Syrian refugees in Jordan's Zaatari camp no closer to going home

For tens of thousands of Syrian refugees jammed into a tiny camp, the tents, schools and sprouting businesses look increasingly permanent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 6:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 6:22am

The city at the western side of the Syria-Jordan border was a quiet village barely known to outsiders until July last year, when Syrians fleeing their seething homeland began streaming in.

Today, 122,500 refugees from that country's civil conflict are settled in a camp a tenth the size of Hong Kong Island. Exposed to sandstorms and near freezing temperatures in winter, a sea of tents and caravans blanket some 7.8 square kilometres of land, making Zaatari the site of the world's second-biggest refugee camp after one in Dadaab, Kenya.

More than two million Syrians were listed as refugees in the region last month. That number is expected to explode to five million by the end of next year, says the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

For many, the initial hope of temporarily escaping the hell of Syria has vanished, replaced by a dread that the camp may become their permanent home.

"I'd never have thought I'd be stuck here for so long," says a 66-year-old woman who called herself Mrs Moses, sitting on a mattress that doubles as a couch and bed in her family's tent. She fled to Zaatari six months ago from her obliterated village near Damascus, Syria's capital. "I swear to God, no."

With the Obama administration ruling out US military involvement in the protracted civil war, and a group of European and Asian nations just starting to mull talks for a political settlement, the bloody battles will seemingly continue. After two years of war, the Bashar al-Assad regime remains tightly in power.

"The reality from our side [is that] the situation isn't improving in Syria," said Aoife McDonnell, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, which runs the Zaatari camp with the Jordan government. "People came here thinking to stay for three months. They are still here a year later. We still have people arriving … ordinary families, some who never left their village, let alone crossing an international boundary."

The camp rose in a matter of days on an expanse of desert chosen for its idleness. The refugees get water from storage tanks and pumps brought in daily by trucks in a country ranked as one of the world's most arid. Toilets are near sleeping tents, though common kitchens are further away.

Moses, who had never before stepped outside Syria, lives in one of thousands of uniform tents, sharing it with her son, his wife and their five children. Recently her son took an illegal construction job in Irbid, 70 kilometres away, where he stays for two weeks at a time, earning US$100.

"I don't like coming to Zaatari, but maybe this is God's will," Moses says.

There is not just a feeling among the refugees that the situation is permanent. Their actions say so. They have established shops, some in portable buildings, selling everything from cigarettes to TV sets (old and new ones), Samsung smartphones as well as rented wedding dresses. "They've created this market - the souq - that sells everything," says McDonnell. "Life goes on, in a way."

Twenty-five year old Muhammad Dakhla is one such entrepreneur. He opened a confectionary shop in the camp six months ago, baking hundreds of Syrian-style pastries each day. With less business than in his hometown of Deraa, and ingredients costing more in Jordan, Dakhla says he's got a greater goal than making a profit.

"My main purpose is to keep these Syrians working," he says. "I hire 20 of them on preparation and cleaning. The process helps keep them trained and not to fall jobless."

Mohammed Muhawesh's aim was more practical when he started selling livestock. He still struggles to feed his family of eight. "One of my two stalls in the camp has already closed,'' he says. "Many people can't afford to buy enough food, let alone a live chicken."

The dual needs of jobs and money have steered a number of refugee children from school. About 60 per cent of school-age refugees living in urban Jordan are not attending classes, according to an April report by the humanitarian agency Care.

"Studying is no good here. It is not Syria here," said Suleiman Abu Dayes, a 17-year-old boy who works full-time as a shopkeeper in a cigarette booth in the main Zaatari souq.

"My brother goes to school and learns nothing; he plays in school every day."

Standing alone in another family-run grocery, Ahmed al-Mouqadam, a shy 12-year-old, works daytime as a shopkeeper. "Do I like the school or shop more? I guess 50-50," says the boy, whose three older brothers have fled to Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

"This is absolutely a children's crisis," McDonnell says.

Complaints about the camp's schools have prompted some parents to consider menial jobs for their children. The camp has three schools sponsored by the Bahraini, Qatari and Saudi Arabian governments. The UNHCR is planning smaller schools in some of the camp's 12 rezoned neighbourhoods, because many parents want schools closer to their homes.

The Jordanian government requires that all camp schools be supervised by its nationals. Syrians, even those with education training, can volunteer only. A Jordanian, not Syrian, syllabus is used. Those restrictions have irked some Syrian parents.

"My son is in Grade 2 but he doesn't even know all the basic Arabic letters," says Basael al-Ahmad, a former policeman and father of five.

One of his daughters, Hyam, used to rank first in her class back in Quneitra. Although she still dreams of becoming a medical doctor, her parents think that she should learn handicraft techniques in the skills courses.

It's not just the teaching that rankles. Many poorly educated families have called the meal distributed in the schools "deplorable", with many parents saying it consists of a piece of biscuit.

Hyam's English teacher in Syria, Muhammad Khear, 25, also fled to Zaatari and now lives in his own tent near 50 of his former students. He says he tries to persuade the parents of some of the 60,000 children, or 52 per cent of the camp's population, to push on with their studies. Said Khear: "I ask the parents, 'Do you want them to be illiterate?'"

Some children show telltale scars from the war. "There are traumatised children I met who all panic and freeze when they hear a noise like fireworks," recalls Meg Sattler, a spokeswoman for World Vision's Syrian Crisis Response. "A boy jumped under the bed when he heard a car backfire."

The playtime of boys has been tarnished by war. "They shoot each other with [something resembling] rockets," Sattler says. "We ask them, "Do you want to play soccer?" They said no. They had no idea what that is."

To rebuild lives is easier hoped than done. The kind of philanthropy traditionally shown by the world at times of crises is lacking, representatives of several charities say. While the UN and its humanitarian partners aim to raise at least US$4.4 billion to help people in Syria, refugees and their host countries this year, officials say that less than half that target has been met.

"Donors don't want to feel like funding a conflict. They don't see the humanitarian side of it," says Sattler, who worked in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, which drew billions of dollars in international donations.

Sattler's colleague in Hong Kong, branch's chief executive Kevin Chiu Wun-ming, says the city's year-long donation tally - HK$2.6 million for Syria - was a negligible 10 per cent of the figure raised in Hong Kong after April's magnitude 7 earthquake in Sichuan province. With money tight, UN plans to expand remedial schooling for refugees in Jordan will be put on hold.

NGOs rely greatly on Syrians inside the camp who are trying to assist their compatriots. Khear, the English teacher, works for Lutheran World Federation. Along with another teacher, Mohammad Alalou, they have organised a conflict resolution programme that is trying to teach refugees mediation skills to handle disputes that arise in the camp.

"We are far from being political," Alalou says. "Regardless of whether [we're] pro- or anti-Assad, Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shiite."

The camp consists almost entirely of Sunnis. Camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt reports no major problems. Inside and outside the camp, refugees struggle to use the talents and skills that sustained them before the war.

Rama Ali once taught English at a Syrian college and would like to teach the refugee children. Instead, she spent her time visiting a registration centre in Amman, Jordan's capital, one day to sign up her 70-year-old blind mother as a refugee.

The elderly woman, crumpled in a wheelchair that wouldn't roll, couldn't afford medications for her diabetes, heart illness and high blood pressure. With refugee status, she could qualify for free public care.

"I would definitely like to go to Zaatari to teach English to the kids there, but as I didn't even have money to pay for my mother's medical fees, how am I to pay for the transport?" Ali said. "If you asked me who is responsible for all my suffering, of course it is Bashar al-Assad."