Amman Calling: Syrian Women’s Reflections on Decisions to Self Settle in Jordan’s Capital City

by Sarah Linn

Despite global attention on Jordan’s refugee camps, Amman is the host of the largest population of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The capital city currently hosts approximately 188,000 of the 657,000 Syrian refugees who have found refuge in Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian conflict (UNHCR 2017). Reflecting a worldwide trend in the changing demographics of urban refugees, these asylum seekers are an assemblage of male, female, young and old, arriving both as families and singles (UNHCR 2009). Amman has a long history of hosting displaced populations, yet there is little focus on the lives of Syrians living in the metropolis, the neighbourhoods in which they have settled, and their reasons for doing so. Drawing on interviews and focus groups conducted with Syrian refugee women in Amman between February and April 2017, this article highlights some of the issues, negotiations and concerns experienced by refugees living in the neighbourhoods of East Amman where refugees have attempted to restart their lives and debates the role of the family as a pull factor toward the city.

A Tale of Two Cities: Introducing Amman

Amman can be understood as a typical ‘tale of two cities’: a metropolis of ‘highly polarised social structuring’ (Potter et al. 2009). Stretching over 19 jabals (mountains) it has considerable wealth, predominantly nestled in the West of the city. It also hosts a large population of urban poor and has a long history of hosting refugee populations, typically housed in the East of the city. Amman is the engine house of the country, responsible for over 80% of Jordan’s economic activity (Kassay 2011). Demographically the city is majority Palestinian, hosting generations of East and West Bank refugees who have long outgrown the ‘peripheral’ urban refugee camps created in 1948 and 1967 (Ababsa 2011). These camps, which initially bordered the city, have been absorbed by Amman’s rapid growth, and Palestinian populations live in any number of neighbourhoods throughout the city (Ibid). Amman also hosts a large Iraqi population, displaced by the first and second Gulf Wars, alongside more recent displacements from Daesh activity in northern Iraq.

For many of those Syrians who have sought asylum from conflict and persecution, Amman presents a chance for shelter, labour and opportunity within a familiar context and culture (Chatelard 2010). There are longstanding kin relationships (and a small history of labour migration)[1], the Syrian and Jordanian Levantine dialects of Arabic are similar, and Jordan is 95% Muslim (majority Sunni Islam) with a small Christian population. Many participants in this study referenced Lebanese sectarian violence and the difficulty of learning the Turkish language as reasons for choosing Jordan for asylum rather than Lebanon or Turkey.

Typically urban refugees tend to live in the more unplanned areas of the city, alongside the city’s pre-existing urban poor

Typically urban refugees tend to live in the more unplanned areas of the city, alongside the city’s pre-existing urban poor, where informal housing, informal employment and a somewhat anonymous life can be fashioned away from the eyes of authorities (Sanyal 2012)[2]. My work was predominantly focused on three neighbourhoods of the city: Al Ashrafey, Al Mahata and Al Hashmi Al Shamali. Mahata and Hashmi are situated in East Amman, east of El Balad (the traditional city centre, also known as ‘Downtown’)[3]. Ashrafey, a neighbourhood with similar high-density and informal housing features to Mahata and Hashmi, is to the South East of downtown, mushrooming up one of the highest jabals of Amman to the edges of the Wahdat refugee camp. These three neighbourhoods have a long history of hosting Jordan’s refugee populations, as discussed above. I chose to focus on areas of lower socio-economic status, typically understood as ‘refugee receiving neighbourhoods’ (Potter et al. 2009), in order to connect with more vulnerable refugees living in the city. Ababsa (2011) has noted that along with the areas of Russeifa and Zarqa, East Amman is significantly socio-economically deprived and hosts the majority of Jordan’s poor.

From February to April 2017, I conducted 26 interviews with 33 Syrian refugee women and held four focus groups with 20 Syrian refugee women living in these neighbourhoods. These were set up and arranged by two local NGOs and an established community contact operating in the neighbourhoods. The interviews and focus groups were conducted in Arabic with the assistance of a local, female, Jordanian translator. The interviews and focus groups were recorded and fully transcribed, as long as the women gave their consent.

The neighbourhood of Ashrafey taken by the author from an apartment block overlooking the area on 22 March 2017

Camp Elopements: Push Factors

The Syrian women I interviewed had arrived between 2012 and 2013[4], and therefore had been residing in Jordan for over four years. Upon arrival, a majority had spent a brief period in one of the border camps, before coming directly to Amman. The camps were perceived as places of poor hygiene, inaccessibility, lack of safety and ‘bare life’ (Agamben 1995). Tents were flooded and battered by high winds, suffering the extremes of winter and summer. Women described losing their children, fearing for their daughters, suffering from extremely poor health conditions and being unable to access sanitation facilities. Some stayed less than 24 hours, using a Kefele (Jordanian sponsor) to get out of the camp and make their way to Amman. Some paid significant sums, sometimes 500JD ($700) per family, to be smuggled from the camp to the city if they did not have a sponsor. A few arrived in Jordan before camps were constructed, instead living for days on playing fields in Irbid. Poor security and lack of amenities meant many were motivated to leave for the city as soon as they were able. Others were released from the border camps to receive medical care and never returned, relieved by the opportunity to restart and be reunited with family. A very small proportion had the means to fly into the country, arriving and settling in Amman from the offset.

