Between bitter fall weather and unceasing war at home, Syrian refugees at this northern desert tent camp have enough problems. But fathers like Abu Yousef say they must also contend with something else: older Arab men in search of Syrian brides.
“Of course I would rather her marry a Syrian, someone from our community, but what can we do?” Abu Yousef said of his daughter, whose husband was killed in the Syrian uprising. Although he at first rejected the idea, Abu Yousef said he had consented to an arrangement proposed by a 55-year-old retired Saudi engineer as an opportunity to provide for his widowed daughter, 27, and her three children.
Because most of the hundreds of Syrians who cross into Jordan each day arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, relief officials and refugees said, offers that include dowries of as much as $5,000 can be hard to resist.
Proponents of the unions said they provide a humanitarian service to the more than 360,000 Syrians displaced throughout the region, often by arranging marriages for Syrian widows who would otherwise struggle to care for their families.
“This is not exploitation. This is generosity,” said Ziyad Hamad, whose charity, Kitab al-Sunna, is one of the largest organizations helping Syrian refugees in Jordan.
But many refugees here are vowing to defend their families against the practice, which is being driven in part by Web sites, classified advertisements and matchmaking networks that target wealthy men in countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“Just because we have lost our homes, they think our women are free for the taking,” refugee Ibrahim Naimi, 42, said this week as he arranged water pipes in his makeshift cafe at the camp, home to 42,000 Syrians. “We are going to prove that you cannot buy Syrian women.”
Refugees and relief officials said increasing numbers of Arab men and matchmakers have made their way to the camp, some of them posing as aid workers. They say the problem is growing along with the camp, near the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq, in part because many refugee families are impoverished and desperate.
United Nations officials said that most of the marriages are brokered and that many are not consensual. The results, they said, include increasing numbers of child brides and marriages that, in some cases, end in abandonment or forced prostitution. U.N. and Jordanian relief agencies estimate that some 500 underage Syrians have been wed this year.
“We have a very large and growing vulnerable population in Jordan, and unfortunately we are hearing more and more stories of groups looking to exploit them,” said Andrew Harper, the Jordan-based representative of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Some aid officials and refugees said there are suitors who are drawn by the opportunity to consummate a marriage and then divorce or abandon the bride with few legal or social consequences.
“Wealthy gulf men come here and tell us that they want to take care of our daughters and our families, but we all know what they really want: a good time,” said Abu Hamad, a member of a Zaatari camp committee formed to fend off would-be grooms.
A 56-year-old Jordanian woman who would allow the use of only her first name, Amira, said she acts as a matchmaker to arrange weddings between Syrian women in the camp and men from as close as Saudi Arabia, next door to Jordan, and as far away as Canada.
It is not unusual in the Arab world for matriarchal figures to seek wives for male relatives, and the matchmaker said her role was part of that tradition. Some young women in the camp, including a 19-year-old who gave her name as Fatima, said the marriage proposals offered a fresh start — in her case, with an impending betrothal to a 45-year-old Kuwaiti engineer.
“Bashar destroyed our home and our lives,” the young woman said of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose forces have been battling for 20 months against an armed uprising. “With my marriage, we can start over in a new country with a new life.”
Despite such lofty dreams, relief officials said, the brides face uncertain futures in foreign lands without a support network.
“We are concerned over the possibility that many of these women are practically being sold off into a much worse situation,” said Dominique Hyde, a representative of UNICEF, which is working with the Jordanian government to curb the bridal trade.
The trend has spawned some Zaatari refugees to create watch groups whose members said they have apprehended dozens of Arab wife hunters and matchmakers who infiltrated the Jordanian camp posing as relief workers in the past month. But because arranging marriages is not illegal, camp officials can do little more than escort the suspected interlopers out.
“We launched a revolution to win back our dignity,” Naimi said. “We are not going to surrender it for a dowry.”