To escape the harsh conditions of Zaatari camp, tens of thousands of Syrian refugee families have moved to Irbid, Jordan where they are confronted with high rent costs and minimal work opportunities (Peter Balleis/Jesuit Refugee Service).
Irbid, 27 June 2014 – In an unassuming building on a quiet street in Irbid, you'll find Syrian mothers dressed alike in heavy black coats and hijabs chatting around a conference table over bread and coffee while their children attend kindergarten in the room next door. It's crammed, but they are used to it now, many living in crowded apartments since they arrived in Jordan. 

Irbid, Jordan's second largest city, is about an hour's drive from Zaatari refugee camp and only 10 km from the Syrian border. Theroughly 135,000 Syrian refugees in the city, of a population of one million, equate that of Zaatari camp.

In the city, JRS runs a mother-child centre* in a small apartment roughly the size of a two-car garage where mothers take vocational training courses in one room and children attend preschool in the other. I arrived on the first day of courses, and the mothers were sitting in chairs along the wall around a long table, deciding what skills they wanted to learn.

"We are happy to be out of the house", one woman said. All the women avoided my gaze at first, until I asked about the difficulties in Irbid. They all started talking over one another in Arabic, some standing up to get the teacher's attention who translated their concerns.

They all agreed that rent in the city is too high.

"Three years ago you could rent a three-bedroom house for 100 JDs a month, and now it's at least 200 for the same place. Landlords say, 'well, this is because of high demand and if you don't want to pay, move somewhere else'", said the Jordanian teacher.

The high rent would not be such a problem if people were able to find work. Many refugees are afraid to work, said the women. They all had heard rumours of men being caught while doing manual labour, then driven to the Syrian border and handed over to Syrian authorities, never to be heard from again.

Others have heard of police threatening men that if they are caught working they will be sent to Zaatari camp.

"Still, if things don't get better for us, we might have to go there anyway", said Reem*, a young mother.

Zaatari camp is getting smaller; nearly half the population has left since May 2012, with people moving to cities like Irbid and Amman. Some of the women said they stayed there for a short time, but living in tents and drinking unclean water made their children sick.

In the other room 20 or so four-year-olds screamed their alphabet and learned how to make letters out of Playdough.

Their solutions now are ad hoc. Most of the women's adolescent children are out selling vegetables or doing some other low-risk, low-pay job. Younger children are playing in the street or staying at home because the schools are full. Last year, UNICEF and Save the Children reported 89% of more than 7,000 school-age children were not attending school.

Families live in smaller and smaller apartments, becoming evermore overcrowded. Some husbands think returning to Syria is now a better option that Irbid. For the sake of their children, the mothers disagree.

Molly Mullen, JRS International Communications Consultant

*In Irbid, 30 mothers and 41 children attend the JRS mother and child centre, four days a week. On the fifth day of the week, the teachers visit the mothers and children in their homes to assess how they are progressing and if their immediate needs are being met. 

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Countries Related to this Region
Jordan, Syria