“We got engaged and married in 1973,” says Abu Bassam, “I still remember the date.” His wife, Um Bassam, laughs: “I don’t!”
The elderly couple married for nearly 50 years sit outside in their courtyard as they reminisce about years gone by. They raised eight children back home in southwest Syria where they lived on a modest plot, planting crops and rearing livestock. Abu Bassam smiles as he remembers their wedding photos. “I swear, I had a black moustache and black hair!” he insists, touching his hands to his head.
His hair is alabaster-white now. “We grew old very quickly, from anxiety and sorrow.”
Um and Abu Bassam’s happy memories of their homeland were tarnished when they fled Syria in 2013 to escape the escalating conflict. Their life now is worlds apart from the one back home – and winter is the most challenging time. “I had a salary, we used to buy fuel to fill up the heater,” says Abu Bassam. “The winter was hard,” he admits, “but it was better.”
He can’t afford much fuel these days, so they gather what they can – leaves, branches, newspapers – to burn for warmth in the colder months. A stack of twigs for the next fire sits nearby in the courtyard.
“We need to buy fuel, clothes, medicine, everything,” explains Abu Bassam. Um Bassam agrees. “We have a lot of needs in winter. What can we do? We try to manage.”
Like most of the 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, the Bassams live below the poverty line and must rely on assistance to survive. The cash assistance they receive each month from UNHCR barely covers the rent and leaves them with little to meet the additional expenses that winter brings.
That’s why Um and Abu Bassam are hoping to receive one-off winter cash assistance this year from UNHCR, which will empower families like theirs to decided what they should buy to survive the coldest months of the year. That could be in investing in a better heater and fuel, or covering the cost of warm clothing and blankets.
The family is anxiously waiting to find out whether they’ll receive winter aid this year – and it can’t come soon enough. Biting winds sweep the landscape of northern Jordan, blowing ash from the last fire around the family’s courtyard. For now, they spend time outside in the fresh air. Before long, the rain and freezing temperatures will drive them indoors into the single-storey concrete structure they have to call home.
This run-down property isn’t a pleasant place at any time of year. It’s clear to see why. Mould creeps along the wall, tracing the lines of old water damage and fresh leaks from the cracked windows and holes in the ceiling.
Um Bassam scrutinizes the damage with a careful eye. She’s particularly worried about how the winter will affect their son, Ahmed, who is disabled. They’ve already had to move his bed once to avoid drips from the leaking roof. “I always worry about him, and I want to keep him warm. Sometimes the blankets get so cold.”
The grandchildren play, oblivious to the stresses and sacrifices that their family must endure. Their grandparents look on lovingly. Despite the cold, the sight of their family in a place of relative safety is another memory they’ll cherish, just like the photos of their wedding day 47 years ago.
Vast swathes of Syria have been devastated by the conflict, and many families have no homes left to go back to. Yet Abu Bassam is still hopeful.
“My dream is return to our country.” He looks forward to the day they can start to rebuild their lives in Syria – and start more photo albums filled with new, brighter memories of winter.