The City: Family, Familiarity and Affordability

My research found that decisions to settle in the neighbourhoods of Mahata, Hashmi and Ashrafey are made for a number of different reasons. The most dominant is economic opportunity, which few women recognised explicitly in the interviews, instead emphasising family connections and housing affordability as key factors. However, upon closer inspection, it is clear that when these women reference ‘family’, they are not only discussing emotional support but also financial security and opportunity.

Family connections featured strongly in why Amman had been chosen over other urban areas such as Irbid or Zarqa.

Pre-existing extended family living in a locality, either displaced earlier from Syria due to the civil war or living longer term in Jordan, was a significant pull factor for settling in a particular neighbourhood. The decision to seek family and support in an unknown environment is rational and expected, especially given the centrality of family ties in Arabic culture (Joseph and Slyomovics 2001). Family connections featured strongly in why Amman had been chosen over other urban areas such as Irbid or Zarqa. One woman explained that the movement of refugees to particular neighbourhoods could be understood as a ‘chain’, in the sense that they were all ‘linked’ as they followed other family members to settle in particular neighbourhoods (Linn, participant interview, 28 February 2017). These family relationships were commonly associated with feeling more comfortable and secure in the locality, and often superseded the need to seek support from neighbours or build contacts in the area, as support and reliance on family often came first.

The family unit played an important role in providing economic security in the city. The majority of women interviewed had not worked in Syria and were not working in Jordan. Income was generated through the family’s working age males and very occasionally children, usually employed in inconsistent manual labour across the city. Therefore, a larger extended family, including siblings or parents, living together or in close proximity, assisted in providing economic security for the women and their families. Families also played an important role in providing childcare in instances where women themselves had secured employment.

Despite the documentation of soaring rents in Jordan due to the influx of refugees[5], many women talked about the affordability of East Amman as a key decision for settling in the area, particularly in comparison to the neighbourhoods of West Amman (Care Jordan 2015). However, utility costs such as water and electricity created significant distress and confusion, as bills were often combined for entire apartment blocks and not always subsidised (Linn, focus group, 2 March 2017; Kelberer 2015). Living in informal dwellings located in highly populated[6] and unplanned areas also created significant distress for the participants; homes often suffered from poor construction, mould and damp, and some did not even have doors or windows. A number of women also described being in debt to landlords, although no one mentioned the risk of imminent eviction due to arrears.

Some women considered their arrival in the neighbourhood as ‘chance’ and, despite being prompted during interviews, could not further specify why they had come to live in East Amman. There does appear to be an inclination for Kefeles to place refugee families in ‘affordable’ areas of the city, which hold long histories as ‘refugee receiving neighbourhoods’, if the refugees do not have a preference or knowledge of the city. This lack of prior knowledge often prevents the newly arrived from immediately looking further afield for alternative neighbourhoods, and some described themselves as being ‘trapped’ in the neighbourhood to which they had originally been taken, as they did not have the financial means to explore the city or to move house.

Conclusion

There is currently no data on the distribution of Syrian refugees in Amman; however, there is general agreement that the high-density neighbourhoods of East Amman play host to a majority of this population (Kelberer 2015). Hashmi, Mahata and Ashrafey play an important role in providing economic opportunities and (somewhat) affordable housing for refugees as they attempt to carve out new lives in the city. However, these areas are under considerable strain and continue to bear the stress of the crisis in the city. As these are known areas where refugees often settle, smugglers continue to drop families in these neighbourhoods. It is clear that there are a number of factors which affect refugees’ choices to move to Amman. Whilst family reunification features heavily for Syrian women in their decisions to settle in Amman and to live in particular neighbourhoods, it is also evident that this occurs within a stronger context of economic opportunity – the typical ‘pull’ factor of a city.


Sarah Linn is an ESRC funded PhD student with the department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield and an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB). She holds an MA in International Development and Planning and a BA in International History and Politics. Her PhD research examines Syrian refugee women’s experience and negotiations of public space in Amman and Beirut, alongside their access to security provision in their cities of asylum.


The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxMo.


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[1] To understand some of the links between Syria and Jordan see Kassay (2011). Prior to the Syrian conflict, there was a small population of Syrians working in Jordan (see Lewis 2015; Potter et al. 2009) but the exact numbers are unknown. In particular, migratory labour relationships between the border areas of Ramtha and Dara’a were common. However, these links are not comparable to those between Syria and Lebanon, whose long history of migrant workers is explored in length in Charlcroft (2009).

[2] Middle and upper class Iraqi refugees who settled in wealthy areas of West Amman are an interesting departure from this trend. For more on this see Turner (2015) and Chatelard (2010).

[3] In reality, Mahata could be considered a sub-neighbourhood of Hashmi. However, residents tend to make a distinction between the two areas, Mahata being poorer and more conservative than Hashmi.

[4] The border between Jordan and Syria has been closed since the Rukban border attack in June 2016 and declared a military zone. However, leading up to this date, many of the border crossing routes between Syria and Jordan had already been closed, closely monitored or heavily restricted. None of the participants had arrived after 2013.

[5] According to participants, accommodation costs in the city ranged between 110 JD and 220 JD. ($155 – $310)

[6] Ababsa (2011) found the inner city neighbourhoods of East Amman to have significantly high-density rates, with up to 20,000 people per square kilometre.