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Syrian refugees decamp for tough life in Jordan's cities

Refugees in Jordan's cities outnumber those in the Za'atari refugee camp at least 3-to-1. And while camp life is hard, urban refugees have problems of their own.

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A Syrian refugee is pictured at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, in July.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

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Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her chilly, unfurnished home, a Syrian widow explains how she sneaked out of Jordan's Za'atari refugee camp. It cost 50,000 Syrian pounds, about $700, to pay someone from outside to sneak her past the camp's security. She was allowed to pay half up-front, and had a relative in Jordan who could lend her the money.

From there she found an apartment in an urban slum: two dark, bare concrete rooms, crawling with damp. She says she lives mostly off her neighbors, who are also Syrian refugees. One of them found her a television in the garbage, and now it sits in the corner, tuned to a Syrian opposition TV station showing ghastly images of the war against Bashar al-Assad's regime back home. When a sheikh came through the neighborhood giving charitable donations to refugees, she spent hers paying off her debts.

Asked if she is glad she left Za'atari, she gestures at her surroundings.

"To live this way? It's not worth it," she says. "I will go back to Bashar, and die as a martyr. That would be much better than here, and dying in this situation."

Though much attention has been paid to the camp, refugees in Jordan's cities outnumber those in Za'atari at least 3-to-1. And while camp life is hard, urban refugees have problems of their own.

They have to pay rent, for one thing – often on apartments that are in terrible condition, and freezing in the winter. To stay fed and housed, urban refugees need jobs, and Jordan already has 30 percent unemployment. Without work permits, refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, and many end up working for next to nothing.

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