For two years, Habiba lived with her two children and husband in Amman. Life could be tough for the refugee family. Little food, little money. But they were together and grateful to be in Jordan, away from the mass killing they’d fled in Sudan.
Today, however, Habiba and her children are alone. Last month, her husband, Saleh, was sent back to Khartoum by Jordanian authorities, forcibly deported with about 600 other Sudanese nationals.
“They cry all the time,” Habiba said in Arabic, as 1-year-old Mohammed, snug in a bright purple sweater, tugged at her sleeve. “When they hear someone coming up the stairs outside, they shout, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’”
Habiba can do little to comfort her children. Saleh was the family’s sole breadwinner. Although it’s generally illegal for Sudanese refugees to work in Jordan, Saleh usually managed to scrape enough money together working casual jobs in cleaning or construction. Now he was gone.
“I don’t know how I can live, how I can keep the house,” said Habiba, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisal. “I’m not able to work. We don’t have money to buy food. The baby’s sick. I don’t have money to take him to the hospital.”
Habiba’s is not the only shattered family. When planes left Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport for Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, on Dec. 18, they took with them nearly 20% of Jordan’s 3,500-strong Sudanese population.
Jordanian government representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the situation. Previously, a spokesperson told journalists that the deported Sudanese were not refugees, as they had entered the country on medical visas. Both the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Human Rights Watch disputed the arguments.
The majority of deported men, women and children were refugees and asylum seekers recognized by the UNHCR. They were rounded up outside the agency’s office, where many had been staging a protest, seeking support and demanding a chance to resettle in another country.
Authorities bound the hands of some with zip ties and herded them onto buses for processing. They had been camped outside the agency there since mid-November in a tent city that provided scant shelter from the Jordanian capital’s cold winter.
Saleh, however, didn’t go to the office to demonstrate. He had heard a rumor that protesters would be resettled in Canada and, like hundreds of others, had rushed to the office believing his prayers had been answered.
By the time he realized the truth, it was too late.
“He called me from the airport. He said, ‘Maybe I cannot come back,’” Habiba said. “He told me that I must take good care of the children.”
In a region gripped by conflict, Jordan has become one of the safest options for refugees who can reach it. But life is a struggle, characterized by illegal, low-paid work and the dodging of authorities and racist abuse.
Most of Jordan’s Sudanese population are Darfuri and have good reason to fear returning to Khartoum.
When rebel groups in Sudan's Darfur region took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in 2003, the government and allied militias unleashed a brutal campaign of violence against the non-Arab fighters and villagers that has frequently been described as a genocide. Violent flare-ups that defy easy categorization persist to this day.
Habiba is relieved that Saleh has been able to call her a few times from Sudan, but the families of other deportees are not so lucky.
Deportees in Khartoum and activist groups, including the U.S.-based Darfur Women Action Group, estimate that close to 200 were arrested after returning to Khartoum, and those released from prison have reported being subjected to interrogation and torture. Returnees have told The Times that several of the 600 remain unaccounted for.
The situation worries Adam and Mohammed, who share a small room in central Amman. The young men, who asked that their full names not be used for fear of reprisal, have lived in Jordan for about two years. They also were arrested at the UNHCR protest, but amid the chaos — refugees clashed with police, who fired tear gas — the pair managed to escape.
They kept in contact with a friend who was also arrested. But when he boarded the plane to Khartoum, his messages stopped.
“We don’t know what’s happening to him,” Mohammed said. “The [Sudanese] government arrested him. That means he will die, and no one will know about it.”
For days after their escape they didn’t leave their house, convinced they were wanted by authorities. That terror hasn’t gone away.
“All of us here are from Darfur,” Adam said. “If we go back, they’ll put us in the prison and do the bad things they did before.
“The people who are killed are like us.”
A shy twentysomething, he spends his free time studying, and a neat stack of books sits on the table by his bed. “I am afraid to go on to the street,” he said.
With a protest seeking more assistance resulting only in the disaster of deportation, refugees who remain say they have never felt more alone. Habiba, who hopes that the U.N. would offer some answers, said she was told by staff to wait for help.
UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Daubelcour said that the agency was proactively following up on the situations of women such as Habiba and that emergency cash assistance was “available at any time.” Several Sudanese families have requested and received such help in recent weeks, she said.
Habiba is receiving some limited help from local NGOs, and Mohammed and Adam have welcomed a third friend into the small room they share. Their three beds are now crammed between the possessions — mostly books — of deported friends.
“It is humiliating,” Mohammed said.
“This man, he gets nothing from the government and he needs to live,” he said in English, referring to refugees in general. “He escapes this genocide. He lost every member of his family, and he tried to live the new life. And now you catch him, and return him back by force.”
Although authorities haven’t yet directly threatened the remaining refugees, Mohammed said he’s losing sleep over that possibility. He’s fearful that police might come to deport him in the night. His voice is edged with anger, but he often trips and fades mid-sentence, staring into middle distance, shaking his head. He’s exhausted.
“Now in Jordan, we are afraid for the life. We are living first to work, to be living like other people. But we don't know,” he said. “There is no support, there is no one to care about the life here. This is shame. It is a big shame.”
Staton is a special correspondent.