A young Darfuri refugee skates in the 7Hills skate park in Amman, Jordan. (Marta Vidal)

“There is war in Sudan. Many people are getting killed, women raped, men beaten. In Jordan, we just stay at home but it also feels like war. Discrimination. Not being able to work. It’s just like war,” says Abdul*, who fled Darfur in 2010.

He is among the more than 4,000 Sudanese people who – fleeing war and persecution – has found refuge in Jordan.

Most come from Darfur, a region where at least 300,000 people have been killed and three million people have been displaced since violence broke out in 2003. Darfuris have been systematically targeted for murder, rape and forced displacement by Janjaweed militias backed by the country’s ruling elite in Khartoum. Human rights organisations continue toexpress concern over ongoing human rights violations in the region.

For Abdul and many others fleeing violence in Sudan, arriving in Jordan didn’t mean finding a safe place to live. African refugees in Jordan say they are frequently subjected to racial abuse and neglected by humanitarian organisations and local authorities.

“African refugees are not considered normal human beings here,” says Gasem, who fled Darfur as a child at the beginning of war. Sitting at the Jesuit Center in Amman, a group of young Sudanese men share their everyday experiences of being black in Jordan’s capital city.

“Jordanians are racist, but they don’t admit it. And if they don’t admit it, how can the problem be solved? We will continue to suffer from discrimination on a daily basis,” Gasem tells Equal Times.

Sitting close by, Abdul nods in agreement. “The Sudanese will never assimilate into Jordanian society because there is so much discrimination,” he adds.

Fewer in number, but no less in need

Jordan hosts the world’s second highest number of refugees per capita and most NGOs focus their resources on supporting the more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees. With the international community focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, thousands of refugees from Sudan and Somalia feel overlooked in Jordan as most of them receive no assistance from overburdened NGOs.

“Just because there are less of us it doesn’t mean our lives are worth less,” says Gasem. According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 4,211 registered Sudanese refugees in Jordan and 819 refugees from Somalia.

The large influx of Syrians means that refugees from other countries are less visible, and often excluded from humanitarian assistance programmes aimed at addressing the Syrian crisis.

Some Sudanese and Somali refugees receive monthly assistance from UNHCR and food vouchers from other NGOs, but the amount is so small that it is not enough to cover rent, food and medical expenses in Amman, which is considered one of the most expensive cities in the Middle East. Despite being unable to work in Jordan, many African refugees receive no material assistance, and are left to fend for themselves.

In 2016, a deal between the Jordanian government, the World Bank and the European Union envisioned the provision of hundreds of thousands of work permits for Syrian refugees. Known as the Jordan Compact, the deal was aimed at granting refugees access to the job market, however it excluded non-Syrian refugees.

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“In other countries refugees can work and study. They can develop themselves and contribute to society. But here we can’t do anything,” says Gasem. “I have so many friends who are so talented but have no space to do anything.”

Most Sudanese and Somali refugees are forced to take illegal, precarious and low-paid work.

“Some of us are so desperate that we would accept any salary,” says Gasem. “Then the police arrest us because we have no papers. We didn’t commit any crime. We are just trying to survive but we are put in jail with criminals.”

Unable to secure work permits, many African refugees are exploited by employers. Sometimes contractors refuse to pay the agreed amount and threaten workers if they complain.

“It has happened to me more than three times, not being paid what I was promised,” says Ahmed, a refugee from Darfur. “If we complain they will just fire us because we don’t have a work permit.”

He says that because they are working without permits, refugees are often paid less than their Jordanian colleagues. He also believes the police are stricter with African refugees, who are more easily identifiable when working informally, than Syrian refugees.

Sitting in a circle at the Jesuit Center, where the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is one of the few organisations working with African refugees, the young Sudanese men share stories of harassment and discrimination. They feel neglected by aid organisations and accuse some humanitarian workers of being prejudiced against African refugees.

“They help Syrians and Iraqis, but not African people. When I go to tell them about my problems they don’t care. They don’t want to listen,” says Mustafa, who fled Darfur at the peak of the conflict.

Deported for protesting against discrimination

In November 2015, Sudanese refugees staged a tent demonstration in front of the UNHCR office in Amman to protest against what they saw as discrimination in provision of humanitarian assistance.

“Women with children camped out in the cold in front of UNHCR for a month between November and December,” says Aaron Williams, the American co-founder of Sawiyan, a non-profit association assisting marginalised refugees in Jordan.

“The protest was triggered by the discrimination experienced by the Sudanese community, but they also felt that they were forgotten and that NGOs didn’t take their stories seriously. Like other refugee populations, they had severe medical conditions and trauma from what they had experienced in Darfur, but had limited aid assistance and programming allocated to their needs,” says Williams.

According to Human Rights Watch, on 16 December 2015 Jordanian authorities rounded up around 800 Sudanese men, women and children who were taking part in the month-long protest. Forced to board planes, hundreds were deported back to Sudan.

At the time of the deportations, a Jordanian government spokesperson told the press that the deportees were in Jordan illegally because they had entered the country under the pretext of seeking medical treatment. The claim was dismissed by UNHCR, since most of the protesters were registered as asylum seekers or refugees and the way an individual enters a country does not delegitimise their claim to asylum.

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“When the deportations were happening a lot of people got in touch,” says Williams. “Many of them internationals working with NGOs, but also Jordanians who couldn’t believe what was happening and who believed it was fundamentally against what Jordan’s traditions used to stand for.”

Despite not having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, Jordan is bound by the international law principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits governments from returning people to areas where they might risk persecution or exposure to inhumane treatment.

A group of around 35 volunteers started meeting Sudanese refugees who were too scared to leave their homes in Amman after the deportations. They brought food, winter clothing and blankets, and sat down to hear their stories.

“As our volunteer group started to take in more and more cases we started to see trends of issues faced and the needs in the community. We found out who needed food, who had been harassed, who had dropped out of school because of bullying, who needed counselling,” says Williams. He was one of the volunteers coordinating the efforts to assist the Sudanese who remained in Jordan.

“We started referring people to counselling and assistance from other organisations,” says Williams. The grassroots initiative grew into a non-profit organisation focusing on Jordan’s marginalised refugees.

Sawiyan, which means ‘to come together, to cultivate community or equality’, advocates for African refugees in Jordan. “Our goal is social inclusion, breaking down stereotypes, and fostering greater capacity for the host community to tackle their most pressing issues and to provide assistance for those in need,” says Williams.

The non-profit’s projects encourage Sudanese and Jordanians to sit together and share their experiences. Sawiyan also developed a partnership with 7Hills, a skate park which became a place for locals and different refugee groups to come together.

“There is a lot of hype about Syrians, but there are also a lot of Sudanese, Somali and Yemeni refugees in Jordan. We wanted to create a project that would include everyone,” says Mohammed Zakaria, the skate park’s founder.

International and local volunteers raised over US$20,000 through crowdfunding to build the park. In 2016, 7Hills launched a programme for refugee youth, allowing the skate park to become a safe space for young African refugees, but also a place for families to have picnics. Slowly, the space is beginning to change the way in which the local youth interact with African refugees.

“There is a lot of discrimination in Amman. This is one of the few places where everyone is welcome, as long as they respect everyone else,” says Zakaria. 
With the help of volunteers, Sudanese children wearing helmets learn to balance on their skateboards. They fall down, but they quickly get back up again.

*Abdul’s surname, like all the refugees quoted in this story, has been withheld to protect his safety.

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