Between friend and enemy: The ambiguities of being in exile among Syrian men in Amman

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Displaced: Single, Syrian men

Young Syrians, including Syrian university students, constitute an important group with regard to the future of Syria(see for example Keith Watenpaugh et al. 2013). This group of displaced Syrians is nonetheless a generally unacknowledged component of a larger humanitarian disaster (ibid.: 5). Moreover, until recently single Syrian men have been particularly overlooked by humanitarian aid agencies due to, among other things, a certain notion of the figure of the refuge (Turner 2018). Today, “the refugee” is imagined as vulnerable and destitute and commonly associated with “women and children” (Johnson 2011; see also Enloe 1993). Importantly, such gendered understanding of “the refugee” frames the humanitarian schema in ways that render questionable Syrians men’s position within the category of people whom humanitarians are there to save (Turner 2018: 61). Put differently, well-educated, single men do not “fit” within existing humanitarian categories and are, at best, overlooked and assumed capable of navigating the everyday of exile unaided. At worst however, they are perceived as constituting a threat to more vulnerable displaced groups such as young women as well as to national security locally.

As a consequence of such particularly stereotypical notions of displaced Syrian men (and women), there has been a tendency to focus on women’s experiences and needs in the context of exile. It is however important to recognize the particular struggles of young, displaced Syrian men, and to come closer to an understanding of how their experiences of displacement, including structural conditions, financial limitations and social changes, shape their imaginaries of the future and their ways of being in the world with others. Despite being displaced, they continue to be part of kinship networks and will eventually have a family of their own. Their experiences, predicaments, and struggles thus have real implications for other people and may shape future family histories if such struggles are not taken seriously. Further, attending to the lives and experiences of these young men and telling their stories may in fact work to challenge the very stereotypical notions of Arab manhood that persistently frame their everyday lives in exile. In the following, I demonstrate how such discursive and structural conditions of exile affected and shaped how a group of young Syrian men perceived their chances of regaining a foothold in the world as well as how they navigated in the Jordanian capital of Amman, where they experienced to be both at ones and at odds with the circumstances and with each other.

Brothers and Others in Amman: Precarious positions in exile

Since 2011, the conflict in Syria has displaced the largest number of people in recent history. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, approximately 6.6 million people are currently internally displaced, while 5.6 million are estimated to have fled the country. A large number of these people now live in the neighbouring country of Jordan. In response, the Za‘tari refugee camp was established close to the Syrian border in July of 2012. An estimated 84 percent of the Syrian refugees in Jordan have however settled outside the official refugee camps and now live in rural areas close to the Syrian border or in and around the Jordanian capital of Amman. It is some of these people, I focus on in my work. Between the years of 2015 and 2018, I conducted a total of 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork among young, displaced Syrian men from urban middleclass families, who left their lives in Syria and fled to Amman during 2012 and 2013. This work was driven by the question of how experiences of political upheaval, war and exile shape ways of being with others among young Syrian men (see Mortensen 2020, 2019).

From his work on humanitarianism and masculinities in Za‘tari refugee camp, Lewis Turner (2018) demonstrates how “vulnerability” constitutes a central organizing principle within the humanitarian assistance in Jordan. Unlike men, displaced women and children, or simply womenandchildren” (Enloe 1993), are perceived as inherently “vulnerable” and in the need of assistance (Turner 2018: 154; see also Lokot 2018). Displaced women and children thus conform to contemporary perceptions of the figure of “the refugee”, while Syrian men are positioned as radically other to this particular imaginary of the vulnerable and “feminine” refugee within global politics (ibid.: 66). As I discuss in the following, such gendered and structural conditions of exile shaped how the young Syrian men I worked with interacted with each other in Amman. As they quickly came to realize; no one can make it on their own in exile, and since no one else seemed to care, they turned to each other for emotional, financial, and social support.

But to these young men, involving oneself with other people, other Syrians in particular, was risky business and one had to be careful around new friends and acquaintances. During the 2011 uprising in Syria, they witnessed and experienced violent confrontations between peaceful protestors and undercover security forces, between regime supporters and anti-regime activists, and between old friends at the university. It had become increasingly evident too that “one could never really know” the intentions or the true face of other people. And in exile, it was the same. Here, it was challenging to know who was a friend and who was an enemy, and at times such distinctions made little sense. Yet, they needed each other to make it in Amman, where they received little support from local authorities.

Displaced Syrian men: Carriers of conflict

As former political activists and participants in anti-regime demonstrations in Syria, these men in fact constituted a concern to the Jordanian security establishment that was committed to keeping political activism and opposition at bay. It was feared that political activity among Syrians in Jordan could “spill-over” and inspire local political activists, thus bringing about political unrest and instability. This rather tense sociopolitical environment shaped the young men’s experiences of being in exile in Amman. I would often notice a general reluctance to be politically or critically outspoken in public and a certain awareness of their surroundings while discussing personal and political matters. They often described to me how they, in general, did their best to “keep their head down” in order to avoid any conflict or unnecessary contact with local authorities, in particular with al-mukhābarāt (intelligence or secret police). Being somewhat invisible and anonymous to the Jordanian authorities was thus a common strategy among these young men to whom a lot was at stake in the everyday of exile.

