Gendered resilience among Syrian women in Amman, Jordan

Alia Fakhry

CMES – Lund Univ. (Sweden)


While women face greater difficulties throughout migration due to their gender, gender can be a tool for resilience. Syrian forced migrant women in Amman indeed renegotiate gender hierarchies with agency and demonstrate a form of gendered resilience. Their experience highlights the potential resourcefulness of gender in the experience, as well as in the study of, forced exile. This research is based on an ethnographic fieldwork conducted between September and December 2015 in Jordan. Using the concept of gendered geographies of power in transnational spaces, it intends to bring forward a rather dynamic vision of both migration and gender in which both processes intertwine.

Keywords: gender, resilience, forced migration, gendered geographies of power, refugeeness


Sitting on one of the couches of her mismatched living room, between two sips of extra sweetened black tea, Ghadir admits it: the mother of four has many more responsibilities than she used to and her social life significantly expanded. Despite the flight from Syria, the uprooting exile in Amman and the daily difficulties, “life goes on” as Ghadir says with a timid smile. Now that her husband works twice as much as in Syria for a ridiculous pay, she has to handle the groceries and other errands he or her mother-in-law used to manage. That is why she got rid of the niqab she wore in her neighbourhood of Al Midan in Damascus, “a very conservative area” adds Ghadir. Another respondent confirmed later that “it was not normal to not wear the niqab in Al Midan”. Today Ghadir goes about her day in Amman with a simple hijab as “it is easier to talk to people, shopkeepers and taxis”. She is looking for a job and already worked for a charity last summer during the month of Ramadan. She also made a good friend, a Jordanian neighbour, with whom she spends a lot of time and takes religious classes in a local centre.

Ghadir’s life has been greatly disrupted since she fled Damascus. As she accommodates urban exile with resilience and agency, she renegotiates the social structures shaping her daily life, one of them being gender hierarchies within the household. Indeed, while it is argued women face greater difficulties throughout the migration process due to their gender (Giles 2012, Alsaba and Kapilashrami 2016), my fieldwork demonstrates that gender can also be a tool for resilience in exile. Expanding “agency despite constraints” (Gren 2015, 4) through the renegotiation of gender hierarchies, Ghadir and other forced migrant women[1] could uphold resilience[2] in exile.

Since the mid-1990s a growing number of scholars incorporate transnationalism in the study of refugee communities (Al-Ali et al. 2001, Al-Ali and Koser 2002, Shami 1996, Wahlbeck 2002) that often develop “transnational identities” (Koser 2003), thus bringing forward people’s connectedness and agency in and beyond migration. Simply put, transnationalism is “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Glick Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc 1995, 48). Yet Mahler and Pessar (2001), acknowledging that gender has rarely been the focus of transnational migration studies, argue that “bringing a gendered optic to transnational studies benefits both the study of transnational processes and the study of gender” (441). This paper intends to show how transnational migration and gender hierarchies are both dynamic processes operating over time and space, evolving symbiotically in Syrian women’s lives.

Gender in (forced) migration

Women experience specific violence and potential trauma before, during and after their flight, yet their experience of migration is not limited to suffering and pain. Feminist scholars have underscored the problematics of humanitarian discourse and of the representation of refugee women, and have emphasized women’s agentic capacities (Corbet 2012, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2010, 2016, Hyndman 2000, Hajdukowski-Ahmed, Khanlon and Moussa 2008). Hence Hyndman argues that “women, whose bodies, families, and communities bear the violent inscriptions of war and displacement are neither universal subjects nor essentialized subjects in distinct locations” (2000, 86). In this way, this paper takes a close look at the gender hierarchies shaping Syrian women’s daily routine in order to unravel these structures.

Within the household unit, the sudden transformation of gender hierarchies and roles ensuing from migration often leads to diminishing men’s self-esteem, which in turn can increase risks of domestic violence (Buscher forthcoming 2017, Lutz 2010). The redistribution of labour and care often puts forward women and mothers who tend to become breadwinners while other female family members take over housework (Ibid.). Besides, women and female heads of households face greater difficulties to support themselves and their family, yet women’s livelihoods proved to be more adaptive to new environments than men’s, since childcare and housework can easily translate into service oriented work (Buscher forthcoming 2017, 5). Thus, gender and kinship undergo significant changes in exile.

However, Thorleifsson argues that women taking on new responsibilities and the changing of social relations and networks “does not constitute a reversal of traditional gendered roles” (2016, 1076). Kopytoff (1990) confirms that “an apparently radical transformation of women’s roles can occur by what is in fact a slight variation in role shedding and role acquisition” (90). Gender roles and hierarchies are only rearranged in order to secure a certain livelihood and matters of security and dependency are at the basis of these renegotiations. According to Barnes “a subtle shift takes place when women do not have to depend on others, but instead use other people to who depend on them in order to meet their needs for security” (Barnes 1990, 257). Thus, how do gender and kinship relations morph through forced migration?

Transnational feminist theoretical framework

More than an attibute of definition of the self, gender is a process, a set of relations “among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts” (Butler 1999 [1990], 13). Therefore, while gender is a contextualized and specified relation, this relation varies and evolves according to the given setting and the subjects involved. Hence, gender is a social construct and a discursive practice (Butler 1999 [1990], de Beauvoir 1949). Because it carries power distinctions and social difference, gender becomes a meaningful concept in transnational studies to unravel these structures. In this way, gender evolves across borders and is reshaped in situations of transnationalism (Mahler and Pessar 2001).

In her overview of the state of scholarship on Gender in the Migratory Process (2010), Lutz pleads for a study of the “gender-specific (transnational) migration patterns” through a multi-scaled analysis. Scholars have indeed acknowledged the role of nation-states projects and households on gender roles (e.g. Fouron and Glick Schiller 2001, Pessar 1999), yet they have lacked to take into account the various layers of power affecting migrants’ lives. She brings forward “the need to integrate gender aspects into theories based on transnational migration, labour market and network approaches” (Lutz 2010, 1658-1659).

Linking the concept of social words to the study of transnationalism, and bringing in the role of gender, Mahler and Pessar (2001) introduce the conceptual model of Gendered Geographies of Power in transnational spaces (GGP). Their framework articulates geographic scales, social locations and power geometries, as well as the role of personal resourcefulness and social imaginaries in the (re)definition of gender through migration (2001, 2003, 2006). Following Lutz’s argumentation, each element of their concept provides a wide and in-depth analysis of gender in transnational contexts, taking into account the various scales impacting gendered aspects of people’ lives across borders. They understand it as a framework to analyse “people’s social agency – corporal and cognitive – given their own initiative as well as their positioning within multiple layers of power operative within and across many terrains” (2001, 447). They articulate gender, transnationalism[3] and transnational spaces[4] to craft a concept that acknowledges power hierarchies and degrees of agency (power geometries) on multiple spatial (geographic scales) and social scales (social locations). Although convenient to the study of transnational forced migration, the concept of GGP has been little used in this context so far. While the concept of GGP is not explicitly designed for the study of refugee communities, Mahler and Pessar argue (2006, 51) that:

as agency is more interrogated the commonplace poles ‘voluntary’ (immigrant) versus ‘involuntary’ or ‘forced’ (refugee, slave?) migration should be rightfully seen as endpoints in a long continuum with many intermediary measures and sites where gendered ideologies and processes operate.

