For anyone concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees, it is not difficult to find documentation from aid organizations on the ways in which they have benefited the lives of the displaced. Yet, on the flipside of the coin, there are those who are simultaneously denied aid, and, in turn, the opportunity to voice their stories.
With over 656,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees alone, no observer can deny the effects of the crisis and the difficulties faced in dealing with them. Meanwhile, the figures cited by the government of Jordan, which has been at the frontline of the Syrian exodus, place the number of Syrian refugees at much higher, with 1.3 million residing in Jordan. Of those, about 93% live below the Jordanian poverty line, and outside of refugee camps, according to the UNHCR.
Predominantly reliant on monthly aid from the UNHCR, the average Syrian refugee is subject to terms such as “eye-scanning” and “coupons” in order to safeguard their sustenance--and in turn, are left vulnerable to the whims of inequitable distribution.
Perfected Criteria, All-Too Human Application
Samer*, who works in an organization that provides aid to Syrian refugees, says that the criteria for dispensing aid appear, at first glance, to be heavensent. Nonetheless, in practice, these criteria, and the people they aim to assist, are at the mercy of an officer. This aid officer can walk into a refugee family’s home, which will likely be in a terrible condition, yet observing that they own a television or smartphone, for example, might decide that they are not in need of aid.
“This person may not realize that a member of this family may have sold everything they own just to buy a smartphone that would allow them to communicate with the loved ones they left behind in Syria. And so the officer will grade them down in the evaluation, thereby disqualifying them from receiving aid,” he says.
Serine*, who also works in an aid organization, adds that if one of the refugee children is a college student, this may also cause an officer to disqualify them, irrespective of the surrounding conditions. Considering that locals may not be able to afford a college education, he/she may not bother to check whether the family is covering the tuition or whether the son/daughter has received a scholarship before deciding to deprive them of the aid.
Matriarchal Families: A Dysfunctional ‘Equality’
The aid system is known to be comparatively selective towards women-headed families, in which the father is not present. Such families in particular are designated as being in need of aid, although this may not always be the case. In many cases, the mother may indeed live alone with the children in Jordan, but her husband may be working in the Gulf and visiting on occasion. He may even own a luxury car, says Samer, noting that “while the family may indeed be headed by a woman, it nonetheless may not be in need of aid.”
Conversely, there are many conventional male-headed families that live in far worse conditions. However, they are often failed by the UNHCR system that fails to recognize them, or they are incapable of convincing other aid organizations of their need for assistance.
Such is the case of Reem, who met with Raseef22. Reem entered Jordan in 2013, to be met by a refusal from the UNHCR to dispense aid without providing a valid reason, in spite of the wretched state of their home, which was visited by the aid officer. “We didn’t even have a refrigerator, and the humidity was visible inside the house,” Reem says.
Reem’s husband suffers from a herniated disc, and as such can only work to the extent that he can handle the pains in his neck and back. “Most of the time, we can’t even make rent,” Reem says.
Since 2013, Reem and her family have had to move homes eleven times because they have been unable to make rent, and two landlords are still requesting their unpaid rental dues from them. Yet Reem nonetheless believes that officials “are unaware of people’s actual conditions; otherwise, they would have ensured equality among Syrian refugees.”
‘The Martyr’s Wife’
Conversely, Mohamed, an activist who works in the field of humanitarian aid in Irbid, says that “a death certificate opens up many doors for a family, as benefactors will provide for its members. A widow receives sponsorship for her children and herself, is provided with residence, and is automatically bumped to the top of the lists of those receiving aid from organizations.”
Meanwhile, Ali, who volunteers with Mohamed in a number of initiatives that serve refugees, adds that this phenomenon has inspired many to fake their deaths, with wives claiming to have lost their husbands in the conflict, when in fact their husbands are alive and well.
In one initiative that aimed to document the names of those who have been killed or arrested, Ali encountered a woman who claimed to be “a martyr’s wife,” living in the area knows as the “martyrs’ residence,” which is sponsored by individual benefactors. Ali nonetheless confirms that the woman’s husband was found to be alive in Syria, and that she was, in fact, sending him a portion of the aid that was dispensed to her on the basis that she is a widow and the wife of a martyr.
How are Refugees Evaluated?
Mohamed Al-Hawary, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Jordan, explains to Raseef22 that the evaluation process for the disbursal of monthly aid occurs following a house visitation using a specialized program with 800 different factors for evaluation that cannot be manipulated. Refugees who have had their aid suspended or who did not receive it have the right to apply for their cases to be reviewed.
“Over 80% of the refugees live below the poverty line, and indeed are living in abject poverty. Due to the shortage of resources, we are forced to dispense aid only to those within the neediest segments. Currently, about 30,000 Syrian families receive aid, with another 9,000 on the waiting list,” he adds.
With regards to those who are receiving undeserved aid, Al-Hawary says, “The UNHCR makes every effort to verify information, but in this regard, part of the responsibility rests with the refugees themselves. They have to provide accurate in order to allow us to assist everyone in their suffering.”
As for Samer, he believes that Syrian refugees can be divided into two camps. The first are the “virtuous”; those who are stripped of their rights as they await their turn to receive aid according to the bureaucratic procedures. The second camp can be characterized as “hustlers”; those who have learned to manipulate the system. One example is those who know that those at risk of being evicted are prioritized by organizations that provide housing services. As such, they strike a deal with their landlord to file a complaint and notice of eviction to move into another home that is paid for by the organization. In reality, they are on good terms with the landlord, but simply wish to speed up procedures.
There are stories upon stories of “the virtuous” who are forced into endless visitations to aid organizations to plead their cases, often begging aid officers to see a higher-up so they can explain their situation in detail--but more often than not, the officers are not concerned with the details.
“Ostensibly, [the aid officers] appear to be working in a humanitarian field, but in reality they are bureaucrats working with figures and numbers of beneficiaries. Very simply, they want to continues doing this work in order to be able to secure more donations for the next year, and therefore be able to keep their jobs,” Samer concludes.
*Names were changed upon request