Jordan: The struggles of Bani Murra, one of Syria’s most marginalized communities, now displaced as refugees

With more than 5.6 million Syrians now living outside the country, predominantly in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the conflict has created a vast refugee population facing poverty, discrimination and insecurity. But for certain communities, such as the long-stigmatized Bani Murra, the present crisis has only reinforced a long history of prejudice and exclusion – placing them in an especially vulnerable situation as both foreigners and a minority.

Winds spread dust over dozens of makeshift tents on a desolate patch of desert highway in Irbid in northern Jordan, just a few metres from the constant traffic on the road. Clothing dries on makeshift washing lines, surrounded by filthy ponds and piles of rubbish, while stray dogs hunt for leftovers in the remains of campfires where meals have been prepared.

Around 60 members of Syria’s Dom community, an Indo-Aryan people also known as Bani Murra, live here. Frequently referred to as ‘gypsies’ due to their formerly nomadic lifestyle, they fled their country at the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. They share this plot with dozens of Turkmen, a close-knit Turkic-speaking community which has been in the kingdom for decades. Researchers believe Dom migrated from South Asia in the sixth century and gradually made their way through the Middle East, with settlements already in place at the time of the Crusades.

A Bani Murra child stands behind a pond filled with rain water and trash. The makesift camp sits just off the highway in northern Jordan and offers little sanitation or water safeguards. Credit: Alisa Reznick.
Turkmen children approach a Bani Murra portion of the camp both communities share in northern Jordan. Though they live as neighbors, the communities differ in customs, language and culture. Alisa Reznick.

‘We come from the southern city of Dara’a,’ says resident Alaa Mursalli, playing with the eldest of his five children in their two-room tent. ‘We moved after the first week of fighting. Electricity and water were cut off. Shootings were constant, we couldn’t stay. So, we crossed with 80 other people from our tribe into Jordan and eventually relocated here.’

The gaunt 35-year-old says that before the war started, his family and relatives lived in neighbouring flats in the city’s outskirts and often entered Jordan for seasonal work or to visit other members of his tribe. Since then, along with more than 600,000 other Syrians now residing in the country, Jordan has become his home. However, official figures about the Bani Murra community, both among Jordan’s refugee population and back in Syria, are not available: unverified data show that there were approximately 300,000 Dom in Syria before the conflict, with unofficial figures suggesting they could have been as many as 1 million. A few hundred of them are now scattered between areas of northern Jordan and the Azraq refugee camp, home to over 36,000 refugees. Like Europe’s Roma, Dom are a persecuted minority who face widespread prejudice and hostility across the region. Due to popular stereotypes associating them with witchcraft, fortune-telling and criminality, they are often referred to as ‘nawar’ or ‘tramps’ – a slur that Bani Murra have also adopted themselves.

Bani Murra Alaa Mursalli
Bani Murra Alaa Mursalli fled Syria’s southern city of Dara’a with his family at the inception of the civil war in 2011. Credit: Alisa Reznick.

The 70-year-old Bani Murra leader in the camp, Ghurdru Marsalli, explains that his tribe is made up of several members related to each other. ‘Some of us have Jordanian nationality as a result of marriages that happened 40 years ago with local Bani Murra. Others are just Syrian nationals. But we all used to live in Syria,’ he says, gesturing with hands adorned with simple traditional tattoos. ‘We were poor back home. Still, we lived in houses and had jobs, and our children went to school. Bani Murra who moved here have become 100 per cent poor.’

Historically, Dom communities have always been marginalized from wider society, with limited access to education and higher levels of unemployment. But Jordan’s soaring living costs have now condemned them to a life of misery. Jobs that Bani Murra migrant workers used to take before the war and that guaranteed a decent living back in Syria, like picking vegetables and fruit in the Jordan Valley, are now of little help.

Kasi al Mursalli, 39, a palm reader, helps her brother Alaa and his wife raise their children while occasionally working in the fields. She just returned from the Jordan Valley, but explains that the money she made this year will not be enough to cover their expenses in the kingdom. ‘Back in Syria, I picked tomatoes, olives, beans and apples. A truck collected women, men and children in the morning. We earned very little. Still, it was more than enough because life was extremely cheap and we were allowed to take some vegetables and fruits from the harvest. This is not the same here.’

Widespread suspicion towards Dom is a further barrier to employment, with many applicants being rejected due to their background. The tribe recounts the case of a member who approached the factory across the street for a position a year earlier. An answer is yet to come. Meanwhile, they say, other men from the area have been hired on the spot.

Syrian Bani Murra men pose for a portrait outside a shanty camp
Syrian Bani Murra men pose for a portrait outside a shanty camp they share with ethnic Turkmen. The group says discrimination and social exclusion in Jordan makes finding a job difficult. Credit: Alisa Reznick.

‘Across the region, people have a negative image of us. They think we are up to no good,’ Alaa says. ‘Sometimes, the truck selling water doesn’t stop, or when we ask our neighbours for a glass of water, they tell us to go away because we are gypsies.’

