In cash-strapped Jordan, one of the top host countries for refugees in the world, the ongoing war in Syria consumes the vast majority of relief agencies’ resources, leaving little for the recent arrivals from Yemen.
MARCH 29, 2018 AMMAN, JORDAN—Mohammed Qassem, his parents, wife, and two children receive no aid and no food handouts.
Refugees who have fled war, they registered with the United Nations three years ago. They have no hopes of resettlement or of returning home.
Even the dozens of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies working with refugees in Jordan close their doors to them on a daily basis.
There is one reason for their plight: They are Yemenis.
“Every time we say we are Yemenis, they close the door in our faces,” says Mr. Qassem, a trained professional who works illegally as an unskilled laborer to survive. “It is always the same response: Syrian yes, Iraqi maybe, but Yemenis, no – always no.”
In cash-strapped Jordan, one of the top host countries for refugees in the world, the combination of high demand and donor fatigue that has limited aid agencies’ budgets is starkly evident. The ongoing war in Syria consumes the vast majority of agencies’ resources, leaving little for refugees from other wars.
Yemenis are the latest population in the Arab world to be displaced by war and violence, but their plight has gained little attention and is without an international response to find a permanent or even temporary solution for Yemeni refugees.
The war in Yemen, which entered its fourth year this month, has displaced more than 60,000 people across the region, including 38,000 to Djibouti and 5,000 in Somaliland, according to the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR.
According to the UN, some 10,400 Yemenis have registered as refugees in Jordan – already burdened with 1.3 million Syrians – with 500 additional Yemenis requesting asylum in the kingdom each month.
Some Yemenis were already residing in Jordan when the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen began in March 2015, studying, working or receiving medical care. But many arrived after the war began, with Jordan one of the few countries in the world to open its borders to Yemeni refugees.
As registered asylum-seekers, Yemeni nationals in Jordan receive free access to Jordan’s public schools, international protection under the UN, and are eligible for winter cash assistance from the UNHCR to pay for heating – but not much else.
Yemenis must pay the higher foreigner rates when seeking medical assistance or care at public hospitals and health centers. They are largely barred from working. Work permits for Yemenis are few and their requirements steep. Yemenis must prove they have skills not available in the Jordanian market, have a Jordanian sponsor and legal guarantor, a valid work contract, and can afford the $800 annual work permit.
Running out of cash
For the thousands of Yemenis that have lost everything to make it to Jordan, they are running out of funds.
Qassem and his family sold their ancestral home in Sanaa, his car, and most of their possessions to pay for airfare to Amman – $1,000 per person – and for cash on hand when they arrived in 2015. Within the first year of their stay they had spent most of their savings.
Qassem, who worked as an accountant for Yemen’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy, now works odd-jobs illegally, washing dishes, mopping floors, and polishing cars to try to cover their $350 monthly rent, groceries, and infant formula for his young son. It is an uphill battle.
One small twist can push Yemenis into extreme poverty.
After one year in Jordan, Qassem’s mother developed cancer of the lymph nodes. Unable to qualify for specialized medical care, which is only reserved by the UN for selected and the most urgent refugee cases, Qassem was forced to borrow from relatives, friends, and generous Jordanians to pay for her $42,000 cancer treatment. He now owes $20,000 in loans.
“All we think about is how to find a way to meet rent this month, how to stretch pennies into dollars,” he says. “It’s a losing game.”
Many of the Yemenis fleeing to Jordan do not even have family support. Many are either widows, minors sent by their families to avoid being conscripted into militias, or unaccompanied women whose families have been killed in the fighting.
‘Begging just to be noticed’
Fatima Saeed and her two sisters fled to Jordan in 2015 after their father died, fearing that they would be vulnerable to kidnapping or violence from militias in the now lawless country.
Having arrived with little money, the sisters were dismayed to find that not only did the UNHCR not have funding set aside for Yemeni refugees, but that the international aid agencies and NGOs did not have the mandate to provide assistance for Yemenis.
It was a particularly cruel twist of fate for Ms. Saeed, who once worked for the UNHCR in Yemen providing assistance to the tens of thousands of African nationals who once sought asylum in the Arab country. She now finds herself on the other side, asking for assistance as a recipient of the UN agency.
“We have gone from living a full life to begging just to be noticed,” Saeed says.
She and her two sisters have worked on and off again selling clothes and accessories in malls in Amman for $400 a month, but often get caught by police for working without a permit.
Often unable to make rent, the three sisters sign off on IOUs to landlords. Owing to late payments, they have been kicked out of their apartment six times over the past three years. They now owe thousands of dollars in back rent.
“We can barely survive,” Saeed says.
It is little easier for the few “lucky” Yemenis who have been able secure work permits and jobs at the dozens of Yemeni honey, coffee, sweets, and herbalist shops that have been opened across Amman by Yemeni investors since the war.
One extra day in a war zone
For many of these Yemenis, these jobs are lifelines for hundreds back home.
Mohammed, 21, earns $600 a month serving up Yemeni sweets such as harissa and peanut-infused blocks of red fudge-like adani for 12 hours a day in a Yemeni desserts shop that opened recently in Amman.
Living in a two-room apartment with four other young men, he skips meals and walks miles to work and to the UN office – all to save $500 to send home each month. His family in Sanaa is using the income to live off of for now, but they hope to one day raise the $8,000 needed to fly his six family members to Jordan.
“If I don’t work for a single day, that is one extra day they live in a war-zone, 24 more hours that their life will be at risk and I might lose them,” says Mohammed, who did not wish to use his real name for fear that speaking to the press may affect his employment and endanger his refugee status and his family back home.
Ali Al Muntaser, 35, fled to Jordan prior to the 2015 war, escaping tribal warfare in his home province of Marib.
In 2014, as the crisis in his country deepened and war loomed, he applied for asylum with the UNCHR, but like most Yemenis, he has not received a final decision on his refugee status.
Mr. Al Muntaser has married and had three children in Jordan and has been able to get a Jordanian work permit at a Yemeni honey and coffee shop in Amman. His unique expertise? Being able to differentiate the types of Yemeni honey, their regions of origin and curative properties.
Keeping his file open
Despite receiving a decent salary, $675 per month, Al Muntaser spends a large portion of his salary on his work permit and residency fees and struggles to afford the $42 to cover his children’s’ transportation to school and his infant daughter’s milk formula and diapers each month.
Al Muntaser must work 8 a.m.-to-midnight shifts six days a week in order to keep afloat any hope that one day his asylum status – and resettlement in another country – will come through. Like many refugees, he is called into the UNHCR office each year for interviews to obtain refugee status in case one day his file is chosen by Canada or European countries for resettlement. Only six Yemenis were resettled from Jordan in 2017.
Yemeni nationals are subject to the latest iteration of the Trump administration’s travel ban, making resettlement to the US – previously one of the word’s largest takers of refugees – impossible.
“We wait for weeks, months, and years for our status to be resolved and for us to have a chance at a new life and hear nothing,” Al Muntaser says.
“The UNHCR tells us to wait for a phone-call,” he says. “It never comes.”