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Turned back

Ahmed Mahmoud Mansour

From Homs, Syria

now in Rabaa al-Sarhan, Jordan

Left Syria October 2013

There is something not quite right about Ahmed Mahmoud Mansour. His body language is wrong. He seems nervous, too eager to please. He is sweating.

Mansour, a Syrian refugee who just crossed the border into Jordan, presents his documents to Jordanian officials at the Rabaa al-Sarhan refugee registration center. The officers eye his Syrian national ID and an official document that lists his family tree.

He tells them that is all he has. Everything else has been lost — passports, his driver’s license, everything — all destroyed in the bombing that drove his family to seek shelter in Jordan.

There is a lot of chatter. The Jordanians are suspicious.

This center, just inside the border, is where the Jordanian army brings everyone who crosses into the country. Here they register and have their documents checked. Jordanian officials search their bags for weapons and anything else they might be smuggling, then most are transferred to the massive Zaatari refugee camp a few miles away.

Many have walked for days and are exhausted — especially those from the desolate east, where Syria, Iraq and Jordan come together. Lately, most of the refugees have been coming from there as the Syrian government steps up its bombing of villages in that part of the country.

This morning, 150 have just arrived after a five-hour bus trip. They have had breakfast and tea, and now they are sitting on plastic chairs in a huge barn of a building. Filthy children cling to their weary-looking mothers. Men smoke cigarettes.

Everyone is hauling big plastic bags of clothes and whatever other possessions they managed to haul across the border.

The Jordanian officials tell Mansour and his nine family members to take a seat and wait.

Suddenly a Jordanian official is yelling and waving a fistful of documents. He says he saw Mansour’s wife slip outside and start digging in a plastic bag — one that she had deliberately left outside, away from officials.

He says she pulled something out of the bag and hid it inside her long robes. He confronted her and discovered it was a stack of passports, birth certificates, Mansour’s driver’s license — all the papers Mansour swore he did not have.

A Syrian man goes over documentation with Jordanian intelligence at the International Organization for Migration center near Jabir.

“In every group, we always have some who are doing something wrong,” says Thaer Hamad, the Jordanian intelligence officer in charge.

He says Jordanians are worried about extremists and smugglers. Mostly, they worry about people working for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government coming in to spy on refugees, many of whom are aligned with the anti-government rebels.

They suspect Mansour works for Assad.

“Ninety-nine percent of those who come, we let them through,” Hamad says. “Some of them have lost their documents, and we let them through. We want to help them. But at the end of the day, if you lie to us, it’s shameful. It breaks trust.”

Amnesty International and other groups have criticized Jordan, saying it is too strict and is turning back too many would-be refugees. Hamad says Jordan is doing its best while “carrying the brunt of this crisis.”

“It’s a really huge burden. If some of these people want to do something bad in Jordan, God forbid, it’s our fault,” he says. “We are on the front line.”

He says Mansour will be put on a bus back to Syria in a few hours.

Mansour slumps into a plastic chair.

Yes, he says, he presented forged documents. Yes, he hid the real ones.

But he says he’s not a spy — he’s just afraid.

He is from the city of Homs, where he worked as a truck driver for a government-owned factory. He says rebels seized him six months ago. They said that since he worked at the factory, he must be loyal to Assad.

WE WANT TO HELP THEM. BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY, IF YOU LIE TO US, IT'S SHAMEFUL. IT BREAKS TRUST.

“I was afraid they would kill me, so we had to leave,” he says, a heavy sweat beading on his brow.

Jordanian officials routinely keep refugees’ identification documents, mainly to deter them from leaving the camp and working illegally.

“I was afraid to show them my driver’s license because I heard they would take it away,” he says. “Without a driver’s license, I can’t work.”

As Mansour speaks, his eyes start shifting rapidly from side to side.

“Just because I hid some of my ID cards, why is that a crime?” he says. “I didn’t carry a gun or any explosives or drugs. I haven’t killed anyone. How am I a threat? I just want to work.”

He looks terrified when told he is being sent back to Syria.

“I can’t go back,” he says. “I won’t go back. I won’t let them take me back. I can’t go back to my village. They will kill me.”

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.