Writing for Syrian Development Network, Laura Gilmour reports on her experiences of visiting Za’ateri camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, earlier this year. She documents the frustration felt by Syrian refugees in the camp, but also how they are adapting to ensure their own survival:
There was no sound of children crying. We had reached the camp, by chance, at the same time as two bus loads of new arrivals – rare for them to arrive in daylight, but the bombardments in Syria had been heavier than usual the previous night so there were delays crossing the border. Women and children pressed their faces against the dusty window of the bus to stare at us, and then past us to the huddled families inside the tents whom they were about to join.
This was Za’ateri, a refugee camp in Jordan for displaced Syrians constructed only 12 miles from the Syrian border, home to now almost 200,000 refugees with up to 3000 new arrivals every night.
I spoke to a woman, ‘Basma’, who had just arrived. She had spent most of the previous day walking to the border carrying her baby and helping her three other small children. They sat around her in little bundles, expressionless. They were exhausted, hungry and terrified. But not one of them cried.
Each night the Syrians fleeing to Jordan wait until a relative moment of safety before attempting to cross the border. The borders with Jordan are still open to refugees (something that remains a top priority to UNHCR) but they cannot be assisted until they set foot on Jordanian soil. When they do so, they are immediately greeted by the Jordanian Armed Forces with ‘Welcome to Jordan, you are now safe’.
Basma had reached the border at ten the previous evening but tells me she had to wait six hours before it was safe to cross. She was now waiting to be registered, after which she would be given a tent, free blankets, mattresses and a ration card for the whole family. ‘We will only stay in the camp until my husband arrives’, Basma explains to me, ‘then we will find a temporary place to settle in Jordan before returning to Syria’.
This is the predominant feeling in the camp: that they will not have to remain here long but soon will be able to return home. I am told by a UNHCR representative there are some villages in the southern area, Dera’a, which now have a population of zero, the inhabitants either having fled or been killed. It seems unlikely any will be able to return in the near future.
The camp’s families are chiefly headed by women, the men either having remained in Syria to fight or returning after escorting their family across the border. UNHCR has reported that more than half of all Syrian refugees are children under 18. This leaves the families in a vulnerable state, especially as various gangs of aggrieved and frustrated young men (many of whom are deserters from the regime) are springing up all over the camp.
There is a lot of crime in Za’ateri and a poor security system. I hear of families too scared to leave their tent because, if they do, they return to find what little they had, has been stolen. At distributions of food or other items the atmosphere is always tense and violence often breaks out. There are stories of child exploitation, rape and abduction. We pass through a fence separating the aid and administration offices from the camp. Men who have been waiting all morning in the heat grapple each other to get to the gap through which we have come before the gate is closed. There is shouting and stone throwing and more of the fence is broken away.
Yet, as we move through the registration tents and in to the heart of the camp a very different scene greets us. The desert sun bounces off row upon row of white UNHCR tents with children swinging from ropes that are not being used as clothes lines. Small boys are carrying trays of cigarettes and sweets, passing from tent to tent trying to make money. In theory, this is prohibited in the camp as everything here is meant to be available for free but UNHCR is not a policing agency and so we keep walking. A blind eye is turned to many things going on in the camp and I am laughingly told by a community service officer that this is nothing. He takes me to one of the many blocks of washing facilities, easily identifiable by their signature blue-painted bricks. As we continue through the camp, he points out blue bricks here and there, adding to structures families have built around their tent. ‘They are trying to build their home,’ he says, ‘they will take anything lying around and no-one will stop them’.
Za’ateri was bitterly affected by January’s snow and cold weather. UNHCR tried to tackle this by a ‘winterisation’ programme, an initiative that provided each family with a large sheet of corrugated iron designed to give some insulation and guard against the wind. Some tents notably do not have these sheets, however, and, as we progress into the newly constructed, more spacious area of the camp, I see why. Enterprising family members have seized upon the vacant space and used their corrugated iron sheets to set up shop. We now pass through what can only be described as a vibrant market place. Shop owners call at us as they serve shawerma to passers-by. There are stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables. There are mobile phone shops and hardware stores. One stall has washing machines spilling out of it. Their use in a refugee camp is unclear. On my right a man poses for me to take his picture while he is being shaved at a barbershop.
We move out of the market and onto a higher open plain. This is a newly built phase of the camp. Enormous lorries are grumbling up and down, smoothing the ground and covering it in a white gravel. This process has cost already over $12m and, with the ongoing expansion of the camp, the cost is rising. When Za’ateri opened last summer the dust and sandstorms made inhabitation unbearable. ‘I could barely open my eyes after visiting last year,’ one of the aid workers tells me, ‘my eye-lashes were caked in sand. No-one could breathe’. In this area, there are rows of neat pre-fabricated caravans, mainly donated by Saudi Arabia. They are larger, better insulated and have been arranged into straight wide streets (although nothing can stop one family on the west side of the camp uprooting their tent and re-pitching in the middle of the street on the east side to be near relations).
Conditions in the camp are improving. Every day more initiatives to set up schools, hospitals, child-friendly-spaces, women’s committees, arts and sports facilities are started. It is quickly becoming a Syrian city outside of Syria. The problem of opening a refugee camp, I am told, is that it is extremely difficult to close. These families are determined that they will soon be returning home but regrettably that is still looking very far off. ‘Why is the rest of the world not doing anything to support the Free Syrian Army, to fund and equip us with better weapons to fight the regime?’ is the question most heard in the camp.