AMMAN — Each week, a group of 15 or so refugee men meet at a community center in East Amman and sit in a circle. They laugh and cry together while sharing stories they always divide into two phases: before and after the war began.

War and protracted exile have stripped them of their traditional roles and identities as protectors and financial providers for their families. This group is a safe space in which they get to be vulnerable. They realize they're not alone — but most importantly, it's a chance to be heard.

One longtime member, Salem,* fled Syria in 2013. When he settled in Amman, he hoped to find opportunities to start a new life. Instead, his concerns about safety were replaced with worry about not being able to find a job to support his family in Jordan.

"I feel so sad and guilty because I can't do anything for my family. I'm responsible for them, but I have no money to take my wife to the doctor, or to buy the expensive medicine she needs," he says, looking down at the floor. "My daughter just finished high school, and she wants to go to university to study pharmacy. But education is so expensive in Jordan. I can't afford it."

Humanitarian aid organizations tend to focus their resources on the populations they consider most vulnerable, such as refugee women and children. So, programs like this one, which targets men, are rare.

But male refugees can be vulnerable, too. Years after reaching safety, many men suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health conditions can worsen if patients continue to live in precarious conditions, whether in formal camps or informal urban settings, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Financial difficulties and family stress take a particularly heavy toll.

"I feel so sad and guilty because I can't do anything for my family."

Jordan, with more than 750,000 registered refugees, has one of the largest refugee populations of any country. Most are from Syria. Very few are able to find legal work, despite Jordan's attempts to give Syrian refugees greater access to the labor market. Many can only find work under the table or must rely on aid organizations for their every need.

The loss of employment and financial autonomy can be especially distressing for refugee fathers, who often feel as if they've failed their families.

"As a father, the lack of opportunities is terrible. There is no future here for my child," says Nour, a refugee from Iraq and the father of a 2-year-old boy.

Men are vulnerable too

Humanitarian aid organizations tend to follow predominant gender stereotypes when determining how to distribute their resources in emergency settings. They typically view men as more capable of coping with hardship.

Perceptions of female and child vulnerability are widespread and rarely questioned, according to Lewis Turner, a senior researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute.

"These assumptions are part of a broader gender binary that associates men with power and women with weakness," Turner says. "Humanitarian organizations are influenced by gender stereotypes that expect men to project independence and autonomy. But also by racialized assumptions about Arab masculinity that can lead to Arab men being seen as threatening."

Turner's research explores how the humanitarian sector works with refugee men. While conducting interviews with humanitarian workers in Jordan, he realized that refugee men are largely overlooked.

"It often didn't occur to them to think about men," he says.

A gendered approach to aid often leaves refugee men isolated Mohammad Abu Ghosh/Xinhua/ZUMA

But they are frequently rendered vulnerable by their circumstances. Refugee men in Jordan are more likely than women to be unregistered and are therefore often less able to access humanitarian services. Unable to secure work permits, refugee men working informally are exposed to greater risk of arrest and deportation. Jordanian officials may also force them back to refugee camps if they're caught working illegally, virtually blocking their access to the labor market.

"Work is usually seen as a source of refugee men's independence, but it can also expose them to serious threats, dangerous situations or terrible working conditions," Turner says.

This gendered approach to assessing vulnerability affects refugee men's access to humanitarian services. Most psychosocial support programs and community activities target women and children, resulting in a gap in service provision.

"Grants are mostly for women and kids," says Judy Oldfield-Wilson, director of communications at the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), a nonprofit organization that runs the weekly community groups with refugee men in East Amman. Donors tend to focus on women and children because they garner more sympathy, she says.

"Work used to be a big part of [the men's] identities, but it's something they lost," Oldfield-Wilson says. "Women have their identities as wives and mothers, but men don't have the same roles to fall back on."

A place to be heard

Several nonprofits in Jordan are starting to offer activities and psychosocial support for men, too. CRP started its weekly support group after women complained their husbands were restless and depressed. It's called Diwaniya, the Arabic word for the reception area in Middle Eastern homes where men traditionally entertain their guests.

Some men express feelings of survivor's guilt.

"We designed it for people to say things that come from their hearts, not their heads," says CRP's deputy director, Samer Kurdi, a Jordanian painter who became the group's facilitator.

Every week the men are asked to discuss a different question that explores issues related to their identities and feelings of guilt, sadness or frustration. For example, sometimes the men express feelings of survivor's guilt at having escaped Syria or Iraq when war claimed the lives of so many others.

"We've had amazing moments with men crying. I sometimes had to fight back tears," he says. The group helps men realize that others are experiencing similar problems and makes them feel less isolated.

The stigma against mental health conditions is one of the most common reasons why refugee men don't seek help or treatment. CRP offers other activities, such as a mind-body medicine program, to fight that stigma.

Diwaniya brings together men from different countries and backgrounds. Many used to own stores and businesses in Syria or Iraq. Some hold academic degrees. Others used to be farmers. But in Jordan, all face similar effects of displacement and the suffocating lack of prospects. "We can't find work, so we don't know how to spend our free time," says Kareem, who used to be a school director in Iraq.

Kareem and Salem met in 2015, when they both started attending. Kareem is from Iraq and Salem from Syria. Both are in their early 60s. They bonded over the meetings and quickly became best friends.

Salem's wife reminds him about the weekly meeting the day before, and he walks for an hour to get there. The scheduled appointment gives him something to look forward to in his otherwise unoccupied week. "In the group, people listen to me, and that's very important," Salem says. "It's so hard to find places where we are actually heard." Kareem nods in agreement. "When someone talks, everybody listens," he says. "I have many problems, but the group gives me energy to continue."

*Some names have been changed.


See more from World Affairs here