The concept of GGP serves the overall aim of this research, which is to explore the facets of Syrian women’s resilience in transnational exile. Besides, it allows a multiscale and multilevel analysis simultanely looking at the transnational social spaces in which women are embedded (geographic scales), the spaces in which they inscribe themselves (social locations) and the gender roles (power geometries) that define their daily lives.

I chose to use qualitative methods of research as they suited the needs of my fieldwork for several reasons. On the one hand, feminist critique has argued that qualitative small scale research methods in social sciences are suited best to women studying women, as it increases intersubjectivity with the research participants (McDowell 1992). Besides, Vargas argues that “the delicate condition of refugee families […] means that service providers and scholars […] encounter a variety of thorny ethical dilemmas” (1998, 35). Conducting research with forced migrants, it was primordial to preserve and anonymize their information. Indeed, most of them worked or resided in Jordan illegally, some had escaped camps and risked to be taken back. Thus the names of all my respondents, as well as my interpreters’ have been modified.

During a three-month fieldwork in Jordan, I interviewed 18 Syrian women, aged between 17 and 60. All of them lived on the outskirts of Amman at the time of the study, or in peripheral areas. Most of them used to live in, or on the peripheries of, large Syrian cities. Some came from rural areas in the North and South West of Syria. They arrived in Jordan between the summer of 2011 and August 2014, mostly coming by road. In general, they first ended up in other Jordanian cities or passed by refugee camps before reaching Amman. Most of them lived in a male headed household, where the male main figure was often their husband.

In Syria, they were mostly housewives (sitt beit) or students. While only one of them had already a paid activity back in Syria[5], seven were working at the time of the study. Indeed, widow since 2013, Um Amer started selling accessories back in Syria and cumulated side jobs in Amman. The others were working in factories, as secretaries, housekeepers, language teachers, in beauty salons or with charities and NGOs. While most of my respondents are registered as refugees, four of them are not, either because they are married to, or children of, Jordanians or because they made the choice not to register. All of my research participants had relatives, friends or business connections in Jordan, who sometimes moved to Jordan long before the conflict in Syria, and who generally eased their arrival and settlement in the country. Their quality of life and living conditions in Amman varied. While Leila dwells in a two-room basement with her four children in the shabby neighbourhood of Jabal al Taj, Ghazal lives in a spacious and bright flat with her family by the university of Jordan, where her brother studies. Yet, they all faced precariousness on a daily basis.

The modification of women’s social worlds after forced migration implied in almost all cases a renegotiation of gender roles in the household unit, reshaping gender roles and household patterns. In order to comprehend the multiplicity of forces operating on gender roles across transnational terrains, I will use here the concept of Gendered Geographies of Power (GGP) developed by Mahler and Pessar (2001, 2003, 2006). It allows a multi-scaled analysis, encompassing different geographies, integrates social locations reflecting the different power hierarchies in which one can be embedded, and acknowledges various degrees of agency. Using this concept in the study of forced migrant women in urban settings, I have identified three household patterns. They involve various uses of the city and rates of activity, translating diverse levels of agency : the sitt beit (1), the collaborative household (2) and the awaiting wife (3). These patterns highlight questions of sexual (un)availability that are at the heart of the renegotiations of gender hierarchies, and which are perhaps exacerbated in urban contexts. Indeed, feminist scholars such as Wilson (1990) have emphasized the ambivalence of urban spaces for women, being both exclusionary and potentially emancipatory. Besides, Jackson (2005) argues that cities and public spaces are the stage of normative violence engendering shame people tend to escape, often retreating in specific areas of the city, or avoiding it at all. Finally, the three different roles I have identified are not explicitely communicated, but transpire from data analysis and coding.

First, the sitt beit’s activities are traditionally restricted to housework and caregiving. Many of my respondents presented themselves as sitt beit (house wife). Yet, for the purposes of this study I use the term to refer to women living in male headed households and who do not engage in any type of paid activity besides housework. That was the case of Noor, who quit her job at Jabal al Nasser hospital when she got married to another Syrian refugee. Since then, she lives at her in-laws, also in Jabal Al Nasser. Her husband works in a fabrics factory and provides the only salary of the household. Noor spends her day with her mother-in-law Salma and helps her with the housework. She has a rather limited experience of Amman:

N: I go shopping with Salma to the mokhayiam. Every week we go there.

A: And what other neighbourhoods, or places do you go to?

N: Only the mokhayiam. That and the hospital, when I was working there. But that was before [I got married]. And also the UNHCR.

On the other hand, in collaborative households women often invest the city on a daily basis and have a rather diversified experience of it. Collaborative patters often occur in male headed households, in which women’s activity can be renegotiated with the main male figure. It is typically the situation of Lina:

When we left Syria, I told my mom we had to go to Amman, because I knew I could give classes to foreigners. Some of them I knew from Damascus already, when I was at university. So when we came to Amman, I started working like this [as an Arabic tutor] and after one year I had like a salary with like six to ten students. I go everyday to West Amman to meet them. Also my husband teaches Arabic. Now he has three students, but they are all from my contacts. But because I could not teach more, I gave them to my husband. He teaches on top of his job.

In this way, both of them collaboratively contribute to support the household. It is precisely because both the woman and the main male figure (who is not necessarily her husband) can contribute to the household economy that Lina and others are able to perform activities outside the household and can navigate in the city. In such situation, the head of the household is shared as much as the financial burden is. Moreover, in this configuration former sitt beit begun experiencing the city in new ways as they started working or taking care of the household economy and hence, had to leave the house during daytime. Rabiyah, for instance, lived in a conservative area in Homs where she used to wear a niqab when going outdoors:

I used to wear the niqab in Syria […] Why? Well, it is the just the way it was there.

Similarly, since she started having activities outside the house, such as grocery shopping or working as a cook for a local Islamic charity, Ghadir changed her outfit for a simple hijab as “it is much more practical when you have to talk to people, shop sellers and taxi drivers”.

Within collaborative households, women seem to experience the city as an emancipatory space. Thus the city becomes “as a shifting space that can be appropriated by women” who can explore the interstices of urban anonymity (Wilson 1990, quoted by Bondi and Rose 2003, 230). However, they do not completely escape normative expectations contrary to what Wilson argues. Though free to come and go according to their daily activities, women living in collaborative households still pay attention to matters of honour and shame, such as neighbourhood monitoring. Thus, Lina makes sure that:

when I come back home and it is already dark, I always ask the taxi to drive in front of the gates of my building. It’s better. Not that the area is dangerous, really it is safe here. You know, I am married, people speak. And also you see, I am not veiled [laughs].

