathers, brothers, sisters) have already arrived after “going by sea” (refugee-speak for making the perilous journey via Greece/Turkey). In most cases, they’ve been through months of “process” – application forms, health tests and interviews – and are still waiting to hear: an agonising wait, given the circumstances of many scraping along on the fringes of society. Interestingly , we struggled to find many who’ve applied to be reunited with family in the UK – the perception, in Jordan at least, seems to be that Britain is “shut” (their word) to refugees.
I’m still trying to process everything I saw and heard on this trip – and believe me, the stories I’ve related here are by no means the most extreme that I heard; those I will leave to the documentary-makers who were with me on the trip.
Meantime, one little boy remains firmly etched on my consciousness. While taking tea with eight-year-old Ahmed and his family in their basic two-roomed house in one of Amman’s poorest suburbs, I asked his Mum and Dad if their four young sons had any toys to play with – the house was very bare and seemed devoid of signs that children lived there.
Immediately, Ahmed ran to fetch his prized possession: an old white toy bus that his parents said had been scavenged from a bin in the street somewhere nearby. As he ran the bus along the floor, I noticed it had a missing wheel – unworried, the boy happily trundled it along: it was his only toy and he clearly loved it to bits. Inwardly, I choked up that something so simple could give this small boy a little piece of a joy in an otherwise horrible existence.
Seeing what’s happening on our doorstep right now in Calais and Dunkirk, it’s unfathomable that we wouldn’t do everything we could to help kids like the ones I met in Jordan – Ahmed, Saddam, Hussam – who have travelled so very far to find safety and compassion. So I’ll continue to tell their stories – through blogs, films, whatever means – in the hope that people will, like me, start to see them as individuals who deserve our help and not strangers who are “someone else’s problem.”