By Caroline Sogaard.
The cafe was filled with people. People with meetings or work, people catching up with friends over a cup of coffee. Some chose to sit in the quiet inside area where others chose to overlook the many buildings of Amman, Jordan from the outside balcony. When sitting outside, one could almost imagine power over the already established concrete buildings. Among the many people, Hassan and Mubarak, two community leaders of Somali and Sudanese refugees, played with the idea of power to find solutions for their communities. The list grew. Five minutes became a half-hour until Mubarak put the discussion on hold to tend to the official interview.
Mubarak and Hassan have two different stories of why they came to Jordan — Mubarak from Darfur, Sudan in 2013 and Hassan from Somalia in 2010. They are two of 2.7 million refugees registered in Jordan, with 2.2 million being Palestinian and 745 thousand registered with UNHCR. They are also refugees of a minority. A minority that, as the Jesuit Refugee Service explains, is almost a “forgotten refugee population in Jordan.” According to the UNHCR, a refugee legally has three different options of life direction: voluntary repatriation, local integration, or third-country resettlement. But what if none of these options are durable for refugees of African origin?
When Hassan came to Jordan, he saw education as the single option to build a future regardless of where. He thus gained a scholarship, securing a seat at the Jordan University of Science and Technology for Civil Engineering. “When I started looking for employment in my field, civil engineering, I realized that this will not be a possibility. I had to think in a different way and use whatever option was open for me. And then I started working as a freelance interpreter with international organizations.” Jordanian legal restrictions prohibit refugees from working, apart from some Syrian refugees who gained a work permit after 2016. That means most refugees work in the informal sector with no protection, low wages, and the fear of imprisonment or deportation if caught working. For African refugees, discrimination is especially present in the work sector. “Many refugees work illegally in the country. When the government is trying to catch illegal workers, the African refugees are simply noticed, as a person of color in the government or a company. As a Syrian you can easily move around, thinking the person is Jordanian, Palestinian,” Hassan explains. And at the end of the day, is Jordan to be blamed? In a country with almost 15 percent unemployment, Hassan points out, “There is no way you can expect a government who fails to employ its own people to give you the chance to work in your profession, as a refugee.” However, racial discrimination comes in more than one level in the country.
Sudanese and Somali refugees in Jordan specifically struggle with racism with constant use of racial slurs like Abu Samra, chocolate, or ’abeed, meaning slave. On his way to the cafe, Mubarak was in a taxi and hurled the exact words ‘chocolate’ and ‘Abu Samra.’ When opposing those comments, the response was “We’re in Jordan, it is totally fine. This is normal.” What Mubarak points out that’s specifically difficult in changing this mindset is its institutional presence. He has been called ‘Abu Samra’ by officials in the host community several times. Hassan pointed out the present superiority and ignorance of the slavery stage by Arabs. “Sometimes they see a person of color and immediately doubt their ability to speak Arabic or their religion.”
And what happens when one attempts to speak up about their rights? The Sudanese and Somali communities, forgotten refugee communities, receive much less aid from international organizations like UNICEF and Save the Children, who limit their work to aid Syrian refugees. As late as 2015, Sudanese refugees protested outside the UNHCR office, demanding better rights for refugees and asylum seekers like Syrian and Iraqi refugees. After a month of protesting, more than 800 Sudanese refugees were deported back to Sudan by Jordanian authorities. Instead of fighting an inexistent power, Hassan and Mubarak both chose to give back to their communities after the 2015 deportation and became more careful in their actions to speak up about their rights and the discrimination they experience. Hassan speaks up about these worries; “I represent the Somali community at the UNHCR and sometimes I talk to organizations in terms of the rights of these people, I feel from time to time that it is putting myself at risk. In telling the UNHCR directly what is going on and whose rights are neglected. You fear for your own, you may be interrogated or followed”.
Mubarak and Hassan do not believe in a Jordan where the laws will change. A Jordan where laws will remove racism. A Jordan where the refugee hierarchy fuelled by the country and international community disappears. And at the end of the day, what role does the international community have? 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled while the rest are left with the option of local integration and repatriation — options that are not feasible. Meanwhile, Western States send aid to countries like Jordan to keep refugees alive, but without life. The money becomes an excuse to not take any more refugees into their needing economies instead of adopting effective integration policies. Money from international organizations is used to continue the informal system where no refugee has the opportunity to integrate. If Mubarak and Hassan ask for resettlement, they will receive a “no” because they are single men. Life as a refugee in Jordan is “like [that of] a dead person.” It is a “life between four walls” of the concrete buildings where the system is established. Mubarak calls this “a dead person waiting for their only cure — resettlement.”