A Syrian shepherd now tending his flock in Jordan

The kindness of strangers has helped Hassoun Al Hadidi and his seven children cope after fleeing their country

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Postcard from Al Salt

Every day from 6am until 3pm, Syrian shepherd Hassoun Al Hadidi ekes out a living by tending a herd of 100 sheep and goats among the hills of central Jordan.

The biblical highlands west of the city of Al Salt overlook Israel and the West Bank. At night, the lights of Jericho, Jerusalem and Nablus shine across the Jordan Valley.

These are areas with a history of dispossession, a trauma Mr Al Hadidi, 35, went through during the civil war in Syria.

“Life was getting very tough even before the war,” says Mr Al Hadidi, who grew wheat and cotton at his farm in northern Syria and also owned livestock.

“Water was running out and we were barely planting anything.”

In 2014, Mr Al Hadidi fled his farm on the fringes of Aleppo governorate after his house and 125,000 square metres of land were captured by ISIS and then by Syrian Kurdish militia supported by the US.

The thin, bearded farmer and his wife and seven children eventually joined the roughly 760,000 refugees hosted by Jordan, most of whom are Syrian.

They are among the 64 per cent of refugees in Jordan who live on $5.50 a day or less.

Syrians displaced by the civil war are being increasingly forgotten as neighbouring Arab countries seek to normalise relations with the Bashar Al Assad government. Meanwhile, the US and Europe focus their foreign policy on the Russian war in Ukraine.

The Syrian conflict started when peaceful demonstrations erupted in 2011 against five decades of Assad family rule. The regime violently suppressed the protests, sparking the militarisation of the revolt.

One by-product of the ensuing civil war has been the fragmentation of the country into areas controlled by the government, Kurdish militia and Shiite and Sunni militants, among other factions.

In Jordan, Mr Al Hadidi earns $350 a month for tending the herd of sheep and goats, whose owner is from a prominent clan in Al Salt.

The UN World Food Programme gives his family another $128 in monthly stipends to buy food. This amount is due to be cut next month by one third, with the WFP saying the reduction is partly due to having to respond to Ukraine’s needs.

Mr Al Hadidi boosted his income recently by renting a piece of land and planted okra during the rainy season. He sold the yield over the past two months and made a $300 profit.

“It was totally rain-fed okra and no fertilisers were used,” he says.

But it is the kindness of some people in Al Salt that has helped Mr Al Hadidi cope with the hardship of refugee life.

The herd owner, who also owns a farm in the area, gave the Al Hadidis a room in which to live.

“There is a kitchen outside,” Mr Al Hadidi says, pointing to the room at the top of a sharp incline.

Two years ago, Mr Al Hadidi’s youngest child Saba fell from the top of the slope when she was 7 months old. She survived because she landed on one of the goats among the herd of mostly sheep.

“She fell seven metres, the Civil Defence measured the distance when they came,” Mr Al Hadidi says.

“They examined Saba and said she sustained not even a scratch.”

The sheep Mr Al Hadidi looks after, a breed called awas, are raised naturally and are not injected with hormones. They are exported to the Gulf but there is also strong demand from the local market, although it is about a third more expensive than sheep imported from Eastern Europe.

“The meat is pink because the sheep only eat from the land,” Mr Al Hadidi says.

In the past 25 years, the view over Palestine has attracted wealthy people from Amman to Al Salt highlands, where many have bought land and built villas with large gardens.

One of them invited Mr Al Hadidi to plant crops on his land to supplement his income and also intervened to ensure the entry of Mr Al Hadidi's children to state schools.

Asked whether he would return to Syria if economic conditions improved, Mr Al Hadidi says: “How can I return to a place where you cannot live with dignity?”

Updated: August 27, 2022, 11:16 AM
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