More than 30,000 refugees have benefited this year from new system providing free, fast-tracked work permits
Legal employment gives Syrians in Jordan a lifeline
Mansour Mafalani is just like any of his co-workers at the Carrefour supermarket in Amman. He punches in at 7am, clocks out at 3pm, and jokes with his colleagues on his breaks.
But unlike his co-workers, Mr Mafalani comes from the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, about an hour's drive from the Jordanian capital.
“I work in Amman and my home is in Zaatari,” Mr Mafalani, 37, said while slicing a cut of steak at the meat section of the supermarket in north Amman. “For once I feel that I have a full life.”
He is one of 34,000 Syrians granted work permits by Jordan this year under a new system providing free, fast-tracked work permits for Syrians in select sectors such as services, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.
Through such jobs in the cities of Irbid, Zarqa and Amman, many of Jordan’s 1.3 million Syrian refugees — more than half of whom are not registered with the UN — are for the first time earning a steady income from legal employment.
Yet while the increased freedom of mobility and economic independence has improved the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians, it has not led to an emptying of Jordan’s three Syrian refugee camps. Quite the opposite: more Syrians are lining up to enter them.
Syrians such as Mr Mafalani, who now have steady salaries, health insurance and transportation, have no plans of leaving the camps any time soon. For them, life in Amman — where rents can reach up to 400 dinars (Dh2,070) and food is more costly — simply isn’t an option.
“I have a wife, 11 children, a mother and a sister living with me,” Mr Mafalani said. “In Amman, my salary wouldn’t cover us for a week.”
Hundreds of Syrians like Mr Mafalani return home every other week to the Zaatari and Azraq camps, one to two hours by bus, to spend time with their families before going back to shared housing provided by their employers in Amman.
“I have made our caravans into a palace in Zaatari,” Mr Mafalani said. “If I stay in the camp, I can save 150 dinars a month and live like a king.”
It is the benefits provided in Zaatari, such as free housing, electricity and water, that are drawing many of the estimated one million Syrian refugees who live outside the camps and struggling to make ends meet. Also, goods ranging from cooking oil to satellite dishes are sold at lower prices.
More than 80 per cent of the 660,000 Syrians in Jordan registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, live below the national poverty line of 2.2 dinars a day. Facing a 40 per cent shortfall in funding, the UN is able to provide only 30,000 of the most vulnerable families with monthly assistance of about 130 dinars.
The agency has also been forced to rotate families in and out of its cash assistance programme to help as many as possible.
After years in Jordan, many Syrian families have exhausted their savings and fallen into debt, accruing up to six months of bills at grocery shops and unable to pay their rent. They are being evicted or choosing to seek new lives at the camps.
According to the UNHCR, Syrian families are showing up at the gates of the Azraq and Zaatari camps and asking to be allowed in. Around 1,000 Syrians are returning to Zaatari each month and 700 to the Azraq camp.
“After several years, many families’ savings are gone and they are in a difficult position,” said Olga Sarrado, UNHCR spokeswoman.
“With the increased freedom to move around and the facilitating of work permits, many Syrians are choosing to live in the camps and take advantage of work opportunities outside.”
Suleiman, who did not want to disclose his full name, is one of many Syrians packing up and heading to the camps. He works illegally as an electrician, plumber and tile layer in Amman.
Even though there is plenty of demand in the capital, and customers pay between 30 and 50 dinars an hour, the 42-year-old father of six says he finds it difficult to keep up with the cost of goods and services in the city.
“My salary can reach up to 700 dinars a month, but I can never feel it in my pocket,” he said.
“My rent is 300 dinars, I spend 150 on food, 100 on transportation, 50 on electricity, and that doesn’t even take into account clothes and items for my wife and children.”
Suleiman decided to move with his family to the Zaatari camp, from where he hopes to apply for legal employment.
“Amman is a place to spend money. The camps are a place to save for the future,” he told The National.
Employers in Jordan are all too happy to have Syrians working for them. They do not have to pay the 400-dinar work permit fee required for other nationalities, and many Syrians have had long experience in the services sector.
Under an agreement, many factories, industrial zones, restaurants and supermarkets go through the UNHCR to recruit Syrians with skills that they need.
Carrefour has been an active recruiter. At the supermarket chain’s request, the UNHCR contacted Mr Mafalani, who had 20 years’ experience working as a butcher and at restaurants in Damascus and Deraa.
Carrefour provided him with training, a stipend for housing and transportation.
In three months, Mr Mafalani has built personal relationships with dozens of customers, who call him directly to reserve their cuts of meat.
“Mansour and our other Syrians treat each customer like they are kings, they don’t just rush through their duties — they care,” said Barakat Malkawi, manager of the Jubeiha Carrefour.
“They build strong relations with the customers and are really loved.”
This is all part of a strategy by Jordanian authorities who want to ensure that Syrian families have an “improved standard of living” and benefit the economy without affecting Jordanian workers.
“Unlike other foreign workers, Syrians will spend their money back into the Jordanian economy, not send it abroad,” said a Jordanian interior ministry source.
“We and all relevant authorities want to facilitate their access to legal employment and to enjoy their right to a dignified life — all while not at the expense of Jordanian workers.”