From Middle Class to 'Living a Nightmare': How Syria’s Class System Has Been Eradicated

Impoverished and unable to work in Jordan, once wealthy Syrians are selling off their family land to compatriots working in the Gulf as shopkeepers and laborers — unthinkable before the war.
December 17, 2015, 6:45pm
Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

A growing number of Jordan's Syrian refugees have now completely severed ties to their home country by selling their final assets — land in Syria — to shore up dwindling aid funding and, in some cases, to pay traffickers to smuggle them to Europe.

The flurry of sales comes as winter begins and European politicians tighten borders and dither over upping aid contributions. Sensing a fleeting opportunity, a growing number of Syrians are liquidating farmland that has been in families for generations in order to reach Europe before the chance is lost.

Abu Ahmad, a father of nine, is a recent seller. From his moldering basement apartment in Irbid, a city in northern Jordan, the former carpet salesman recalled selling his 18-dunam (194,000 sq. ft.) homestead in the village of Harak, in Syria's southern province of Daraa. It went for 6,000 Jordanian dinars ($8,500) — perhaps 20 percent of its pre-war value.

The sale fetched enough to send a 14-year-old daughter, 16-year-old son, and a three-year-old grandson to Europe, alone. They are now in Germany.

"I had no money to feed them, and now I have nothing left in Syria," said Ahmad. Wracked with guilt at having put those three in such danger, he feared his other children would starve before the family could be reunited in Germany.

Related: 'Israel Is the Most Humane Country in the Middle East': Why Syria's Southern Neighbors Are Working on Their PR

The only money coming into the house is the monthly stipend from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP): 15 dinars ($21) per person per month. This must keep the whole family fed, though Ahmad risks trouble with the police for occasional cash-in-hand work in a building site. Those seven dinars a day do not go far, either.

Syrians' inability to legally participate in the labor market means they are permanently dependent on aid: a burden for their host country and the broader international community that continues to fund the UN-led refugee response across the region. But unless refugees gain the right to work, this status quo will persist. It's not only bad for the people and governments bankrolling refugee aid, in a culture where men take pride in providing for their families being unable to do this can be devastating.

For men like Ahmad — middle-aged, impoverished, and eyeing a future where work is forbidden and his children's survival linked to the whims of donor and host governments — depression and desperation is overwhelming.

"What should I do, sell my kids?" he asked, turning his empty palms upward. "There is nothing left."

Another Syrian father in the same apartment block had a similar story. Abu Mohammad, a father of 11, was solidly middle-income back in Daraa, with 100 dunams of farmland and orchards. (One dunam is 1,000 sq. m. or 10,763 sq. ft.) After three years in Jordan, he took on debt to pay traffickers to get two nephews to Europe in July, and sold his best land, rich in peach and apple trees, to repay it.

Abu Mohammed netted just 375 dinars per dunam, a quarter of the pre-war value. He was about to sell another five dunams at an even lower price to smuggle two sons along the same route.

Like his neighbor Ahmad, Mohammad inherited his land from his own father, and sold it to ex-pat Syrians working in the Gulf as shopkeepers and laborers.

"These buyers would never have been able to buy before and we would never have considered selling. The old class of landowners is disintegrating and the expatriate class is rising. This is changing the fabric of society," he said.

More than half of Mohammad's neighbors in Syria had sold or were thinking of selling their land, he said, and he admitted he would sell more land if times got really desperate. The impact this would have on Syria's future was sobering. Who would farm the fields and tend grape, figs and apple harvests in future years, he wondered.

'Land is something sacred, you inherit it and you pass it on to your son. It feels like we're living a nightmare'

"Before, we were competing with China in agriculture and pharmaceuticals. But now, Syria has gone back to the Stone Age."

The desperation fueling the sales is directly linked to a decrease in support for refugees. Aid budgets and healthcare have been slashed and Syrians, forbidden from working in Jordan, have had to squeak by on less and less each month.

Jonathan Campbell, head of the WFP's refugee project in Jordan, has presided over a shrinking budget for most of 2015. After warning of drastic consequences for years, he feared he was seeing "the next step in the dissolution of Syrian society."

"The implications for the future are huge. The middle class is shrinking. And what of the people who sold land but can't get to Europe? When they go back to Syria, where will they live?"

The UN's refugee agency interviews Syrians returning to their war-ravaged homeland. According to UNHCR data, 18 percent of the people taking the return bus back from Jordan back to Syria plan to liquidate assets in order to move elsewhere — in most cases, in order to fund travel to Europe via Turkey.

Related: Syrian Refugees Are Stuck at the Border with Jordan and Can't Get Out

"All statistics point to one thing: people are losing hope in their countries of asylum, and they are seeking what is best for their families," said Andrew Harper, head of the UN's refugee agency in Jordan.

For refugees now in their fourth or fifth year of exile in Jordan, there is a sense, said Harper, of having been "warehoused and told that they can't really contribute." The desire to go beyond survival, to regain dignity and productivity is all too understandable: "People want to have a future, and they are seeking to move while they have a chance."

For their part, none of the families interviewed by VICE News said they actually wanted to sell their legacies or risk death on a rubber raft to Europe: they simply felt they had no other choice. They would rather wait the crisis out in Jordan, they said, but they needed to move from mere survival to living with some modicum of dignity.

The price tag on a more dignified life, with sick children medicated, rent paid, fresh vegetables for dinner, and a gas-canister heater in the lounge? Surprisingly low. Ahmad said he needed 800 dinars per month for his household of 11 people — about $100 per person per month. Mohammad said 1,000 dinars would cover the 13 people in his household — around the same amount.

But with aid agencies already stretched, funding like this is pure fantasy. And so across Jordan, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, wrestle with questions they never dreamed they'd have to answer.

About to cut another slice from his family's legacy in order to risk two sons' lives in a sea he does not know, Mohammad was despondent.

"Land is something sacred, you inherit it and you pass it on to your son. It feels like we're living a nightmare. I can't comprehend what has just happened."

Follow Sara Elizabeth Williams on Twitter: @saraewilliams