Contrary to women in collaborative households, awaiting wives have the lowest activity rates, barely leave the house and rather experience the normativity and uncertainty of urban space. Though their husbands are “unavailable”, their shadows remain and hover over the family. Samia is one of them, married and yet, de facto head of the household. Her husband left Jordan a year ago to reach Sweden. Today the family is hoping to be granted asylum there to obtain family reunification. Since her husband left the house, she remains at home with her 5 children and her mother:

I go out once a month with my mother to [the Palestinian camp of] Wardat for grocery shopping, because it is very cheap there. We take everything we need, flour, sugar, oil and we take a lot, like this we don’t have to go back. Taxi drivers always make fun of us when they see all our bags. Sometimes I also buy fresh fruits and vegetables from a hawker. That is it. I don’t like to go out. Before with my husband we visited our relatives in the North, now I feel like I am dying in Jordan, doing nothing.

Besides Samia started wearing the niqab upon her husband’s departure from Amman. Her limited experience of the city and the change of dress she operated highlight her sexual unavailability and comply with matters of honours. Avoiding public spaces, she makes sure to display her unavailability: her husband left Jordan, yet he is still part of the gender equation and becomes visible, through Samia’s urban invisibility. Thus awaiting wives might experience the city as a rather constraining and disadvantaging stage (Bondi and Rose 2003). Looking at gender as a social construct, a shifting set of relations, it is important to acknowledge the content of this relation, the term of exchange. As Strathern (1988) argues in her study of Melanesian societies, gender should be seen in terms of what men and women do to define it. In the case of Syrian forced migrant women, and especially awaiting wives, men are traditionally financially accountable to women while the latter are maritally accountable to men.

Samia, Leila and Rahf, all awaiting wives are in the complicated situation where their husband has left the household and is (believed to be) alive. Samia’s family hoped to obtain asylum in Sweden, while Rahf’s hoped for Germany. Leila’s husband was captured by the Syrian regime at the beginning of the war. I do not include in this category the two 2 women whose husbands divorced them or who left the household, because they have definitely left the family and hence, are not part of the gender equation anymore. To these three women, I would add women such as Salma and Rabiyah, whose husbands are present with them in Amman, but are unable to work due to health issues. In all these cases, women cannot take over men’s provisioning duty, as they are supposed to find it back some day (after a knee operation, once they will be reunited in Sweden or when he will be freed from Syria). Thus, depending on people who cannot support them, awaiting wives find help from the people who depend on them. Indeed, Barnes argues that “a subtle shift takes place when women do not have to depend on others, but instead use other people who depend on them in order to meet their needs for security” (1990, 257). Most of the time, women who found themselves in these situations relied on their children, as Rabiyah and her husband relied on their 15 years old son:

He goes to school here in Jabal al Nasser. At two o’clock he comes back because then the school is for Jordanians[6]. He makes his homework until five and he sleeps until eight and then he goes to the shawarma restaurant that is around the corner. And he works until two in the morning. And really you know, his boss loves him, he loves his little employee [proudly smiles]!

Similarly, Leila put at work her two oldest children, two young men (17 and 21 years old). The two of them work in a shop selling plastic containers located nearby their flat:

They work a lot, from eight to eight, everyday even on Fridays. Like this they make 250 JOD [together]. Before they used to do deliveries in the neighbourhood for another shop. But I told them to stop, I was too afraid for them [because they work illegally and are undocumented in Jordan]. You know my brother once he was controlled by the police in a bus. He could give the name of our brother, because he is registered but my sons, maybe they take them back to Syria. So now, it is better that they stay in the shop.

The situation of uncertainty in which awaiting wives find themselves is often reinforced by their thorny legal situation: Leila and Samia are both undocumented as they respectively escaped the camps of Azraq and Zaatari. I further elaborate on the role of the refugee label and experience in women’s lives in the following section.

Exploring gender roles that have arisen from forced migration, with the help of the concept of gendered geographies of power, my concern here was to highlight the ways in which gender can morph in exile. As a discursive social construct, gender evolves in various forms and hierarchies, translating different household patterns. These new gender hierarchies involve specific uses of the city, emphasizing the versatility of urban space. Either emancipating or restricting, the experiences Syrian women have of the city of Amman tend to reflect the ratio of power impinging on them. They also underscore the fact that the city is not defined in its essence, but is rather a stage exacerbating specific social configurations. As Lutz rightfully puts it, “in everyday life practices, gender-specific characteristics are mirrored and, simultaneously, the individual migrant’s position in transnational spaces is marked by intersections of life-cycle, class and ethnicity that can turn out to be (more or less) resourceful” (2010, 1658). Thus, I argue that gender is not only a powerful tool in the study of forced migration, but that it is a tool in the process of forced migration itself. It becomes a social hierarchy to (re)negotiate, in order to manage the sudden changes that have occurred in women’s life, from their flight and their resettlement. This research also shows how the use of transnationalism in the study of refugee communities widens the scope of analysis and replace them in larger time/space continuum, highlighting further agency. It goes beyond the extraordinary in their lives and takes a look at their daily routines and mundane rituals. It shows how forced migrants place themselves in dense and complex sets of relations they use as resourceful tools. Looking at gender and migration as dynamic processes, evolving in time and space and morphing into a variety of social situations and household patterns, this research also questions refugeeness, as a legal concept and as an experience of exile. It looks beyond matters of violence and suffering and overtakes the mainstream representation of refugees framed by helplessness.


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[1] I rather use the expression ‘forced migrants’ rather than the term ‘refugees’, as some of my respondents have not or could not register as such. They do not all qualify as refugees, yet they do all experience forced exile. Some are Jordanian citizens, from their husband or from their father, many others benefit from the help of extended family who emigrated prior to the conflict and/or have long established connections in Jordan, and others decided to not register as refugees due to different rumours about the registration.

[2] Here and throughout this paper, the term resilience refers to the capacity to cope and “adapt existing resources and skills to new situations and operating conditions” (Comfort 1999, 21).

[3] Mahler and Pessar use here Glick Schiller’s (1999) definition of transnationalism, adding to Kerney’s distinction (1995) of global and transnational non-state actors in transnational practices, the role of transnational actors’ agency.

[4] Transnational spaces are a form of transnational social world, however more inclusive and broader not only geographically but also in terms of depth (Mahler and Pessar 2001).

[5] I use the expression ‘paid activity’ instead of differentiating between working and non-working women. Indeed, some have side activities, such as cooking for Rakiah, that cannot be compared to an full-time office job. As DeVault (1991) suggested certain aspects of people’ (and specifically women’)s lives cannot be addressed by analytical divides created by Western sociology.

[6] Schools in Jordan have implemented shifts to provide education to both Jordanians and Syrian refugees and to avoid overcrowded classrooms.

Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany

This is a translation from French (fisrt published on Lajeh Blog) by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Translation published:

This field report is part of a project of doctoral research into the networks and dynamics of Syrian exile to Jordan. This research is based on longitudinal monitoring of an ordinary group of refugees from Deir Mqaren – a village in the Rif Dimashq Governorate – and its aim is to analyze and understand the population’s “diasporization” process. Another of its objectives is to show how cross-border trade circulation initiated by the men of Deir Mqaren during the Ottoman era has influenced the migratory paths taken by all the families of the village since 2011. From the 1990s up to the conflict in Syria, the main source of revenues of the inhabitants of Deir Mqaren came from the sale of foodstuffs (dried fruits, nuts and “traditional” sweet products) that the merchants of the village bought in Damascus to sell on in Lebanon and Jordan. However in 2011, the increase of fighting in Syria considerably perturbed this trade which had been based on fluid, unhindered circulation between Deir Mqaren and the surrounding countries. From the start of 2012 onwards, this situation led a growing number of such traders to move permanently to the towns they had previously only visited to sell their merchandise so that they could work there on a permanent basis. In the following months, the regime’s increasing bombing in the Deir Mqaren area led their wives and children to join them but after a temporary stay in Lebanon and Jordan many families preferred to continue their journey to more distant destinations, particularly Germany.

Thanks to communication tools like Whatsapp and Facebook, I managed to stay in contact with some of the refugees I met during my surveys in Jordan in 2014 and 2015. In July 2016, I went to Dortmund in Germany where a family from Deir Mqaren lives. I had kept in touch with them since our first meeting in Amman two years earlier and used participant observation methods to find out about their new daily lives, particularly their representations and habits in their home area. The main ambition of this article is above all to allow my hosts to express themselves. Their stories published in this article are not supposed to be representative of the situation of all Syrian refugees in Germany. The idea is instead to shed new light on the installation of a population from a rural area in an urban environment – a subject which has been covered little in studies of Syrian refugees until now.

How Syrian exile from the Middle East to Germany is structured

At the start of the summer of 2014, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that around 3 million Syrians had left their home country to find refuge abroad, mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. During the same period, signs of stalemate in the Syrian conflict were multiplying particularly following the arrival of new players in the situations such as the “Islamic State organization” with their strong media presence. The Syrian regime has continued dropping its barrels of TNT on the civilian population thus increasing the total number of refugees heading for neighbouring States since 2011. Faced with this population influx and their fear of the Jihadi threat, in June 2014 Jordan decided to close and increase surveillance of its border with Syria (Ababsa, 2015). From then on, only a few dozen Syrians a day have been allowed to enter the country. This blocked situation quickly led to the appearance of two camps built for and by the refugees in the no man’s land between the two countries near the border posts of Hadalat and Rukban1 (HRW, 2016).

By autumn 2014, there were 600,000 Syrian refugees on Jordanian territory2 mostly with precarious jobs in the informal economy sector. The government decided to harden its position in response to the discontent of part of the Jordanian population who complained about the increased negative effects they considered the refugees were having on the housing, jobs and services markets. Police checks on Syrians living and/or working in the country without official authorization had been carried out for several months and these were reinforced. This led to more and more refugees being forced to go back to the Zaatari and Azraq camps or, worse, even back to Syria. During the same period and following a significant reduction in aid funding for refugees paid to international organizations by overseas governments, several families lost the aid they had been receiving from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the form of food vouchers. Many Syrians found themselves plunged into a context of difficult living conditions in Jordan (Doraï, 2015) combined with an increasingly dangerous situation in Syria and therefore chose to go into exile again to try to reach destinations offering more favourable future prospects (Rey, 2015).

The rare beneficiaries of reinstallation procedures coordinated by the UNHCR managed to follow official immigration pathways but the overwhelming majority of refugees were forced to pass through “illegal” channels. Thus by the end of 2014 there had been a considerable increase in the number of departures for Europe. Migratory channels from Jordan were added to routes run by networks of “people smugglers” with well practiced methods. Some of the migrants attempt the dangerous Mediterranean from Libya3 and try to get to the Italian coasts before travelling towards Northern Europe. Paradoxically the “Balkans route” is more expensive for migrants than crossing the Mediterranean and also attracts a growing number of migrants trying to get to Europe. Information circulates rapidly within the networks with the telephone numbers of “reliable” people smugglers being exchanged between relations and friends and in just a few months, as demand increased so the price of the journey from Turkey to Greece dropped considerably. Germany quickly became the favoured destination for the overwhelming majority of Syrians attempting to take refuge in Europe and the route through Central Europe was seen as the best way to get there. The relative openness of European borders at the end of the summer of 2015 meant that it only took around ten days for Syrians to get to Western Europe from the Middle East.

In the summer of 2015, several hundred thousand asylum seekers were trying to get across the border into Germany and barely a year later around 600,000 Syrian refugees were said to have been accepted as refugees in the country. But what happened next for these Syrians once they had arrived in Germany? How do they choose where to settle? What are the conditions for their access to jobs and housing? What is it like for them to be so far away from their own culture, families and friends in the Middle East, elsewhere in Germany or in the rest of the world?

Figure 1: Map of the route taken by Yasmin and her children between their home village and their current home in Germany

Figure 1: Map of the route taken by Yasmin and her children between their home village and their current home in Germany

The system to divide refugees up over German territory

Yasmin4, Faysal and their 4 children (three boys and one girl) have been living in Dortmund since February 2016. Yasmin was the first to leave Jordan – at the end of April 2015 – with her two youngest sons and Faatine, one of her closest friends and her neighbour in Deir Mqaren. Faatine, Yasmin and her two sons took a flight to Istanbul where they met Yasmin’s brother who had just arrived from Beirut with one of his friends who was also from Deir Mqaren. Once in Turkey, the group was housed for a night by a person from the village who had been living in Istanbul since 2011 and who had become in charge of putting Syrians hoping to go to Europe with Turkish people smugglers. The closure of European borders had led to them being refused entrance to Germany several times by the Macedonian authorities. They had also had to suffer extortion by the people smugglers who had escorted – and sometimes imprisoned – them on part of the journey. A month and a half after leaving Istanbul, Yasmin and her family entered German territory at the town of Passau where they spent a few days in a “temporary reception centre” before being sent to a “preliminary reception centre for asylum seekers” in the small Bavarian town of Dingolfing.

Yasmin’s husband Faysal, and their two elder children joined the rest of the family in September 2015 after having saved up enough money to pay to cross the Aegean Sea and then travel to Germany. They used the same people smugglers and route as Yasmin but the European borders were slightly more open by then (Heller & Pezzani, 2016) so their journey “only” took seven days. When they arrived in Germany, they first stayed for a fortnight in a “temporary reception centre” in the suburbs of Munich before joining their family in Dingolfing where several friends and family members from Deir Mqaren had settled after leaving Syria, Jordan and Lebanon using the same people smugglers and route.

