Today we left the hotel at 8:30am and set out for Zaatari, the first UNHCR Refugee Camp in Jordan created for the Syrian refugees. This camp was quite literally pulled together in about two weeks, so it has an interesting history – and originally wasn’t really designed for this type of extended use. Right now, the camp houses approx. 85,000 people and would be about 8km if you were run around the outside of the camp.
Zaatari camp does have electricity, which winds up costing the UNHCR about $800,000 a month, but at the moment both the electricity and the water are non-functional. The water should only be down for a day, but the electricity is under repair right now and could take weeks to restore.
My brother is an electrician, and I think if he could see the electrical poles in the camp he’d break down. I’m told that they’re vastly improved from before, but it seems that a lot of connections have been made that weren’t originally planned. The vision was to originally have street lights – not provide power for the individual shelters. However, if it were you or I in this camp, we would expect electricity. And so do they.
As a result, they got themselves electricity. On top of a huge number of shelters you’ll see satellite dishes so they can watch TV. The markets and shops that they have created for themselves need power to operate – keep the drinks cold, and the food hot. They need electricity to power their cell phones, their lights and their lives. It’s a critical component that makes up this camp.
We started our camp visit with a stop at base camp to receive a quick briefing on the camp and visit the canteen, then we got to meet Dr. Brandon. Dr. Brandon has been with the UNHCR for years, and has participated in several refugee camps – he brought us to the main medical clinic, where we were again impressed by the efficiency of this operation.
The clinic provides approx. 700 consultations a day, with 130 people working in the clinic 24/7. They provide support for everything from pregnancy to owies to chronic health issues. Dr. Brandon explained that unlike a traditional refugee camp in the middle of Africa, for example, they don’t see Malaria, Polio or other diseases of that nature – they see common chronic illness such as heart problems, diabetes, cancer… typical health issues for North Americans. This can wind up being even more complex as they require continuous treatment, and of course, money.
We are taken throughout the medical centre and given the full tour. I admire the work these wonderful people put in to this camp, and their commitment and dedication. I can also see the very close partnership between the Jordan government and their health care system and the UNHCR. It’s amazing that this country is so willing to provide so much for these refugees, and I’m not sure they’re praised enough for their amazing work. I can’t think of another country that would give as much as Jordan has given to these people.
After we thank Dr. Brandon and his team, we take a drive down to the “market” – I should mention that the UNHCR did not build, or sponsor this “market”. The refugees created this themselves. And it’s a pretty amazing market – everything from wedding dresses to fantastic food to everyday items, they’ve got it.
We had lunch as a group with a very special guest – a former IKEA Co-worker from Saudi Arabia who is now a refugee here in the camp. When the Norway group was here last year they actually met him by accident as they were visiting the camp, so this year we invited him for lunch to see how he was doing.
With this in mind, it’s another reminder that any one of us could be a refugee. This man left Saudi Arabia to visit family in Syria and was detained as a result of the civil unrest, and subsequently unable to return home. As a result, he found himself here, with his wife and children (one born in the camp), living the life of a refugee.
He tells us that life in the past year has improved, that he is one of the lucky ones who has obtained a work permit, but that it is still not enough money to allow him to leave the camp, and that he likes being there to help others. The message he wishes to share is one he feels comes from all Syrians – hoping for peace in Syria, and the safe return of all refugees to their home country.
An amazing man, and an amazing story, we were very lucky to be able to share lunch with him.
After lunch we split into two groups and went into the camp to do some home visits with an interpreter. Ours has been with Zaatari since the very beginning, and knows most of the refugees by name. He has developed a wonderful trust with everyone, and just by standing there he is approached by several with questions or concerns.
We visit one family of five, the father previously working in the Skoda factory in Syria, had to flee with his family due to the violence. I notice a stark contrast between the community feeling here and the feeling of community within the urban refugees environment. The urban refugees were so isolated – rarely leaving their homes, having no contact with others… a very difficult life. And while the people in the camp have their challenges, I do see that they have community, which is something I feel is so valuable.
It’s such a hard balance, and of course I cannot put myself in their shoes – we only get a small glimpse into their lives, and I can’t imagine having to live in a designated camp instead of being able to choose my home. But I also cannot imagine staying inside all day, never speaking to outsiders… it’s a very tough situation.
After we finish with the first family we see a huge group of young boys walking down the road, returning from school. They wave hello and a bunch of them come over to see who we are and what we’re doing. Many of them love the idea of getting their picture taken, and have even picked up a few words of English (“what is your name”, “nice to meet you”, “hello”, “hi”) – it was such a great feeling to spend time with these kids! We got a ton of pictures and just had some fun shaking hands, getting high fives and watching them play. It was a great moment, and a sad moment as you realize just how many youth are impacted by this situation.
Education is also such a key issue here – and it’s interesting, because I’ve heard from Per and others that in poorer countries, everyone wants to go to school. The kids are all in school, and the families all want them to be there. Here, it’s hit or miss. Every family we’ve spoken to has at least one child who is not in school, and seems to have no desire to go to school. Their ability to integrate with the curriculum, the fact that they don’t feel like they fit in, or just have no desire to prevent them from going, which is very sad for us to see.
A small protest has developed in another district so we’re warned we may need to go at any time, but we stop in at one more shelter to say hello before we leave – and we’re shocked to see a rose garden growing inside the shelter. It’s beautiful. The work these people have done on their homes is amazing – someone told us that Syrians can build and do anything, and I absolutely believe it. They say with this patch of desert, if they wind up staying there, they will make it look like Dubai. I believe them.
We speak with the family, and meet some of the neighbours before saying our goodbye, and wandering up towards the edge of the camp. We see some outdoor playgrounds for children supervised by UNICEF, a cell tower to allow everyone to communicate, and so many more shelters.
We hop back in the van and return to meet with the other group, ready to share our experiences, head back to the hotel, and go out as a group with some of the UNHCR staff for a lovely, traditional Jordanian dinner.