Winter's grasp deepens worries for refugees

Jordan, Syria

February 2, 2015

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  • Amneh and Mahmoud have lived in Jordan for two years, but getting through winter together is still a daunting challenge. All photos: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Winter is harsh in Jordan. The nights are bitter cold and snowstorms make conditions even worse for Syrian refugee families. While life in a refugee camp can be crowded and miserable, with only thin tents for protection, living in neighboring Jordan has its own perils.

It would seem that Mahmoud and Amneh are lucky — they have four walls and a roof over their heads. But damaged walls and a broken roof don’t keep the cold out, so winter is a struggle for the young parents and their one-and-a-half-year-old son Muhammed.

In Jordan, the rooms that refugee families can afford are often drafty, leaking and nearly unlivable — and life can be lonely. After surviving the cold winter last year, the young family worried about what they would do as the nights grew longer and temperatures began to drop.

Mahmoud remembers how the family struggled through last winter. “It was extremely cold,” he says. Some kind neighbors lent the family gas heaters, but they needed gas canisters, too. “We reached a point where I had to go around and beg for money just to get gas for my family.”

“We have to be patient,” says Amneh, who is now seven-months pregnant. “We left war, so our circumstances are a bit stark. We can’t do anything about it but have patience and deal with what we have.”

The young family has lived in Jordan for two years already, after fleeing the war in Syria. They left when the constant attacks and lack of food became too much to handle. “We would go the bakery and they could only give us three to four pieces of bread for the entire family,” says Mahmoud. “There was a serious lack of food.”

During the fighting, Mahmoud was seriously injured by gunfire. “I have a screw holding my leg together, it was broken in half,” he says. Despite this, the family chose to make the long and treacherous journey to safety.

Muhammed, now 18-months old, was born in Zaatari refugee camp after the young family fled the war in Syria.

“We took a car from Dara’a to the Jordanian border. Then we walked for about three hours overnight,” Mahmoud recalls. “We slept at the border, then we were transferred to Zaatari camp.” At the time, Amneh was five months pregnant with their son, Muhammed. The couple knew that there was nowhere safe to deliver a baby in Syria.

In the safety of Zaatari camp, where so many other Syrian refugees now live, Amneh and Mahmoud were overcome with sadness. “They bombed our house, they bombed our land with olive trees. I’ve left everything with great sorrow,” says Mahmoud.

Amneh, too, remembers how difficult it was to leave their home, not knowing when they might be able to return. “It was great suffering to leave everything behind and come here,” she says. Amneh safely delivered the baby in Zaatari, but life in the camp was stark and crowded.

In hopes of finding a better situation, the family left Zaatari and found shelter in the town of Ajloun. Amneh and Mahmoud both agree that life is better outside of the refugee camp, but winter makes the couple long for the comforts of home.

“Back in Syria it was much better. Here it gets really cold,” says Amneh. “We as adults can handle that, but my child, I need him to be warm.”

Without steady income — refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan — the family has only been able to rent rundown rooms that are barely livable. When the cold winds of winter strike, thin walls, broken doors and missing windows do little to protect Amneh, Mahmoud and young Muhammed from the elements.

“Just the sight of the house would make you depressed,” says Mahmoud. “But we had to stay here.”

This year, things are better, but the family still needs help. Mercy Corps performed shelter rehabilitation on Mahmoud and Amneh’s home to make it more comfortable — painting the walls, replacing the broken roof, and adding carpet, a sink, lighting and a hot water heater.

Before the rehabilitation work, Mahmoud and Amneh's home had damaged walls, missing windows and a roof that was slowly caving in.

“Thanks to all the rehabilitation, it is so much better now,” says Mahmoud. “Now we can take showers with hot water. Thank you.” Amneh is happy that their home is a better place for little Muhammed, who will soon be a big brother. “There was hay flooring before,” she remembers. “The carpet is warmer and Muhammed can play on it.”

The young family is grateful to have a safer living space, but the reality of Jordan’s harsh winter soon sets in. “We need heaters, gas tanks,” says Mahmoud. “We only have one gas canister that we use for cooking. It’s difficult to move it back and forth from the heater to the stove.”

More than anything, Amneh and Mahmoud want to return home to Syria. “Before the crisis began, we lived in such a safe place. It was really safe for women and children to walk outside,” remembers Mahmoud. “I used to hang out with my friends after we worked hard in the olive orchards. Life was really good.”

Amneh misses the life they had back home. “It was so peaceful,” she says. “It’s different here than it was in Syria.” The family hasn’t seen their relatives in two years, and the days in Jordan are lonely. Most of the time, the family stays inside to escape the cold and avoid any potential conflict with their host-community neighbors.

Each winter they face away from home poses new challenges — and for a young family with another baby on the way, the uncertainty of life as refugees can seem unbearable. Like other Syrian refugees who’ve fled the almost-four-year-old war, Amneh and Mahmoud are waiting — for peace in their country, and for a chance to go home and restart their lives.

“I would really like to go back to Syria,” says Mahmoud. “If we could go back, I would leave all of these things, everything, behind. I would take my family in just our clothes. I want to go back to spend time with my family again, to see them, to make sure they are okay.”