According to Fouad Hamdan who was in charge of “citizens’ participation” at the central coordination unit for refugees in Hamburg, when refugees arrive at Germany’s borders they are systematically directed to “temporary reception centres for asylum seekers”. Today, the system works fairly well but in 2015, particularly between August and December when the country was faced with a particularly large influx of migrants, a Hamburg town hall civil servant admitted that things had often be improvised and rushed. However, according to the legal procedure, refugees were to spend around 5 days in these centres which were often made up of canvas tents like the refugee camps run by the UNHCR in Southern hemisphere country. Refugees are first given a medical check-up. If they are in good enough health they are sent to an information point where details of the procedure they need to follow are given to them. This stage enables German civil servants to record a first account of the refugees’ stories including their reasons for leaving their countries. They are then given a ticket with a number before other team members take their fingerprints and photo. Next they receive a certificate that they have been registered along with a card with a chip containing their personal information and the place they are to be subsequently housed. After this they are sent to a “preliminary reception centre” – like the one in Dingolfing – where they are looked after and given three meals a day. Refugees stay in such centres for a period of 3 to 6 months until the results of their asylum application come through. A residence permit for 2 or 3 years is systematically given to Syrians seeking asylum in Germany. However, according to Mr. Hamdan5, in reality when refugees get a 2 or 3 year residence permit, this is valid for 5 years because if they request an extra 2 years the permit is automatically renewed as long as they have “behaved well since arriving “. Fouad Hamdan also explained that: “The first period of 3 years corresponds to a training phase aimed at helping refugees to fully integrate into German society. So during these first three years, the refugees learn the language and receive training to learn a profession or attain German standards in professions they worked in at home (…) After three years, they (refugees who have done all the necessary training) will be ready to work quasi-autonomously. Thus the two extra years given to refugees are seen as a minimum return on the investment for German companies and the State. At the end of these five years, the State will take stock of each refugee’s will to be integrated. Let’s stay with the case of Syrians. If after 5 years they are still unable to speak German, if their work is not deemed profitable for society and if the war in Syria is over then they will be told to pack their bags and go home while wishing them good luck for the future!”.
After having obtained their 3-year residence permit, refugees are directed to accommodation where they will generally stay for the next five years. From then on, they no longer have much of a say on where they are to live and only nuclear families – along with certain dependent people – are ever put in the same accommodation or even the same town. For example, it was out of the question for people from Deir Mqaren to all be together in Germany as a whole on community criteria. The first place they live on a long-term basis is determined by the “Königsteiner Schlüssel 6, a complex distribution system created in 1949 whose aim is to fairly calculate how refugees are spread out over the whole territory. This was therefore the “key” factor which determined the rest of Faysal’s family’s move to Germany. At the end of February 2016, Caritas – the organization in charge of helping refugees find housing if they so request – informed them that a house was available near Dortmund in the Eving neighbourhood. A few days later, having packed their bags and said goodbye to their friends who were staying in Dingolfing, they left for Dortmund on a high-speed train …

Finding a place in a new society, a long and difficult process

– getting a new home ready

When they arrived in their new accommodation, Faysal and Yasmin decided to renovate it. To do this, they asked for help from Faysal’s former business partners who were still in Jordan7 who lent them part of the 5,000 euros required to renovate and furnish their new accommodation. Although the house was relatively dilapidated, the couple were delighted at how big it was. It was in a small building made up of several apartments some of which had been divided into three-story terraced houses.

Figure 2: The buildings and neighbourhood street Containing Faysal's family house in Eving (Dortmund, Germany).

Figure 2: The buildings and neighbourhood street
Containing Faysal’s family house in Eving (Dortmund, Germany).

Each of these houses has three large bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom on each floor, a basement cellar and a little 50-square-metre back garden. The neighbourhood is made up of around ten such buildings with worn walls. Most are inhabited by Eastern European migrants and Kurdish or Iraqi refugees. Indeed, Faysal did not particularly like this situation of social segregation which he found a real handicap to his integration into German society. One of his main concerns was learning the language. “It’s very difficult to discover a new country and learn a new language when you’re 40 with four children! It’s easier for children because they’re young and learn really quickly at school. But for us, it’s different. We have to learn everything all over again – a new way of life and language – and staying here not working surrounded by people who don’t speak German isn’t going to help me improve my situation. (…) Some of our Iraqi neighbours came to Germany nearly 20 years ago and still can’t speak more than about 10 words in German which often prevents them finding work.”

Figure 3: Faysal and Yasmin's youngest son in the family garden in Eving.

Figure 3: Faysal and Yasmin’s youngest son in the family garden in Eving.

– Daily shopping

Faysal’s daily movements seem strongly influenced by not speaking much German. He systematically goes to the same places, particularly in the Nordmarkt area which is halfway between Eving and Dortmund town centre. The family never goes to this area and Faysal says he has nothing much to do there. The day after my arrival, Faysal and I went to the market in what he calls the Arab quarter, namely Nordmarkt. He goes there regularly to buy things because he can find all the right products to make Syrian meals. It is a “working class neighbourhood” with a large Arab migrant population (mainly from the Maghreb and Lebanon) living alongside Polish, Portuguese, Turkish and Romani immigrants. There is an outdoor market every Tuesday morning on a big square in the neighbourhood.

Figure 4: Nordmarkt market (Dortmund, Germany).

Figure 4: Nordmarkt market (Dortmund,  Germany).

Most of the stall holders speak Turkish or German with a few words in Arabic which means Faysal can speak with them more easily. When we got to the market, the stall holders were all shutting up shop and Faysal couldn’t find the stall where he usually shopped. He told me that usually he bought from stall holders who he could speak with in his native language to negotiate prices and find out where the products come from. On other days of the week, he does most of his shopping in a Turkish supermarket which is also in the Nordmarkt area. Although he prefers shopping at the market where it is generally cheaper, in this shop he regularly buys damaged fruit and vegetables which he negotiates a price for along with Syrian-Lebanese groceries which he cannot find in other supermarkets (tins of hummus, Ful medames (Fava beans), dried pumpkin seeds, pomegranate molasse, etc.). This means that he hardly ever goes to German shops apart from when he needs building materials and D.I.Y. tools. If that is the case, his 14-year-old son who already speaks good German accompanies him to shops in the retail area between Eving and Nordmarkt to interpret.

– Getting a job

One specific feature of the national system for job access for refugees is that it is directly linked to their ability to speak German. In the context of this, the “job centre” (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) which Faysal spoke to me so often about during my stay was a key place in the refugees’ “integration” process because they found information about job offers or German language training centres there. Also this organization managed the payment of any benefits they were entitled to.

Figure 5: The Job Centre in Dortmund where Faysal went several times a week, hoping to find a well-paid job.

Figure 5: The Job Centre in Dortmund where Faysal went several times a week, hoping to find a well-paid job.

