How do shared experiences of widowhood inform a sense of self and community among Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in Jordan? In this piece, Dina Zbeidy explores every-day lives in displacement, refugee-refugee relations, self-representation and spaces of refuge in Wihdat, a Palestinian camp east of Amman. In particular, she highlights the important social role that community spaces can play in framing refugee identities. For other submissions on this theme, including other accounts of everyday life in displacement, and refugee-refugee relationality, see the recommended readings below.
Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan
By Dina Zbeidy, University of Amsterdam
One morning during my fieldwork in Jordan I walked towards the house of Fatiha, a 28-year-old Syrian woman that I had become good friends with. She lived in Wihdat, a Palestinian camp East of Amman, together with her two young daughters. On the way I bought a kilo of knafeh, hoping to make the girls happy. When I got to Fatiha’s street, I could not find her apartment building. I had memorized the location to be next to a house under construction, but it seemed the construction was completed and the narrow street looked quite nice. I tried two wrong doors before on older man asked me who I was looking for. I told him I was looking for an apartment building with Syrians. He smiled and pointed me in the right direction.
Fatiha’s 10-year-old daughter opened the door for me and said that her mother was on her way. Half an hour later, Fatiha entered the house and told me that the Zakat Committee had called her to go get food. The Zakat, or alms committee, falls under the Jordanian Ministry of Endowment, and gives charity to widows, orphans, and the poor. Fatiha could choose between two meals: Friki and Mansaf, both frozen in plastic bags. She took a meal but on her way home she gave it to some people at the street-market, commenting that they might need the food more than her.
Fatiha’s husband was killed in 2012 by the Syrian army. She came to Jordan soon after with her parents and siblings. As most of her family stayed in Zaatari refugee camp close to the borders, she was able to leave, and decided to settle in Wihdat because of the nearby Zakat Committee, and good girl-schools. The monthly Zakat allowance for orphans and widows is Fatiha’s main source of income, out of which she pays for rent and food. She had a tough time for a year, as there was no room for her youngest daughter at a public school, and she could hardly cover the tuition for the private school her daughter was attending. For the coming school year, however, a school nearby had added an afternoon shift specifically for Syrian children. This would come to lessen her financial burden a little.
The Zakat Committee is not only a basic source of income for Syrian widows, it is also a place to make friends and meet new people. During my time in Wihdat, I noticed that local organizations that serve all residents of Wihdat, including Palestinians and Syrians, were among the few places where these women met each other and forged friendships.
That same day that I brought knafeh to Fatiha, she wanted to introduce me to her “Palestinian friend” Raneen. She called her, and half an hour later a woman came in with her three children. Raneen is thirty years old. Both her parents were born in Wihdat in the 1950s but originally come from the Yafa district in Palestine. She recounted her and her husband’s crazy love story, and how she stubbornly wanted to marry him despite the many obstacles they faced. Unfortunately, he died seven years later in a car accident. She moved back to her parents’ house in Wihdat with her three children. Three unmarried siblings also still live in the small two-room apartment.
I asked Fatiha and Raneen how they got to know each other, because I had noticed during my time in Wihdat that Syrian and Palestinian women do not often mingle. Fatiha responded that they met at the Zakat where both of them go every month for their stipends. “Raneen is a real friend,” Fatiha said. Whenever Raneen is on her way to visit Fatiha, she calls to see if she can bring her and her daughters some food. Recently, Raneen had to go to a funeral, so she brought her three children to Fatiha to watch them. They help each other out in times of need and often visit each other or go out with their children to eat ice-cream at the local square. When we were alone again Fatiha said that many Palestinians complain that Syrians are receiving aid, but Raneen does not mind. According to Raneen, Fatiha said, everyone gets their lot in life, and she is not worried that Syrians are taking away from her share.
Another day Fatiha insisted on taking me to Im Ahmad, a Palestinian woman in her seventies who had a very interesting life story. The daughter of Im Ahmad was also a widow, and worked for the Zakat Committee. She had invited Fatiha to her home one day, where Fatiha met Im Ahmad, the mother. Im Ahmad had recently fallen down the stairs and was bed-ridden. For the previous couple of months Fatiha had passed by Im Ahmad at least twice a week to check on her. Through Im Ahmad and her daughter, Fatiha got to know the rest of the family as well. Im Ahmad had not left the house for a long time, and Fatiha insisted on taking her around Wihdat for a walk, insisting that she has to continue to move. With the help of Im Ahmad’s daughter-in-law, we dressed Im Ahmad and took her out for a walk, Fatiha and Im Ahmad locking arms and chatting.
While conducting fieldwork in Amman, I heard many conversations in which Palestinians compared their displacement experience with that of the Syrians. In Wihdat, residents complained about the rise in rent and the lack of jobs, attributing the changes to the arrival of Syrian refugees. Another important factor in the complaints was that Wihdat residents were not all on the same line regarding the Syrian regime, which influenced how they thought of the Syrians fleeing the war. Women and men alike complained about how most organizations focus on Syrians, and that there was hardly anything left for the Palestinians. Through the friendships of Fatiha with Raneen and Im Ahmad’s family, I realized that this was only part of the story. Friendships are also being created, between the Palestinians who have lived as refugees for over six decades now, and Syrians who are still struggling to find their place in Jordan.
I had not yet realized the importance of widowhood in these friendships, until one day Fatiha was visiting me, and we skyped with my mother. When my mother answered, Fatiha took the laptop out of my hands, looked into the camera, laughed, greeted my mother, and told her: “I am the widow.” She did not introduce herself as Syrian, or as Fatiha, but as “the widow”. This was a great reminder for me, that refugee-ness is never an all-encompassing label, and people identify themselves in different ways in different contexts. Even though both Syrians and Palestinians often referred to themselves as refugees, they have not always experienced displacement in similar ways. But it seemed to me that widowhood was a term, an identity, that did bring these women together, that made them feel they were all facing the same fate.
Read the introduction to the Representations of Displacement Series, written by Refugee Hosts Principal Investigator Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, for more.
You may also be interested in reading our Faith and Displacement series for more on the diverse role faith plays in everyday experiences of and responses to displacement.
If you have found this piece of interest, you may consider reading these additional items on the Refugee Hosts website:
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Palestinian and Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Sharing Space, Electricity and the Sky‘
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y.M. (2017) ‘Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying‘
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience, Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Loss and Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border”
Zaman, T. (2017) “Athens and the Struggle for a Mobile Commons”
Featured image: Street in Wihdat with wall paintings referring to/symbolizing Palestine (c) D. Zbeidy