'No Hope': A Deadly Tent Fire In Jordan Leaves Syrian Refugee Farmworkers In Despair The Saleh family lost four young children in a fire that broke out in their tent in June, when the parents were working in farm fields. Syrian refugees make up about 70% of Jordan's farmworkers.

'No Hope': A Deadly Tent Fire In Jordan Leaves Syrian Refugee Farmworkers In Despair

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been visiting one of the places that Syrian refugees have gone to flee their country's long-running war. Thousands left the Syrian countryside to go next door to Jordan. They've lived there for years in makeshift encampments, often serving as farmworkers. NPR's Jane Arraf met a family who tried to save their children from war. And we should warn, this story, which lasts about 4 1/2 minutes, contains details many will find disturbing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Ftaim al-Saleh's young nieces and nephews play in the dirt road near her family's new tent. Her own young children are buried up the road - four of them. All of them died in a fire in June early one morning while she and her husband were working in the fields. Her husband, Mohammad al-Saleh, tells us the youngest was just a baby.

MOHAMMAD AL-SALEH: (Through interpreter) The oldest was 10 years old, Talal. Younger than him was Abdul Razaq. He was 7. Then there was Faris, he was 2, and then Amjad, about 7 months.

ARRAF: He shows us a photo on his phone of the four children.

M AL-SALEH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: The two eldest weren't in the tent when the fire started and survived. Saleh was out in the strawberry fields about half a mile away.

M AL-SALEH: (Through interpreter) They came and told me your children are dead, burned in a fire. When I arrived, the fire was out and the tent was burned to the ground. The children were completely burned, each one lying in a different place. Then the ambulance came and took them away.

ARRAF: Families who work on the farms live in a collection of makeshift tents, most of them made of plastic. When the fire broke out, Saleh and his family were living in the shadow of a giant Ikea on the road to the airport. But there is no running water in these settlements, no showers. Electricity is brought in by running lines from the farms they're working on, enough to power light bulbs and maybe a fan. A cousin, Saleh Mohammad, says the fire that killed the children was caused by an electrical short.

SALEH MOHAMMAD AL-SALEH: (Through interpreter) It happened in the blink of an eye. You know, all these tents are made of plastic. We were living next door, and our own tent caught fire. Thank God we woke up in time and escaped with our kids.

ARRAF: Mohammad Saleh and his wife came from Syria eight years ago with their three eldest children to keep the family safe. They're from the countryside near Hama. When airstrikes started, their house was destroyed. There were no camps in Jordan yet, but they crossed the border, intending to stay just for a little while until the fighting stopped.

FTAIM AL-SALEH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: The mother, Ftaim, says they came to the farms because it's what they knew. In Syria, they owned their own land, growing potatoes, onions, wheat and cucumbers. Here, they plant and pick vegetables and the strawberries that have become popular in middle-class Jordanian homes. When there's work, they make about $1.40 an hour, less than the minimum wage. And these days, her husband says because of the pandemic, there's hardly any work.

M AL-SALEH: (Through interpreter) The markets themselves are dead. No one is buying or selling. People started eating some of the crop and throwing the rest away. If it doesn't sell on the market, how are they going to employ workers?

ARRAF: His uncle went back to Syria recently. But none of the families here have enough money to even think of rebuilding their houses there. Seventy percent of the farm laborers working in the fields in Jordan are Syrian, most of them refugees. But because they don't live in camps or the cities, they're mostly unseen. The main U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, says it doesn't know how many people live in what aid organizations call the informal tent settlements. The children's organization UNICEF provides families with a bit of cash, and it says it will install circuit breakers in the tent communities to prevent more fires. It also sends a bus to take farmworkers' children to school when there is school. After the fire, Saleh and four other families moved to this spot, just off a dirt road a few miles down the highway. There is nothing here - a few tents, a fence made of tattered plastic, a latrine provided by UNICEF and tanks of water they have to buy themselves. Even before the tragedy that killed his children, Saleh says it wasn't a life.

M AL-SALEH: (Through interpreter) There's no future here, whether you have children or not. There's no place for hope. You go to work, you come back and think about what you're going to eat, how you're going to sleep - outside your own country, that's what it's like.

ARRAF: He says the accident was God's will.

F AL-SALEH: (Crying).

ARRAF: His wife cries softly. They haven't worked since the fire, but they will have to again - joining thousands of others trying to eke out a living but no longer under the illusion that they found safety here. Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Amman, Jordan.

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