Jor­dan refugee camp for Syr­i­ans be­com­ing a city

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY KARIN LAUB

Only empty desert three years ago, the Mideast’s largest camp for Syr­ian civil war refugees has grown from a town of tents into a bustling city.

The United Na­tions-ad­min­is­tered camp plans wa­ter and sewage sys­tems and a US$20 mil­lion so­lar power plant, even ATM ma­chines for refugee aid pay­ments.

But be­hind the plans is a cold re­al­ity for the 81,000 ex­iles liv­ing in the Zaatari Refugee Camp: The con­flict back home, now its fifth year, won’t be over any­time soon.

Some deal with that re­al­ity by mak­ing the best of life in ex­ile, like the Zaatari high school se­nior who stud­ied hard in cramped quar­ters to win a univer­sity schol­ar­ship, or the for­mer farmer who planted a gar­den be­cause he was tired of look­ing at the desert.

But dozens of oth­ers leave ev­ery week to go back to Syria, say­ing it’s bet­ter to risk death than live in limbo in a camp where jobs are few, a third of chil­dren don’t at­tend school and thou­sands of young adults lack the chance to learn a trade.

“As time passes, yes, we can deal with the in­fra­struc­ture,” said camp boss Hovig Etye­mezian, a grand­son of Ar­me­nian refugees and dis­placed as a boy in the Le­banese civil war. How­ever, he’s “a long way from be­ing con­fi­dent” that enough is be­ing done to save this refugee gen­er­a­tion.

Zaatari, born out of ne­ces­sity in the desert on July 28, 2012, is now the ninth-big­gest city in Jor­dan, a stal­wart U.S. ally. To­day, this tiny king­dom hosts 629,000 Syr­ian refu- gees, out of a re­gional to­tal of more than 4 mil­lion. Over 100,000 live in camps in Jor­dan, in­clud­ing 20,000 in the newer Azraq refugee camp, while the rest strug­gle to sur­vive in cities with U.N. cash and food as­sis­tance.

In­ter­na­tional agen­cies had to re­duce aid amid se­vere fund­ing short­ages and fur­ther cuts were an­nounced Fri­day. Ur­ban refugees could soon face the hard choice of mov­ing into a camp where life is cheaper — only Azraq is tak­ing new­com­ers — or re­turn­ing to Syria.

On Zaatari’s an­niver­sary this past week, the trans­for­ma­tion from tent camp to city sym­bol­izes the fail­ure of ri­val world pow­ers to ne­go­ti­ate an end Syria’s war. But some say it’s also a re­minder that the shift from emer­gency aid to long-term so­lu­tions, such as set­ting up a wa­ter net­work to re­place ex­pen­sive de­liv­ery by truck, should have come much sooner.

“We sim­ply wasted too much money be­cause we didn’t think long-term,” said for­mer Zaatari boss Kil­ian Klein­schmidt.

In Zaatari, one money saver, the so­lar power plant, won’t be ready be­fore the end of 2016. Un­til last year, the U.N. paid US$1 mil­lion a month for elec­tric­ity in Zaatari, where res­i­dents run ca­bles from pre­fab­ri­cated shel­ters and shops to a grid in­tended only for street light­ing.

Etye­mezian, the cur­rent camp di­rec­tor, re­duced costs by turn­ing off power dur­ing day­light hours, caus­ing much grum­bling.

The rolling black­outs are a sta­ple of camp con­ver­sa­tion, along with the ques­tion of whether to stay or go back to Syria. Last week’s anni- ver­sary went un­marked.

The num­ber of re­turnees has dropped to about 30 a day, a fourth of what it was be­fore the out­break of ma­jor fight­ing sev­eral months ago in Syria’s south­ern Deraa province, where many Zaatari res­i­dents are from.

On Wed­nes­day, Emad Issawi, his wife Ni­had and their three young chil­dren stood along the camp’s perime­ter road with a pile of bags, wait­ing to catch a bus to the Syr­ian bor­der. Those who leave are rarely al­lowed back.

Ni­had, 23, her face cov­ered by a black veil, said she re­luc­tantly de­ferred to her hus­band’s wishes to go back. “I’m scared,” she said.

Across the street, Mo­hammed Hariri, 45, said he is re­turn­ing to Deraa af­ter one of his daugh­ters as­sured him their vil­lage is rel­a­tively safe.

“I can­not be here, my pa­tience is zero now,” he said.

Oth­ers try to make the most of life in ex­ile.

Jumma al-Sheik planted corn, toma­toes, mint and pink althea flow­ers out­side his com­pound. It’s be­come a pop­u­lar gath­er­ing spot for rel­a­tives to drink sweet tea and chat.

Al-Sheik and fam­ily mem­bers fled Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus sub­urb, af­ter chem­i­cal at­tacks by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment there two years ago. Fight­ing de­stroyed their homes.

Al-Sheik, who farmed five acres of veg­eta­bles back home, said the gar­den “makes ev­ery­thing a lit­tle bet­ter.”

Some in­vested sys­tem­at­i­cally in their new lives.

Ab­del Mu­talleb Hariri en­rolled his six chil­dren in camp schools im­me­di­ately af­ter ar­rival in Jan­uary 2013. Un­able to work as a vet­eri­nar­ian, he now sells clothes while his wife, Fat­meh, teaches English in grade school.

Their old­est, 19-year-old Alaa, won a schol­ar­ship and fin­ished her first year at nearby Al al-Bayt Univer­sity.

“Ed­u­ca­tion is the way, es­pe­cially if you live in a camp,” said Alaa, one of just a few in her age group to fin­ish high school. Most drop out, some be­cause they can’t af­ford univer­sity.

The camp has opened some new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

For hun­dreds of girls, life in Zaatari has meant a chance to play football. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, about two dozen girls in head­scarves prac­ticed on an en­closed dirt pitch un­der the watch of coach Nour al-Dha­her, a preg­nant mother of three in a robe and a black face veil.

Al-Dha­her ini­tially en­rolled in a coach­ing course to sup­port her fam­ily. Now she loves watch­ing her play­ers trans­form from bash­ful to out­go­ing.

“Shoot! Shoot!” she yelled from the bench, cradling another coach’s baby. For oth­ers, doors are clos­ing. There’s been a rise in early mar­riages, res­i­dents and camp of­fi­cials say. Some fam­i­lies marry off girls in their mid-teens, of­ten to ease their eco­nomic bur­den.

“Here you have to get mar­ried young be­cause the sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult,” said Sabrine al-Masaad, who runs a bridal shop. One of her re­cent brides was just 14 years old.

All the while, a new gen­er­a­tion of Syr­i­ans is born far from their home­towns.

Maan Turk­man, 31, gave birth in her shel­ter early Wed­nes­day, just af­ter the camp’s third an­niver­sary, be­cause the am­bu­lance was late. Hours later, twins Mo­hammed and Ahmed lay asleep in a clinic’s bassinets, swad­dled in blan­kets, join­ing another child born 16 months ear­lier in Zaatari.

Asked for her hope for them, she said: “I wish them a bright fu­ture in Syria.”


(Above) An el­derly Syr­ian refugee woman stands out­side her shel­ter sur­rounded with flow­ers she planted, at Zaatari refugee camp lo­cated in Mafraq, Jor­dan on Wed­nes­day, July 29. (Right) A Syr­ian refugee boy plays with a tire at Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Wed­nes­day.

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