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Jordan: living in the shadow of the Syrian crisis
24 September 2014

For many Sudanese, the difficult journey to safety and their arrival in Jordan marks the beginning of a new struggle for them: integration into the host community and the daily battle for assistance as non-Syrian refugees. (Photo by Gaelle Sundelin)
"We are invisible. Colour and origin shouldn't matter when you are a refugee, but in practice it does, and I have witnessed too much injustice," said Abdallah, a fervent advocate for Sudanese community rights.
Amman, 24 September 2014 - After an endless drive through lanes of auto-repair shops buzzing with workers, many of them children, a small brick house emerged, tucked away behind Amman's hills.

Leaning on the mismatched metal frames at the entrance, we took off our shoes and treaded on ragged carpets, shivering from the early February chills.

When the family arrived in December, Atega and her family found a snow-covered Amman with no other belongings than the same clothes they were wearing on the day of our visit.

The family only had the time to grab some clothes before fleeing Darfur as shooting intensified near their house, leaving many familiar faces dead.

Atega's husband's whereabouts have been unknown since he abandoned his family the day she announced she was pregnant with their third child, Mohamed, who recently turned seven.

With the financial help of her brother, who resettled in Canada, the family flew to Jordan hoping to find protection and eventually receive refugee status from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

"I did register for refugee status, but nothing good came out of this, and now I am here without relatives, without money and without my community," said the mother of three, who will soon turn 40, with a sigh.

Not enough nutrients. The family now lives in a small two-bedroom shelter with a makeshift kitchen where they cook their only daily meal, comprising rice or lentils with the occasional tuna or sardine.

"We could never afford meat or chicken, and that is something we really miss," said Atega, adding that fruits and vegetables were not filling enough and never made it on to her shopping list.

"I just wish my children had enough food."

While Syrian refugees are entitled to food vouchers provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), refugees of other nationalities in Jordan struggle to rattle together enough money to meet their daily nutritional needs, adding stress to communities whose living conditions are already dire.

The doors and windows can barely keep the wind or the cold out of the small house for which the family pays 100 Jordanian dinars (approximately 100 euro) monthly, most of it being paid by neighbours.

Rubbing her hands against each other and chilled to the bones, Atega's mother, Sayyeda, developed chest and bone pains after arriving in Jordan but has not yet consulted a doctor.

"If I go to an organisation, they will not send me to a hospital. I am Sudanese. They only care about Syrians these days," said the widow, who does not know her exact age but guesses she is around 65.

Not enough resources to help. In spite of the presence of over 60 humanitarian agencies in Jordan, Atega, her family and their friend Abdallah Tijani spoke in one voice to denounce what they perceived as unfair treatment.

"We are invisible. Colour and origin shouldn't matter when you are a refugee, but in practice it does, and I have witnessed too much injustice," said Abdallah, a fervent advocate for Sudanese community rights.

Married to a Jordanian national, he used to work as a driver in Iraq until Baghdad was stormed in 2003 and the family returned to Jordan.

As Jordan became a place of refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees after the 2011 uprising, he has seen support for other nationalities dwindle over time. Now, he says, Syrian refugees are prioritised for assistance in distribution centres.

"I am trying to help spread the word about the forgotten refugees, the ones from Sudan, Somalia or Iraq that live in the shadow of the Syrian crisis," explained the 55-year man, originally from Darfur.

With the influx of Syrian refugees, most of the 1,500 Somali and Sudanese refugees living in Jordan were confronted with a substantial rise in the cost of living but a significant cut in programmes and aid from international organisations, leaving them increasingly vulnerable.

Jordanian schools are under pressure too with infrastructural and overcrowding issues.

Many refugees do not dare to register, for fear of being turned away. Atega's three children lack official documents, and she fears this might be an obstacle for them to resume their education in the public school system.

To address the issue and help the growing number of out-of-school children in Amman, JRS offers informal schooling opportunities for children who are struggling to register and for those who never had a chance to receive formal education by providing Arabic, computer, English and maths classes three days per week.

As we explained this to Atega, her children cheered up knowing there was a chance for them to go back to a school, no matter how informal a setting.

"I want to study. My school is what I miss the most from Sudan, even more than the sun," said 11-year old Waad, whose name means "promise" in Arabic.

As memories of her home country flooded her mind, tears welled up to Atega's eyes. She just misses everything.

"I miss my life. We had a strong community, with a lot of solidarity, and no one would ever let you go hungry. Here I have nothing," she said as tears rolled down her cheeks, tightening her grip on my hand.

Gaelle Sundelin