Black Veils and Tiaras: Syrian Refugee Women Seek Help From Islamists in Jordan

A nonprofit group in Jordan offers aid to victims of sexual abuse, handicrafts workshops and religious programs which help women fleeing the war across the border to put their lives on track again.

Zayed Hammad

AMMAN, Jordan – Girls giggle and examine each other’s flower leis and plastic diamond crowns, which shimmer in stark contrast to their bulky black niqabs, the full-face veils that expose only the eyes.

At a packed university hall on the outskirts of Amman, these 10 Syrian girls are not refugees today – they are queens, their mothers say. A celebration is being held for them in honor of the fact that they have memorized the entire Koran. The afternoon event was organized by a Jordanian Salafi nonprofit called the Association of Al-Kitab wal-Sunnah, at the University of Applied Sciences.

“It’s the happiest day of my life,” says Adiba Shurbaji, the 40-year-old mother of Aisha, one of the teenage honorees. In a soft but emotional voice, she boasts that while it took her six years to memorize the Koran because she was virtually illiterate, "My daughter memorized it in six months, in which time she has experienced more love, more belief, more reverence.”

An exalted tradition, memorization of Koran is taught in religious schools around the world. Mastering the correct pronunciation of its 6,200 verses earns the student the honorific title of hafiz, or “guardian” in Arabic.

The 10 teens here have accomplished the feat by pure repetition, and like all hafiz students, they are expected to continue practicing throughout their lives.

Like many of the families who have come here from various parts of Syria, Adiba Shurbaji and her eight children have endured a long and painful journey en route to the Jordanian capital, where she now lives. She fled Damascus two years ago and, unlike many, avoided the country’s squalid refugee camps because she was seeking hospital care for a son who was severely injured by a bomb that exploded near their house.

Her special circumstances allowed her to avoid the standard security process that has increasingly forced refugees to stay in camps, once in Jordan. There are two main camps for Syrians, Zaatari and Azraq, in addition to other camps where Syrians reside along with other refugees from across the region.

Today, refugees are barred from entering Jordan proper unless they can be vouched for by a local resident – an impossibility for most, who arrive without any contacts and little more than the clothes on their backs. Thus, an estimated 80 percent of those who ended up at refugee camps here have used well-established smuggling networks to reach Jordanian cities, where they hope to find black-market jobs and ways to piece their lives back together on their own.

The small desert nation of just over 6 million is now host to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, the majority of whom are dispersed in poor neighborhoods of urban areas rather than in the refugee camps. As of early November, 1.15 million Syrians have registered with the United Nations in Lebanon, 1 million in Turkey, 220,000 in Iraq, and 140,000 in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands more are flowing into those countries, unregistered.

In Jordan, the Zaatari camp has burst at the seams with a population of more than 100,000, making it the second-largest refugee camp in the world. The camp boasts electricity, a number of paved streets, and small businesses operating on a main commercial strip dubbed “Champs Elysees,” and aid agencies are scrambling to manage the residents of this enormous area, which was originally conceived to be a transit stop but has become an informal sort of metropolis.

At the newly opened, strictly policed UN-run Azraq camp, which is also expected to house around 100,000 refugees, officials hope that better organization and regulations will prevent some of the problems that have plagued Zaatari, such as flooding in the winter, rampant crime, and riots and demonstrations sparked by poor living conditions.

Feeling of belonging

The Syrian migrants are joining Jordan's more than one million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Native residents are quick to explain how the latest influx is weighing on the country’s already fragile economy and infrastructures.

Still, many newly arrived Syrians have apparently developed a feeling of belonging in their new home, thanks in part to Al-Kitab wal-Sunnah, the largest Islamist organization catering to Syrian refugees here and, especially, to women. To more than 300,000 registered members, it offers an extensive list of programs ranging from physical and psychological rehabilitation centers for victims of sexual abuse, to handicrafts workshops to help women integrate into the informal economic market, to free lecture series on Islam. 

Sheikh Zayed Hammad, president of the charitable organization and one of its founders, says that while aid provided by international organizations like the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has been essential, it reaches only about 10 percent of those in need in Jordan.

The 2014 budget in Jordan for that UN group is estimated at $430 million, with the majority of funds allocated to emergency-response services such as providing food, water, shelter and basic medical care. But as the war rages across the border, the majority of Syrians arriving here are looking for a more sustainable and long-term way to survive, and are willing to venture out into the cities alone, even without the promise of aid.

Even in the camps, services are dwindling. This month, the UN announced that it had suspended a vital food-aid voucher program that helped feed 1.7 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries – a development described by Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the UN's World Food Program, as “disastrous for many already-suffering families.”

