Life In Jordan: Syrian Farm Families Displaced By War Stay Close To The Land

Feb 5, 2017

Among the 650,000 Syrians who have sought safety in neighboring Jordan are farmers who had to leave their own land behind and who are now getting by as migrant farm workers.

Only one in ten refugees in Jordan live in refugee camps, while the vast majority struggle to survive on their own, mostly in urban areas.

But for farmers who are used to working the land and having open space, living in a city or a camp can be difficult.

Mariam Mohammed, her husband Hamad Awaid, and their twelve children are displaced Syrians who now live on farmland just south of Amman, Jordan.

They come out to greet us as we pull in their dusty driveway - Mariam wears a long fleece dress with a blue hijab, or headscarf.

Hamad wears a long grey tunic, and a bright red-and-white headscarf, known as a keffiyeh.

Their home is several large, hand-sewn tents that Mariam says took her two years to make. Colorful, freshly washed clothes hang on a line in the bright sun.

Hamad Awaid and his wife, Mariam Mohammed on the land they farm as migrant workers in Jordan. They were farmers in Syria, on land that had been in Mariam Mohammed's family for generations, until the Syrian war. They fled to Jordan in 2014.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Tilled farmland has just been planted with wheat; the brown-green rows stretching for miles in one direction. It would be scenic if not for all the trash. 

The family says they had picked up all the trash around the tent where they live and in the fields, but it just 'comes back'.  

The Syrian family lives here as migrant farm workers. A Jordanian man has let them put up their tents here at no cost and pays them a day rate to work during growing season.

Top: One of the tents the families live in. Bottom: The land the families farm in Jordan. They are employed by a Jordanian farmer to tend the fields during the growing season.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Mariam invites me into one of the largest tents: There's a wood stove in the center, and a television in one corner. Low, flat cushions line the walls. It's immaculate.

We sit down and she begins to tell me about her life near Hama, in Syria. Their 400-acre farm had been in her family more than a century.

"We had olive trees, lentils, beans, pistachio, all kinds of things we used to plant. But we left all this behind and came after the war," Mariam explains through our interpreter, Asma Beseiso.

The nightly bombings became too much. Four nearby houses were destroyed and the children could no longer go to school. They fled in 2014.

"It's our land and it's really hard to give that up. I leave it up to God." - Mariam Mohammed, a Syrian farmer forced to flee with her family to Jordan

When I ask her what it was like to leave the farm, she turns her head away and begins to cry.

"It's our land and it's really hard to give that up," she says. "I leave it up to God."

Mariam Mohammed's cousin, also named Mariam, tells a similar story.

"We dream about going back every day and night," Mariam explains through an interpreter. "Actually, we have sleepless nights thinking about going back - especially when it's windy and there's a lot of rain. It's so hard to move inside because of the mud - yeah, it's really hard."

Mariam Mohammed's cousin, Mariam, her children. The family also left farmland in Syria that had been in the family for generations.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

She and her husband owned a farm in Idlib, a Syrian city near Aleppo. Like the one her cousin left behind, Mariam's farm has been in the family for more a century. She says it was their life:

"We are always in the land," says Mariam. "We wake up in the morning, have breakfast and then we milk the goats and work the sheep. We stay in the land farming and doing all this kind of work all the time, she says. And emphasizes, "In Syria, it's a beautiful country."

Now, they are still doing farm work, but on someone else's land.

"We mostly work in spring and summer," she explains. "In winter, there's not a lot of work. In spring, we go by car or truck that transfers us to the land. We collect garlic, onions and cucumbers, tomatoes and vegetables. The next day he takes them to the market and sells them and he pays us around $30 a day. We stay there all day long and come back at night."

Besides the money they make farming, both families get several hundred dollars a month in aid from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.

Two of the children wash dishes outside the tents. Because they're far away from the city and refugee camps, the children are not able to go to school.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

While both women feel grateful they don't have to work in the city or live in a massive refugee camp, they admit their children are paying a steep price for that.

"I feel so bad that they can't go to school, of course," says Mariam Mohammed. She says if there was a nearby school she'd send them but, "I can't let them leave. It's dangerous to go because the school is so far away."

As she's talking, she cuddles one of her younger children while an older son serves tea, smiling shyly at the guests.

"They cant read, they're not educated, so it's of course not good ... I don't know what they're going to do in the future. They don't know anything, I don't know how it's going to be like." - Mariam Hamad, on her children missing out on an education

All of her children have been quietly attentive. Her cousin points to her two youngest children who are sitting nearby and shakes her head.

"Of course I don't feel good about having my kids not going to school. These two they don't know anything," Mariam says. "They can't read, they're not educated, so it's of course not good ... I don't know what they're going to do in the future. They don't know anything, I don't know how it's going to be like."

Outside the tent, Mariam Mohammed's husband, Hamad Awaid, sits with a cluster of men talking about one of the fields that's just been planted. He says working the land helps relax him.

Mariam Mohammed's husband, Hamad Awaid, second from the left, gathers with the other men outside the tents.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

I ask him through my interpreter what's been the hardest part about being a refugee?

"The hardest part was leaving the town and leaving my parents," Hamad says.

My interpreter asked, which is more important to him: the land or his parents?

"Actually, the land is the parents," Hamad answered.

None of the families wants to be resettled elsewhere, he says. They want to stay close to Syria so they can return, even if it takes a long time.

His wife interrupts us to announce the time for work and interviews is over.

"Lunch is ready," she says smiling. Inside the tent a large platter of steaming rice and spiced chicken awaits.

"This is how Syrians treat guests," they say nodding. "Welcome."

Mariam Mohammed, center, in front of the lunch the family prepared.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Asma Beseiso contributed to this report.

Support for this coverage is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.