Ghurdru, the head of the family, says the government has failed to provide them with any help to date. Nor has the local Bani Murra community in Jordan shown much support so far. Besides a few cross-national marriages between Dom living on the border, Jordan’s 70,000-strong community distances itself from the Syrian one.

Despite themselves being socially stigmatized and lacking any form of representation in the country, Jordanian Bani Murra are reluctant to mix with their Syrian counterparts. ‘Our relation is very weak,’ Fatih Moussa, one of the leaders of the Jordanian minority, says in his home in Amman. ‘They entered Jordan as a result of the war. Even their habits are different from ours, just as the habits of Jordanians differ from those of the Syrians. We are closer to the Bedouins than to them, in terms of habits and traditions.’

A mountain of trash overlooks a shanty camp in northern Jordan, where Bani Murra and Turkmen minority communities reside.
A mountain of trash overlooks a shanty camp in northern Jordan, where Bani Murra and Turkmen minority communities reside. Credit: Alisa Reznick

Around 30 km from the shanty camp, a desert village near the Jaber border crossing point is home to around 300 Syrian Bani Murra residing in some 30 houses and a few tents. Alaa’s brother Hazem Mursalli lives here. Two goat carcasses hang outside, dripping blood into the dust: Hazem explains the goats will be cooked on Friday for the whole community. Relatives from the camp will also join the feast. Talks about the quality of the meat among men are carried out in the Domari dialect, the Romani language in the region. Hazem says everyone in his community uses it and that it is preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to the next. When their dialect lacks a word, he explains, they borrow it from the local Arabic.

‘In Syria, we were over a million. The majority lived in Aleppo, an historical hub for gypsies in the Middle East,’ says the 37-year-old man. ‘Because of our large numbers, racism back home was stronger than in Jordan. But we are good people, trust me, we don’t look for problems.’

A Bani Murra toddler holds up a trash bag outside the family tent inside a makeshift shared by Bani Murra and Turkmen in northern Jordan. April 2018.
A Bani Murra toddler holds up a trash bag outside the family tent inside a makeshift shared by Bani Murra and Turkmen in northern Jordan. Credit: Alisa Reznick.

Another 15 Bani Murra families have found shelter in the country’s Azraq refugee camp. One of the Syrians living there is 70-year-old Tirfa Mursalli, who just reached Jaber to visit her relatives. She walks through the crowd wearing a traditional black abaya – a loose-fitting, full-length cloak – that leaves only her facial tattoos exposed. In the past, she explains, Dom used to tattoo their bodies as protection from spirits and the evil eye, and as a sign of beauty or belonging to their tribe.

But the practice has disappeared today. ‘We were silly back then,’ she says, before impatiently explaining her lengthy wait for financial help from an international aid group inside the refugee camp. Nothing has been delivered so far. ‘I live well in Azraq. I share a shelter with other relatives. We have access to water and electricity but there is no financial aid or money whatsoever. Thank God there is no distinction between Bani Murra and Syrians there. We are all just people who fled the war.’

Despite a state school available in the vicinity, Dom children are not attending any classes. Ready to yell ‘yes’ in a chorus when asked if they ever visit the local institute, it is just a matter of seconds before they start cracking jokes. Adults and children alike tell each other, amid laughter, that they all attend ‘the school of the traffic light’. This likely refers to the days spent begging on the streets to scrape together some money.

Three of Alaa and Awadif Mursalli's five children pose for a portrait
Three of Alaa and Awadif Mursalli’s five children pose for a portrait in their family’s tent in northern Jordan. (Left to right) Hala, 11, Adel, 6, and Adriya, 7. Credit: Alisa Reznick.

Back in the camp, Alaa’s pregnant wife Awadif Marsalli sits in her tent. Her daughters watch TV, the only piece of furniture in a space that also serves as the bedroom at night for all seven family members. A scant, improvised kitchen completes the shelter and gives some privacy for washing. Patchily put together with some planks of wood and covered with tarpaulin, the tent offers little protection from the scorching Jordanian summers and freezing winters. Blankets and openings in the shelter’s cover to increase air circulation are the only solutions.

As her 11-year-old daughter Hala sits next to her and says she would love to go to school and play with children outside the camp, Awadif vents her frustration. ‘My husband used to work in Syria. But there are no jobs for him now. We cannot send our kids to school. The nearest one is private and asks JD90 (around US$127) a month per pupil. How can we send our five children to school with another one soon to come?’

Alaa sees no future for the Bani Murra in Jordan and says they just take it one day at a time. In Syria, he was a line installer and repairer. Now, a day in the fields gives him a meager JD5 (about US$7).  ‘One of my children needs eye surgery that I cannot afford,’ he says, with a discouraged look. ‘Many have come here in the past few years promising help. I saw people of many different nationalities talking about schools, teachers, help. Where are all these things today?’

Elisa Oddone (words)

The Mursalli’s eldest daughter Hala poses in the small kitchen room inside the family’s tent. Credit: Alisa Reznick.