According to Hammad, international humanitarian aid groups are ill prepared to provide long-term sustenance to an expanding refugee population.

“Western aid groups are interested in diagnosing the problem and not treating it, but where are the educational, rehabilitative, psychological health centers that can take on the huge number of Syrian refugees in Jordan?” he asks. “The main difference is that we have a wider scope, funded by $100 million in private donations from Qatar, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait.” 

Hammad adds that he believes that the governments of the Gulf states, flush with petrodollars, have been dodging the responsibility for looking out for their three million Syrian Muslim brothers – half of whom are children – who are seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

For ultra-conservative Syrian women, studying together now in Jordan affords them a new opportunity to explore their faith as a community, says Amina Tahan, 30, almost screaming so as to be heard over a group of women reciting Koranic verses in the next room. Historically, Islamist political and social activities were strictly forbidden under the secular regimes of both Bashar Assad and his father Hafez. Syrian intelligence regularly monitored Islamic gatherings, and men suspected of forbidden religious activity were interrogated and imprisoned.

Tahan says she believes that “every Muslim is a Salafi because they believe in the Salaf as-Salih" – the first three Muslim generations of "pious predecessors," whom Salafis aim to emulate – "but in Syria [espousing belief] was confined to the home,” she says, responding to criticism of Salafism as an inherently radical trend. Tahan says that while groups like the Islamic State, also called ISIS, claim to be carrying out the Salafi mission, the majority of the world’s Salafis are nonviolent and non-political.

In Jordan, she adds, it has been a blessing to be able to discuss her religion in public with other like-minded women.

Tahan: “When I came here I didn’t want to just sit at home, I wanted to work and share my knowledge, which I believe is the way to improve and change society.”

A teacher who originally comes from the countryside near Damascus, Tahan now gives religion classes at the Al-Kitab wal-Sunnah women's center, and participates in a special Koran class taught via Skype by a teacher in Saudi Arabia.

Lone women, prowling men

According to figures published by UNHCR, roughly a quarter of Syrian refugees fleeing the ongoing war at home are lone women whose husbands remain in or have been killed in Syria; these women are now charged with providing for an entire family. The UN study of tens of thousands of Syrian refugee households found that “many refugees have reached the limits of their ability to cope.”

“Syrian refugees in Jordan are hanging on by a thread – struggling to keep a roof over their heads and to earn enough money to get by,” said Andrew Harper, the UNHCR representative in Jordan, in a recent report.

While Syrians are barred from working in Jordan’s public sector, newly widowed 39-year-old Rawda Azz’ubi, a mother of six from Daraa, has found a paid administrative position at the Al-Kitab wal-Sunnah women’s center.  

Since the UN recently stopped providing Azz'ubi a monthly allotment of 200 dinars ($300) for reasons she still fails to understand, her modest salary has allowed her to resist requests to marry off her youngest daughter, who is 18.

The influx of Syrians has caused inflation that has, in some areas, priced even Jordanians out of the market, making rent a primary concern. From 2012 to 2013 rental prices in some locations have risen by 15 to 20 percent, and account for two-thirds of refugees’ expenses, according to a UNHCR report.

“It's difficult to pay the rent, but since coming here I have learned much about patience and endurance,” says Azz’ubi.

For her part, Mona Zakkan – whose husband and son were killed in Syria – is lucky to have another son, whose sporadic menial jobs enable them to pay their rent of 175 dinars ($250).  But poverty has made her and her daughter vulnerable to prowling men in search of a Syrian bride.

When the Syrians first arrived two years ago, teachers approached the refugee girls at school and took a tally of who would be interested in marriage. Zakkan says she has turned down a steady flow of proposals both for herself and her daughter, now 13.

While the minimum marital age in Jordan is 18, the law permits marriage from the age of 15 if it is overseen by a sheikh and agreed to by all sides. But many marriages between older men and young teenage girls – a practice common in the Middle East, including in rural Syria – are simply not registered, aid workers say.

Moreover, Syrian widows and young women are at risk of sexual exploitation under the pretense of “protection marriages,” meant to preserve the women’s honor, according to aid organizations. Wealthy men from around the Arab world seek Syrian brides in Internet forums, classified ads and match-making networks, and have been encouraged in their search by fatwas issued by Saudi clerics, who define this as a form of Islamic charity.

“What we experience here is a war on Syrian women,” says Zakkan, adding that while she finds comfort with the “respectable” Syrian men and women within the framework of the al-Kitab wal-Sunnah organization, “We still hope to return to our home, the day after tomorrow,” she says, referring to Daraa, Syria. “Even if just to a pile of stones.”