But, as suggested above, they were not only careful and cautious in the face of local state agents. They were equally careful around each other in Amman. Some of these men had reconnected with old friends who had sought refuge in Jordan just like themselves, but many of the young men I worked with had no social network to rely on when they first arrived in Amman. With time, however, they made new friends and created a local social network of Syrians (see also Lokot 2018). Despite constituting a necessary resource one exile, these friendships were characterized by mistrust and by particular care-full ways of involving themselves with each other in the everyday (see Mortensen 2019). Altogether, memories of the conflict in Syria as well as experiences of occupying an ambiguous position as both Arab brothers and refugee others in exile thus shaped the daily lives of the Syrian men I came to know in Amman; it impacted way they carried themselves in the city space and the way they involved themselves with other people.

Friendship in times of war: A risk and a resource

Through shared experiences of being “in the same situation”, as they put it, these men came to care for and matter to one another. They experienced that other Syrians simply understood their predicaments in ways that local Jordanians did not. For these reasons, they needed, they often reassured me, to “support each other”. But the experience of being “in the same situation” that brought them closely together in the everyday, simultaneously fostered a feeling of being at odds with each other in Amman; being too close with another Syrian was, as described, risky business.

During fieldwork, I observed how this tension gave rise to a particularly cautious way of involving themselves with each other. Although they sensed that they shared similar struggles, and although they for these reasons were inclined to help each other when they could, the particularities of what these young men shared remained untold. They assumed that they were in Amman for largely the same reasons, and that they were facing largely the same challenges in the everyday of exile. But they would not take the chance of sharing the details about their pasts and presents with each other. As one interlocutor put it: “My view of people has changed. All people are not good. In general, you can never really know”. Although the majority of the young men I worked with were forced to flee their homeland due to their political opposition, the complexity and unsettled nature of the conflict in Syria made it difficult to predict other people’s political views. This resulted in mistrust and a reluctance to discuss politics with other Syrians. Another interlocutor put it this way: “Most of the people here fled the regime in Syria. But even that is not enough to build anything, because I don’t really like to discuss politics recently”. In fact, he only discussed such topics with “a few guys that he knows”. In the context of the Syrian uprisings, he no longer trusted other people. His own perspective on the situation in Syria kept changing, and he assumed that it was the case for many others like him. But he could not be sure, and he would not ask; openly sharing a political opinion could potentially put a friend in a highly uncomfortable situation in which he might feel obliged to argue with you or perhaps even report you, thus jeopardizing the friendship. Consequently, these young men kept private details and political discussions to a minimum and only shared intimate aspects of their lives with a select few.

In the everyday of exile, their friends were necessary in the process of sustaining life in Amman. And precisely because they came to matter to one another and because a lot was at stake – because they were both at one and add odds with each other – caution was needed in the everyday. Caution in fact constituted an expression of a recognition of and care for the other in ways that did not jeopardise a necessary friendship, pointing both to the significance of the other and to the risks of being involved.

By attending to complex and at times ambiguous aspects of everyday life among displaced Syrian men, it is possible to bring to the fore a nuancing perspective on men’s emotional life and everyday practices of care in the context of the Middle East which have until recently been significantly few (Naguib 2015). As a consequence of a particularly stereotypical notion of Arab manhood, there has been a scholarly tendency to focus on women’s experiences and their struggle against patriarchy. In the aftermath of 9/11 and in context of the contemporary war on terror, such notions have gained new strength and reinforced stereotypical notions of the Middle East and its peoples as in need of governance and control. Importantly however, it is possible to challenge such discursive conditions which frame Arab men in stereotypical ways – rendering them as others to the places and the people they come across – with detailed stories of everyday struggles among ordinary men from the Middle East.



Enloe, Cynthia (1993). The morning after: sexual politics at the end of the Cold War. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Johnson, Heather L. (2011). “Click to Donate: visual images, constructing victims and imagining the female refugee”. Third World Quarterly, 32:6, 1015-37.

Lokot, Michelle (2018). “‘Blood Doesn’t Become Water’? Syrian Social Relations during Displacement”. Journal of Refugee Studies.

Malkki, Liisa & Liisa Malkki (1995). “Refugees and Exile: From “Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things”. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 495-523.

Mortensen, Emilie (2019). “Being Care-ful Among Friends: The Ambiguities of Friendship in Exile”. Etnofoor, 31:1, 29-47.

Mortensen 2020: Being Care-full in Exile: Intimate tensions among Syrian men in Amman. PhD dissertation. Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University.

Turner, Lewis (2018). “Challenging Refugee Men: Humanitarianism and Masculinities in Za‘tari Refugee Camp”. PhD Dissertation. Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS University of London.

Watenpaugh, Keith Adrienne L. Fricke and Tara Siegel 2013: “Unaccounted and Unacknowledged: Syria’s refugee University Students and Academics in Jordan”. Report: UC Davis Human Rights Initiative and the Institute for International Education.



Emilie Lund Mortensen recently obtained a PhD degree from the Department of Anthropology at Aarhus University for her work “Being Care-full in Exile: Intimate tensions among Syrian men in Amman” (2020). This work is based on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork among displaced Syrian men in Amman and explores themes such as friendship, community, ethics, and care in times of war.



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