Syrian Refugees Strain Resources in Jordan

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MAFRAQ, JORDAN -- Shaking with fear, Abu Abdel Hadi tripped and fell three times in the dark as he fled across the desolate desert from Syria into Jordan.

The 65-year-old was clutching his grandchildren, intent on shielding them from snipers who often lie in wait along the border. But that night the family -- 19 members in all -- made it safely through the danger zone.

Now all they dream about is going back. While they wait, they are housed in a tiny, freezing apartment with no windows, cracked walls and worn carpets piled on top of one other.

Their most recent threat: frigid winter weather. The temperatures are down to 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) at night, and prices of basic commodities, including gasoline and electricity, are rising.

"We suffer from the cold and we are poor here but we are safe," said Abu Abdel Hadi, whose last name is being withheld for safety reasons. "When we came here we thought we would stay one week, maybe one month, but it's been six months and now we learn to live with the uncertainty."

About 80 percent of Syrian refugees across the region are not housed in camps, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Many of them live in grim apartments along narrow dirt roads, blending in with poor Jordanians.

Jordan has drawn waves of refugees in the past, but this one is particularly severe. The flood of refugees is straining the limited resources of the Jordanian government and aid agencies, though agencies say they are also trying to steer funds to poor Jordanians. Foreign assistance is only trickling in, leaving many in need.

It is challenging to distribute aid to refugees who are scattered across urban areas. While the total number of registered refugees or those awaiting registration with the U.N. agency in Jordan is more than 150,000, many others have not been counted.

"We are trying to expand the registration and roll out assistance to the urban refugees in the region, but of course a lot of the attention goes to the camps," Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, said in an interview.

An estimated 40,000 Syrians are living in the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan. The camp is not far from areas where most of the urban refugees are concentrated.

The United Nations has appealed for $1 billion as the refugee crisis has grown across the region. The appeal is based on estimates that as many as one million Syrian refugees will need help in the first half of 2013.

In countries like Lebanon, which is sheltering more than 90,000 Syrians, there are no camps for refugees; they live in villages and cities.

"We want to focus on the community outreach where we hire refugees who become community workers to identify problems and vulnerabilities," Mr. Moumtzis said. "We need them to help us find the most vulnerable and tell them what kind of support they can find."

The International Catholic Migration Commission, which works to help refugees and internally displaced people, has found that the vast majority of urban Syrian refugees in Jordon have no income and rely heavily on humanitarian aid.

The group says that one in three households of Syrian refugees has more than eight members. Children younger than 18 make up more than 50 percent of the refugee population.

Annika Hampson, a commission official, said: "A lot of the Syrian refugees living in urban areas have been evicted because they couldn't pay rent anymore, so some have gone back to the refugee camp and others have gone back to Syria. They had no choice."

When the conflict in Syria first started, many Syrians took shelter with relatives in Ramtha, a Jordanian border town, but with their own economic conditions increasingly tough, Jordanians are becoming wary of taking in yet another long-term wave of refugees.

For families, like Abu Abdel Hadi's, who fled with only the light clothes they were wearing, the winter has been especially harsh.

When they first arrived, in scorching temperatures, there was no refugee camp or organized system of support. Like many other Syrians who arrived in Jordan in spring or summer, they lived in a makeshift holding facility for the Syrian refugee community in Ramtha before settling in their apartment.

"We received aid money for rent. That is why we are able to stay here in this apartment. But we make sure that any other costs are very low," Abu Abdel Hadi said as his wife and family members sat across from him.

While he recalled the shelling they had left behind in the Syrian city of Homs, his grandchildren ran barefoot around the room. The large number of children living in one household and the lack of financial support put them in the category of extremely vulnerable families who are eligible for financial aid -- in his case, the cost of rent is covered for the next few months.

"Now, we never use heat and we hardly use water or electricity, because I can't afford it," he said. "I just keep telling my family we are here because we need to be safe for now and that's all."

Despite plans by aid organizations to help at least 50,000 urban refugees, with monthly cash assistance for the most vulnerable families, a large number will be left out because of the rising numbers of Syrians fleeing across the border each day.

Other urban refugees said that they were not receiving any assistance and that rent was their single greatest expense.

The U.N. refugee agency plans to increase the provision of one-time emergency cash assistance grants to help cover urgent needs like clothing, fuel for heating and rental payments. The majority of those seeking such emergency assistance in Jordan say they have been threatened with eviction and need help paying the rent.

At the Zaatari camp, trailers have been set up to begin housing some of the families who are living in tents.

"The plan at the moment is to help over five million people by 2013. That's a quarter of the Syrian population being uprooted," Mr. Moumtzis said. "It is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world right now, so we need an urgent financial response."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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