???Irbid, Jordan: Barely one year into the Syrian war, Abu Eyad made the hardest decision of his life.
With uncanny foresight of the horrors that were yet to unfold, one afternoon in mid-2012 Abu Eyad left his job with the Syrian Ministry of Water and did not come back. That night, together with his wife and three of their children they packed as much of their belongings as they could into suitcases and left Yarmouk camp, just outside Damascus, heading south towards the Jordanian border. While siege and starvation lay ahead for the residents of Yarmouk, as a Palestinian the decision to leave Syria for Jordan presented somewhat of a Gordian knot.
Fleeing a job at any Syrian government ministry essentially meant defection and a death sentence should Abu Eyad remain inside the country. Unfortunately, when the family reached the southern Syrian border, they found that while the border remained open to Syrian refugees (since June 2015 it has been closed to all civilian traffic), earlier that year Jordan had moved to deny entry to any Palestinians attempting to enter from Syria.
This is in many ways because of Jordan's own fraught history with the Palestinians. After accepting thousands of Palestinians who fled or were displaced by its Western neighbour Israel in wars in 1948 and 1967, in 1970 the PLO under Yasser Arafat staged an uprising against their Jordanian hosts, the Hashemite monarchy. The conflict, which came to be known as Black September, was violently quashed by the Jordanian Armed Forces. Thousands of Palestinians were killed and the PLO leadership and fighters expelled to Lebanon.
Since then, Jordan has maintained an uneasy relationship with its large Palestinian population. Of the 6.5 million people living in Jordan, almost 3 million have Palestinian origin and of these more than 2 million are registered as refugees. Jordan fears that a sharp increase in the Palestinians coming from Syria as a result of the civil war may once again upset its own fragile demographic equilibrium. So, when push comes to shove in the political battle for refugee access rights to Jordan, Palestinian families such as Abu Eyad's who have lived in Syria since first being displaced 70 years ago from what is now Israel, remain thoroughly Palestinian and are therefore not welcome in Jordan.
Like many other Palestinians from Syria, Abu Eyad and his family were caught in a double bind. They could not stay in Syria for fear of death and their escape route through Jordan was being barred. With a deep determination born out of despair, Abu Eyad appealed to the Free Syrian Army operating in southern Syria to supply them with Syrian identification cards. Miraculously, even though the pictures on the ID cards scantly resembled them, the family made it across the border and into Jordan.
For a few short weeks they lived among other Syrian refugees in Zaatari refugee camp. But they constantly feared that their true identities would be uncovered as news surfaced of Palestinians in similar predicaments, who had also entered Jordan using false documents subsequently being forced back across the border into Syria, sometimes at gunpoint.
For this reason, even now, Abu Eyad, his wife and children continue to keep their Palestinian identity secret. They moved from Zaatari to another refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Jordanian town of Irbid. It once housed Palestinians displaced in 1967 but is now predominantly filled with Syrians from Daraa. With their new identity cards, they try to make ends meet as best they can but they have no work rights in Jordan. Their second eldest son, Ibrahim, is now married and has a son of his own, both registered in Jordan using the name on his Syrian identity card.
In September 2015, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, offered a rare ray of hope, issuing statements about wanting to move Palestinians fleeing Syria back to the West Bank. However, Ibrahim seems resigned about the prospects of success. "They're hollow promises," he says with a resigned shrug. At 23 he's already well aware of how politics in the Arab world works where civilians inevitably bear the brunt of the political storm.
For now, Abu Eyad and his family have few options. To stay in Jordan means continuing under their new Syrian identities with minimal support from the UNHCR and no chance of resettlement elsewhere without risk of being evicted. And while the Assad regime remains in power, returning to Syria remains unthinkable.