From a base in Jordan’s Rabaa Sarhan, just a few miles from the Syrian border, they piled onto five buses provided by the authorities and traveled to a drop off point agreed upon with Syrian rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime.
This was their arduous way of leaving the gray-lit world of the refugee and re-entering a homeland that has turned into a zone of widespread, deadly violence.
One of them was Umm Mohammed, the mother of two girls and one boy. “If my husband were here, I would not go back. For the sake of my children, I would not go back,” she told Women’s eNews.
The reason she said she had to go: Her husband was turned back at the border several times. “They are not letting our men in. My husband tried several times; he has documents, but they turned him away.”
Umm Mohammed was accompanied by her aging father, who tried to keep the family afloat as long as possible but was unable to make ends meet selling tomatoes. In all, they managed to live one year and three months in Jordan.
Most Syrian refugees living in Jordan come from the town of Daraa, the cradle of the March 2011 popular uprising against the Assad regime, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
The movement was met with brutal repression, including military crackdowns on protest hubs, which led part of the opposition to arm. The country slipped into a murderous civil war complicated by the influx of foreign fighters.
Concerned for their safety and for the security of relatives living in Syria, refugees interviewed by Women’s eNews declined to give personal details, including their full names, which they felt would put them or their loved ones at risk.
Of the refugees now turning back, most cited lack of opportunities to earn a living and harsh conditions in the camps as major factors driving their decision.
Red tape and the high cost of work permits in Jordan means that thousands of Syrian refugees work on the sly, at risk of arrest or deportation. Jordan’s Labor Ministry has documented the arrest of 15,800 illegal foreign workers this year, more than a third of them Syrians.
Joining Male Relatives
Besides the economic struggles, women often expressed a desire to rejoin male relatives who could not make it into Jordan.
During a month of reporting in Jordan, in September 2013, Women’s eNews encountered dozens of women who complained of the difficulties of life without husbands or other male relatives.
“It is better to die a quick death at home than die a slow death as a refugee,” said Umm Zaid, a mother traveling back with two children, both under the age of 5.
Umm Zaid, who declined to give her last name, had moved to the Jordanian town of Jerash with her husband less than a year ago. But he became crippled by shrapnel during the war and couldn’t cope with the stigma of being handicapped. He decided to go home. In the absence of a job or savings, she had no choice but to follow his footsteps.
“He couldn’t handle it here. My husband returned, so I must go. I don’t know how I will get home but he told me to leave it to God. I am scared of the shelling, just like my children,” she told Women’s eNews as she stood waiting for the bus, clutching the hands of her little ones.
Like Umm Mohammed, several other women said their husbands and brothers had not been allowed into the country in the first place, or had risked their lives reaching the border in vain.
Syria’s conflict has claimed more than 115,000 lives, a conservative tally, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitoring group. More than 2 million Syrians are living as refugees, the bulk of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey.
Water-parched Jordan, a country of 6.5 million people, is home to over half a million Syrian refugees, two-thirds of them women and children. They live scattered across cities or crammed in camps like Zaatari, a sprawling mass of tents and caravans.
In four visits to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan during September, the number of refugees in the arrivals area was small, aligning with indications expressed by human rights advocate Amnesty International in an Oct. 31 report that Jordan began to close its borders and limit its intake of refugees in May, after receiving a huge influx of refugees.
Inside, Zaatari’s largest crowds could be found near a basic tent, where Syrians would come to register their names for departure and wait for a truck to take them to a small base in Rabaa Sarhan, the starting point of their journey home.