The German State pays the rent and other charges (except electricity which refugees have to pay themselves) including local public transport costs. Also a monthly allowance of 400€ per adult and around 200 euros per child8 is paid to cover the rest of their spending (food, electricity, any travel outside the city, etc.). In fact, these benefits are exactly the same as those paid to an unemployed German national who does not have the right to unemployment benefit. Refugees who have recently arrived have the right to work9 but getting a job depends directly on their level of German with those who do not speak good enough German only getting access to work which is so low paid that it less than the benefits they qualify for. Also when refugees are paid a salary, their benefits are cut to the equivalent of the remuneration paid by their employers to the “job centre”. This procedure is therefore highly frustrating for them. Fouad Hamdan, the Hamburg civil servant mentioned earlier, states that refugees “generally find if very hard to understand how the system works. They have been repeatedly told that they can only get an interesting job if they speak German well enough but they find it really hard to accept. (…) You can only get a job if you can speak German. Of course they would like to do a job which doesn’t require qualifications and nothing is stopping them except that these jobs are badly paid and the State will take the equivalent of their monthly benefits back off their salaries. But again most of them won’t accept this and don’t see the need to work if the State is going to take part of their wages to pay for things they have a right to without working”. To come back to Faysal’s case, although he goes to the “job centre” several times a week hoping to find work, as long as he can’t speak German, he has very little chance of finding a job which will earn him more than he gets in benefits from the German government. This is a situation which he finds very hard to accept. Faysal says: “I worked for two weeks on a building site since I came to Germany. It was really difficult and tiring. I worked over 8 hours a day and at the end of the month, the job centre took the equivalent of my wages to pay the rent on the house. So it looks like people work for free in Europe, is that right? (…) I realize that in Europe, you have to pay takes all the time and you end up with nothing left at the end of the month. Now I live in Germany, I realize that life really was for free (“balash”) in Syria”.

– Future prospects …

Despite the family’s daily difficulties in Germany, Faysal and Yasmin remain extremely grateful to German society for the welcome they have received since they arrived. They are particularly appreciative of the attention and respect shown them by local civil servants. Faysal: “When I go to the job centre, the people who work there are always very responsive to my requests, there are always employees who speak Arabic and everyone is always very courteous with me. It’s the same with the women who teach the children German – they’re lovely and always smiling! When I arrived in Munich with the children, the Germans took us in their arms to welcome us. Even the police respects us here! They are there to ensure our safety not to cause us problems which is totally the opposite to the situation in Syria or Jordan. When we were trying to escape from a war, the Jordanians didn’t even want to let us in and when they did they welcomed us by hitting us with sticks! So even if life is difficult for us here, at least we have rights we didn’t have at home”.

When asked whether they would like to go back to Deir Mqaren if the situation got better in Syria, Faysal and Yasmin both said that this would require Bachar Al Assad and his clan to be no longer in power. Faysal: “The situation in the village has become about normal again now but we still don’t want to go back. Before I can go back to Deir Mqaren, Bachar needs to go and we need another government in power. Because if the war stops but there’s still the same regime, we still wouldn’t be safe in Syria and there would be nothing to stop me having problems or being arrested when I arrive back in the country. But the thing I want the most now is to be able to go back to the village. You for example, although you travel a lot and you spend time in Jordan, your country is France. How much time would you accept to live abroad without seeing your country? 6 months? One, two, maybe three years? And then what? Even if you end up finding your place in another country, nowhere can ever replace where you come from!”.

Field report, July 2016

David Lagarde

Featured image: The Flower Salesman – Dortmund Germany by Magicman678 under Creative Commons BY license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Cite this article: « Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany », by David Lagarde in Anthology.

  1. Currently, over 70,000 Syrians are blocked at the north-east border of Jordan. Human Rights Watch regularly denounces the Jordanian authorities’ refusal to allow NGOs to provide humanitarian aid to this population who are kept in inhuman and degrading living conditions because Jordan refuses them access to its territory. []
  2. This is the number of Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR. []
  3. Until January 2015, Algeria did not demand visas for Syrian nationals. This meant they could land at Algiers airport where the people smugglers met them to take them to Libya, the departure point for the crossing to the Italian coast after a short transit via Tunisia. []
  4. All the first names of Syrians mentioned in the text have been changed. []
  5. This interview was carried out entirely in French. The words used in this transcription have therefore been translated from French to English, unlike the extracts from interviews with Yasmin and Faysal. []
  6. Literally “the Königstein key” For more information on how this system works please consult the article in Le Monde from September 2015 entitled “En Allemagne, la clé de Königstein permet de repartir les refugiés”. []
  7. Faysal used to work in the import-export sector between Jordan and Syria before the conflict began. His main activity was supplying nuts, dried fruits and sweet products to Jordanian wholesalers. Part of the travelling salesmen from Deir Mqaren used to regularly go to Jordan to sell these types of products in the country’s different Governorate. He also used to export other types of merchandise to Jordan, particularly textiles. []
  8. This amount varies slightly according to the age of the children. []
  9. To be exact, asylum seekers can only work after waiting three months following their arrival in the country (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). []

Islamic NGOs assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Gulf donors support

Dr. Myriam Ababsa

Geographer, consultant

Institut français du Proche-Orient.

This text was prepared for IDRC LCPS workshop “Launching a Homegrown Development Agenda to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis”, Beirut, 4th and 5th May 2016. Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

The Syrian crisis has been a turning point in the history of humanitarian enterprise in terms of the increasing role assumed by Arab donors. Not only did Arab funding increase considerably, but the Gulf States have taken a leading role in organising fundraising events for the response. This assistance is not easy to estimate, as Gulf donors are active through their own state organizations, but also non-governmental organizations and royal non-profit organizations. In 2013, Gulf donor and Gulf NGO contributions to the Syrian crisis totalled US$ 910.3 million. A third of this amount was distributed in Jordan, US$ 166.9 million, by Gulf States and US$ 139.8 million by Gulf Humanitarian Organisations (UNHCR 2015, Gulf Report).

Humanitarian assistance is part of a donor foreign policy and should be studied in the wider frame of geopolitical considerations concerning the Syrian crisis (Binder, Meier, Steers 2010). Jordan is opened to Gulf donors, as they are guarantors of its political stability. In May 2011, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia invited Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council. The following month, he gave US$ 400 million of financial assistance to the Government of Jordan (GoJ). In the context of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia gave a US$ 1 billion grant to help the GoJ to cope with its financial needs in July 2011.

Gulf organizations provide major financial support to Islamic charities. In 2013, they have provided US$ 139.8 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan. This assistance was implemented in coordination with 80 local branches of well-established Islamic charities (60 belonging to the Islamic Charity Centre and 20 to Al Kitab wa Al Sunna). The royal NGOs (Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO), Jordan River Foundation (JRF), Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) and Noor Hussein Foundation (NHF)) were responsible for channelling only 10 % of Gulf assistance. On a local level, Gulf assistance is visible and felt by the population, both Jordanian and Syrian refugees. Jordanian citizens have expressed their generosity by sheltering and feeding the refugees, and by giving religious alms (zakat), collected at the level of the mosques and by Islamic NGOs. Gulf donors assistance is highly visible in the two camps of Zaatari and Azraq, with hundred of caravans labelled in the name of each donor, and even more in the Emirati Red Crescent camp of Mrajeeb Al Fhood, opened in April 2013 East of Zarqa. But with the multiplicity of donors and their major absence of UN coordination procedures, it is not easy to have a clear picture of the magnitude of their assistance.

