Editor's note: This story includes details some readers may find disturbing.
Ftaim al-Saleh's young nieces and nephews play in the dirt near her family's new tent on the road to Amman's international airport. Her own youngest children are buried up the road — four of them laid out in graves on a small, rocky hilltop cemetery overlooking the highway.
The children died in a fire early one morning in June, while she and her husband were in the fields where they work as farm laborers.
Saleh, 35, and her husband are among the thousands of Syrian refugees the International Labor Organization says make up about 70% of Jordan's farmworkers — planting and picking vegetables and the strawberries that have recently become popular among middle-class Jordanians.
The strawberry fields where the Salehs worked on the day their children died are on the outskirts of Amman. Thousands of shoppers come and go to the giant Ikea store overlooking the fields. But unlike the Syrian refugees in Jordan's sprawling camps or crowded into impoverished urban neighborhoods, refugee farmworkers are mostly unseen.
The U.N. Refugee Agency says it doesn't have figures for how many Syrian refugees like the Salehs live in what aid organizations call "informal tent settlements" in Jordan. There are roughly 800,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan.
The Saleh family came to Jordan with their three eldest children eight years ago. They arrived from the Syrian countryside, where they owned their own land, growing potatoes, onions, cucumbers and wheat. When airstrikes destroyed their home in a village near Hamma, they crossed into Jordan for safety along with uncles, aunts and cousins.
"We were running for our lives," says Ftaim's husband Mohammad al-Saleh, 43, a lean man wearing a tan-colored robe. "We thought we would just stay here for a while because it was a safe place for the children and then go back."
There were no refugee camps when they arrived, and he says they were used to living in the countryside. So they found work on the farms, making about $1.40 an hour, less than Jordan's minimum wage.
Three more children were born in Jordan. All perished in the fire, along with an older brother.
Ftaim, dressed in a traditional embroidered blue robe with a black scarf covering her hair, cries softly as her husband talks about the children they lost.
"Talal was 10," Mohammad says, pointing out the boys in a photo on his phone. "Abdul Razaq was seven. Then there was Faris, who was two, and then Amjad. He was seven or eight months."
The couple's two eldest children, a 12-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy, were not in the tent when the fire broke out.
After the fire, the Salehs and about 35 of their relatives moved a few miles away. Relatives and friends took up a collection to buy Ftaim and Mohammad a spacious new tent — one with filmy, white fabric with a black embroidered pattern inside and a new carpet on the floor. Apart from a few mats and pillows on the floor, it is completely empty.
In the refugee encampments, families typically run electricity lines from the farms where they work — just enough to power light bulbs and aging air coolers that rattle in the 120-degree summers. On that morning in June, the Salehs had left for work in the strawberry fields, leaving their four youngest children sleeping when an electricity short started the fire.
"They came and told me, 'Your children are dead — burned in a fire'," says Mohammad. "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."
The tent, made mostly of plastic, burned in minutes.
"It happened in the blink of an eye," says Mohammad's cousin Saleh Mohammad al-Saleh. "We were living next door and our own tent caught fire. Thank God we woke up in time and escaped with our kids."
His own father recently moved back to Syria. The families would like to move back as well, but don't have the money even to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes. With the small amount they make working in the fields going for food or to pay off debts from medical bills, they can never get ahead.
And Mohammed says these days, because of the coronavirus pandemic and Jordan's economic downturn, there's hardly any work.
"The markets themselves are dead — no one is buying or selling," he says. "People started planting a month ago. I see they eat some of the crop and throw the rest away. If it doesn't sell in the market, how are they going to employ workers?"
UNICEF provides latrines and occasional cash for the refugee families working on the farms. When schools are open, it sends minibuses to the farms to take children to class and discourage them from working in the fields. The agency says it will install circuit breakers in the tent communities to prevent more fires.
Madleen, the Salehs' 12-year-old daughter, says she has been trying to keep up with her lessons, which have been sent during the pandemic to her father's mobile phone. She says she is hoping in-person classes will start again in the fall.
Near their new home, children chase each other through the dirt, around plastic canisters that previously contained fertilizer and now hold water. The blue cans are marked "nitric acid," with a symbol warning of poison and explosives.
The tattered white edge of plastic sheeting rustles in the hot wind blowing through the fields of yellowing grass nearby. Parents say they're afraid to leave babies on the tent floor because of scorpions and snakes.
Even before the tragedy that killed his children, Mohammad says it wasn't a life.
"There's no future here, whether you have children or not," he says. "There's no hope of anything. You go to work you come back and think about what you're going to eat, how you're going to sleep. When you're outside your own country, that's what it's like."
He says the accident was God's will.
"What can we do?" he says. "We aren't the first people or the last people to suffer this."
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.