The question of Islamic charities in Jordan has been studied by several scholars, among whom Jeanine Clark (2004), Egbert Harmsen (2008), Sarah Hasselbarth (2014). They have shown the difficulty to draw a line between humanitarian and charitable activities, and how Islamic charities are reluctant to include humanitarian concepts viewed as western, in regard with Islamic principles used over centuries. Western donors and UN agencies are keen to coordinate their assistance with these very active NGOs. But they are concerned by the way they determine the beneficiaries, including categories such as martyrs families, combatants’ families and orphans defined under 15 years old. Another sensitive issue deals with the religious classes offered by those charities, with salafi content.

  1. The increasing role of Gulf State and NGOs humanitarian assistance

Humanitarianism is no longer a “Western dominated enterprise” (Holmes 2007). Arab donors are increasingly active, not only in the Middle East and greater Asia, but all around the world. Since the 1960s Gulf donor assistance has developed official development assistance programs, facilitated by the oil boom and rising incomes. Humanitarian activities were first organized through the Red Crescent societies, and after 1963 by the Saudi Red Crescent.

Humanitarian activities increased significantly after 11 September 2001 when Gulf donors were invited to become actors in the global fight against terrorism. H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Vice-President, Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai) established the first International Humanitarian City and has organized regular Dubai International Humanitarian and Development (DIHAD) conferences since 2004. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), second only to the United Nations in size as an inter-governmental organization, created its own humanitarian affairs department in 2008. The OIC is the only Arab based organisation to have registered to the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative (GHD) set up in 2003 in Stockholm. GHD is a forum set to discuss and agree on best practices and principles for giving aid.

Due to the fact that Arab states prefer to develop bilateral relations, neither the Gulf Cooperation Council nor the Arab League has its own humanitarian agency. These organizations intentionally avoid joining multilateral institutions such as OECD DAC in the hope of exercising authority over their assistance policies as well as receiving maximum visibility via bilateral support (Al-Yahya, Fustier 2011). As host of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Saudi Arabia played a prominent role in humanitarian assistance in the Middle East until 2013. In 2008, it gave a record contribution of US$ 500 million to the World Food Programme, partly in order to solve the food crisis in Syria.

Most of Gulf countries humanitarian assistance is going to Islamic states (Syrian, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Bangladesh). In 2008, the Government of the UAE established the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid (OCFA) by Cabinet Decree, in order to build capacity within the UAE aid sector. The United Arab Emirates is very active through the Emirati Red Crescent Society. It is supporting Arab and Islamic countries, but also Asian country as migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines form 85 % of its population.

With a total amount of US$ 11 billion pledged for 2016-2017, the February 2016 Supporting Syria and the Region Conference was the largest in the history of the United Nations. The former record was hit by the January 2014 Appeal during the Kuwait II conference with US$ 2.4 billion. By May 2014, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates fulfilled their pledges of US$ 300 million and US$ 60 million respectively (plus US$ 11.6 million outside the appeal), Qatar gave US$ 11.2 million and Saudi Arabia 17.9 million. Aside from this multilateral assistance, bilateral programmes are also being conducted for development and humanitarian purposes in Syrian-refugee host countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt), which are not included in the pledges made.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are alternatively according the years, the major Gulf donor for humanitarian activities. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, each has given historic contribution to the UN agencies. The State of Kuwait hosted two international pledging conferences in 2013 and 2014. It gave US$ 325,057,835 in 2013 to SHARP and RRP programs. In 2014 and in 2015, Kuwait has pledge US$ 500 m. Saudi Arabia gave more than US$ 780 m to UN agencies since 2011, including $100 million during the 4th International Conference of Donors, held in London, on Feb. 2016, not counting the assistance given by its state owned organisations and NGOs.

The OCHA Financial Tracking Service monitors pledges and donations to the international UN and humanitarian agencies. According to OCHA, US$ 831.9 million were given by four Gulf States (Kuwait US$ 393 m, Saudi Arabia US$ 88,7 m, United Arab Emirates US$ 17.3, Qatar US$ 22.5 m) in 2015. Kuwait has largely contributed with 400 million in 2015. Saudi Arabia was active through the Saudi National Campaign for Supporting Brothers in Syria. Qatar is extremely active too through bilateral donations, through the State owned Qatar Charity, and also through the Sheikh Thani Bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services (RAF), a salafi charity. The United Arab Emirates pledged 100 million, but gave 22,5 million in a bilateral manner, 36,6 million through the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society, and also through NGOs such as Human Appeal International (HAI), with 9,2 million. This is without counting the assistance given to Jordanian Islamic NGOs, only partly reported.

Gulf donors conduct regular coordination meetings with Jordanian implementing NGOs. However the UN and international NGOs know little about these organizations. Only a few UN organizations, such as UNICEF, World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organisation (WHO) have experience with local Arab NGOs. Since the first Syria drought crisis in 2008, several coordination mechanisms have been established between the UN and Arab donors. In September 2012, the Arab Humanitarian Portal (ArabHum) was launched during the third annual Conference of Effective Partnership and Information Sharing for Better Humanitarian Action organized by OCHA and the International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO). In January 2014, Jordan hosted the first humanitarian action conference in the Arab region, organized by The Humanitarian Forum (THF), the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute, UN OCHA, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO). UNHCR has organized two coordination workshops for Gulf donors and Jordanian NGOs on 17th April 2014 and in May 2014 at the regional level. Arab donors have been invited to the 4th Humanitarian Conference to be held in May 2016 in Istanbul, and all the material is already available in Arabic and English.

As well as state- and NGO-humanitarian assistance, private Gulf donors are active in Jordan. Thousands of Syrians are living in the Gulf, the majority of whom reside in Saudi Arabia. They form an active lobby on behalf of Syrians and Syrian refugees in all the Middle East. They advocate the practice of Islamic charity (zaqat), and more specifically sadaqa (generosity). However their activities are difficult to monitor. The governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are trying to promote the generosity of their citizens through telethons, and are even asking them to stop supporting some local NGOs that might have non-humanitarian agendas.

  1. Islamic assistance on the ground: the role of Jordanian Islamic NGOs

The first assistance provided to Syrian refugees in 2011 and 2012 was channelled through the local Islamic charities present in every village. This assistance was provided through the zaqat committees controlled by the mosques (Hasselbarth 2014, p. 8). Zakat committees are genuine community-based organisations, able to identify and distribute assistance to the most needy, Syrians but also Jordanians. Islam requires Muslims to give 2.5% of their wealth and assets to low-income families each year for zakat (mandatory alms). Muslims can give more than the mandatory 2.5% on a voluntary basis as sadaqa (charity). This money is to be given to either low-income families, orphans or to fund the construction of mosques, waqf (religious endowment). The popular perception of zakat is that it requires one to give to low-income families in the form of direct assistance, not in micro loans.

According to the Home Visit report (UNHCR 2014), 52% of Syrian refugee income comes from humanitarian assistance and charitable donations; 27% from work; 13% from family and friends; and 8% from remittances.

Jordan counts four major Islamic NGOs: the Islamic Center Charity Society (al markaz al islami, al-Kitab wa al Sunna, Takaful and al-Ruhama Beinahum. The two first were operative since several decades in Jordan, contrary to the two last that were created starting from the Syrian crisis. They have all considerably expanded their activities, thanks to the Gulf funding they have received.

The Islamic Centre Charity Society was founded in 1963 in Palestine and is the charity branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. It was active throughout the country until April 2015, managing a network of fifty schools, two major hospitals (Islamic Hospital in Amman and in Aqaba) and 20 medical centres (one in each Palestinian camp and in all the major cities). It states that it has 1 billion JD of assets in the country, and their workforce consists of 5,000 volunteers. Since April 2015, the centre is facing major challenges as the Government has decided to split the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2011, the budget of the Islamic Centre was 60 million JD, of which 25 million JD was allocated to social action, a considerable amount when compared to the 80 million JD budget of the Ministry of Social Development. In 2012, the Islamic Centre provided support to 29,730 Syrian refugee families, including cash assistance programmes valuing US$ 15.9 million. In 2013, they doubled their number of beneficiaries to 72, 557 families, focusing in particular on cash assistance. In addition to this, from 2012 to 2013 they carried out important health activities and successfully treated 2,522 injured Syrian refugees in their two hospitals.

The Islamic Centre has announced a US$ 20 million programme for Syrian refugees for 2014. They will receive financial support from the Saudi National Campaign and from the International Islamic Charitable Society (IICO), based in Kuwait.

Al Kitab wa Al Sunna is the most active Islamic NGO in Jordan with regard to the provision of assistance to Syrian refugees. They state that they have a budget of US$ 50 million in order to support Syrian refugees over two years. Their implementing agency is Nida al Kheir (the Call for Good). Founded in 1992, Al Kitab wa Al Sunna is registered with the Ministry of Social Development. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna provides support only to UNHCR registered refugees. In 2013, their database included 350,000 Syrian refugees, comprising 45,817 families. A third were registered in Amman, near their headquarters (Hay Nazal); a third in the Irbid governorate (21% in Irbid and 13% in Ramtha); 13% in Mafraq; 6% in Zarqa; and 5% in Jerash). Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it has expanded considerably, on account of the assistance it has received from Saudi Arabia (37%) and Qatar (37%)[1].

Founded in Ramtha in 2010 by a group of conservative Islamists, Takaful is an active NGO located on the Syrian border. In 2013, its budget was JD 4.7 million (US$ 7 million) and it provided cash assistance to 5,000 Syrian families, most of whom are from Dara’a. Takaful prides itself in being the most transparent Islamic NGO on account of its communication both in Arabic and English, with a bilingual website. It receives funding from two major Kuwaiti NGOs: International Islamic Charitable Society (IICO) and Islah Social Society.

Al Ruhama Beinahum is a Jordanian NGO receiving support from Saudi Arabia. It claims to give cash assistance to 15 000 Syrian families in Jordan.

Gulf donors prefer to provide assistance by donating tangible items that include their own branding, such as caravans, clothes and other NFIs, rather than cash, despite cash being the assistance in most demand by both refugees and other international organisations.

The main sector of assistance provided by Gulf donors and Jordanian NGOs is shelter, followed by food assistance, health services, cash, education, NFIs and orphan care. Shelter includes the distribution of caravans as well as the establishment of the Emirati Camp. Food assistance has been a complicated issue, as many Gulf donors have wanted to provide food to the refugees for religious reasons and to empty their national food stocks. However food items are required to meet international standards, (such as only canned (no raw) meat), and some food supplies have ended up being blocked in warehouses.

Gulf donors and local NGOs are able to fill the gap in the procedural UN structure because of their flexibility and ability to reach underserved urban and rural areas. But some concerns emerged regarding their charitable activities.

  1. Toward a new humanitarianism?

Islamic humanitarianism questions the universality of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence, but also basic human rights definitions. This is the case for women’s empowerment for instance (that should not be considered as “removing the hijab, destroying the family institution and throwing religion out of the window”, as an Arab aid worker put it (Irin 2011). Children’s rights are also challenged by early marriage and the definition of orphans. And assistance is given to combatants’ families and « martyrs » families, of specific political background (those fighting against the Syrian regime for instance).

In Jordan, women’s rights and children rights organisation managed to give a soft interpretation to the Shari’a in its application to family and personal law (Ottoman code 1859 (Al Mejelle). But while receiving Gulf funding, these charities might apply a more conservative interpretation of the Sharia. According to Shari’a law, an orphaned child is considered an orphan until he reaches 14 years of age. Most of Islamic NGOs consider a child who lost his father as an orphan, even though he still has his mother. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna applies this definition, but also has further educational programmes for adolescents who have lost one or both of their parents and are unable to afford education. In total, 1,500 orphans benefit from this programme. When the kids turn 15, boys are directed to technical schools and are pushed to the job market, while young girls have to be married in the coming years. Several buildings are rented to host families of widows with orphans.

These Islamic NGOs have develop their own database, criteria and humanitarian definitions, that are not always compatible with international humanitarian ones, especially for the orphans (children under 15 years old) and the martyrs families. Some are paying the refugees to attend Islamic classes with conservative, salafi content. Each Islamic NGO has its one vulnerability criteria, and each monitors its own database. Among those criteria, to be the widow or children of a “martyr” (shahid, shuhada), is major. Basically a martyr is any Syrian dead fighting against Assad regime. Of course, this is not clearly stated. Most of agency are asking for a death certificate, with 34% of household headed by single women, they want to be sure about the status of the women.

Each NGO created a database, using UNHCR asylum seeker card number for the Syrians registered, and copies of Syrian ID’s for those who did not register. The Islamic Centre Charity Society ICCS claims having a database of 72,557 Syrian refugee families. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna provides support only to UNHCR registered refugees. In 2013, their database included 45,817 Syrian refugees families, or 350,000 refugees (UNHCR Gulf Report 2015).

The confidentiality of these databases is not always protected and some private donors can have access to personal data, such as name of young girls and phone numbers. This is a real protection issue, some private donors asking to rescue Syrian girls by marrying them. Some of these wedding are only for a short period of time and refugees and their children have to reintegrate UNHCR beneficiaries databases.

Al Kitab wa Al Sunna has created a service card system with ICCS and Takaful in order to help them coordinate assistance and ensure that there is no duplication in this assistance in the city of Ramtha. This system is integrated into a computer database administrated by Al Kitab wa Al Sunna. But in practice, they do not coordinate properly in the rest of the country, and assistance is most of the time duplicated.

These Islamic NGOs are conducting proselyte activities in the form of Quran classes for children and women. In order to attract refugees to attend this class, cash payment is provided. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna offers some cultural activities, such as Qur’anic educational classes, a form of proselytism, especially for the former rural Syrian refugees. In order to ensure that there is high attendance, they pay the refugees up to 200 JD per week class. This is a major issue, as those classes are not simple islamic classes, but follow a salafi curriculum (Hasselbarth 2014). As underlined by Hasselbarth, Kitab wa Sunna and Islamic Center Charity hire their personnel independently from the Ministry of Waqf and manage to organize their own teaching activities without proper content control.


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Hasselbarth, Sarah, 2014, “Islamic Charities in the Syrian Context in Jordan and Lebanon”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 44 p.

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