Last updated: May 12, 2013

Life in the camp for the world’s newest refugees

Banner Icon For most Syrian refugees, the feeling of safety makes the miserable conditions in makeshift camps almost bearable.

It’s a freezing cold February evening and, as the day’s final light begins to fade, a group of more than 100 Syrians gather shivering at an unidentified spot just beyond the strip of no-man’s land that separates their war-torn homeland from Jordan in the South.

Considered refugees now after illegally crossing the border, the stress of a two-year bloody conflict at home shows clearly on their lined and troubled faces. Despite their obvious traumas, the mixture of men, women – most heavily veiled – children and elderly seem eager to share their stories of horror with a large group of visiting local and foreign reporters.

In the glare of oversized television cameras and amidst throngs of notebook-clad journalists, they talk about the death and destruction in their villages back home, describe how they walked for days wrapped in blankets and clutching black garbage bags with the last of their belongings. And they all expressed their relief at finally reaching safety in Jordan.

Only a few of us journalists immediately realize the irony of this situation – even with their testimonies now caught on camera and scribed for the world to see through media outlets from across the Middle East and beyond – the world still refuses to acknowledge this massive humanitarian catastrophe as it unfolds before our eyes.

“I came with my father, mother, wife and six children,” says one man, standing next to his solemn wife. “It took us nearly half an hour to get to this point after finally reaching representatives of the Free Syrian Army, who helped us across in minivans. Before that, we had to walk the nearly eight kilometers from our village, Nueimeh.”

The man says it was a very tough journey, especially for the children.

“We had to dodge bullets, hide behind trees, in trenches and in destroyed building while carrying our bags,” he continues. “The situation in our area is very tense, there was bombing and shelling everywhere. We did not even know where the bullets were coming from.”

The man tells reporters how his house was totally destroyed, how he and his family had no shelter and, fearing for their lives, had no choice but to leave Syria and head towards Jordan.

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According to human rights groups, more than two million Syrians have been forced to flee the intensifying conflict, which started in 2011 as an off shoot of the so-called Arab Spring and quickly turned into a revolution aimed at disposing the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Estimates suggest that some 70,000 civilians have already been killed in the uprising and refugee camps housing those who have sought safety over the border now exist in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and, here, in Jordan.

Despite all this and despite the attractive journalistic photo-op that the refugees and the arriving injured Free Syrian Army fighters provide, the myriad of horrifying stories facing ordinary citizens of Syria remains largely untold.

As the light dims and temperatures dip on that grassy hillside, some of the braver Syrians tell journalists more of their escape stories. Others simply stand around looking very relieved to have arrived to Jordan’s relative safety. All seem anxious to board a specially provided army bus that will take them first to be processed at a nearby military base and later to the Zata’ari refugee camp about an hour’s drive south of the border.

Safety is obviously a relative thing in this unfolding story, however. Obviously happy to be away from the stress of on-going violence – constant gun fire and shelling can be heard nightly in Jordanian border towns emanating from the nearby Syrian town of Deraa – the recent arrivals have little idea of the misery and squalor that awaits them in Zata’ari.

Those already living in the camp, which opened last July, talk openly about their frustration at being “forgotten” refugees and complain about the difficult conditions in the sprawling tent city.

“There are no facilities here, no proper bathrooms and the water is making us sick,” complains Ihab, who arrived here with his family in October. “Most of the people here are used to a much higher lifestyle and feel humiliated at having to live in tents or small caravans.”

Ihab describes the daily hardships of the camp, which has grown into a thriving city with businesses, schools and health clinics.

“They give us only four pieces of bread a day per person, it’s not enough and we have to stand for hours and hours to get it,” he says.

He says that the harsh winter, which included a weeklong snowstorm followed by torrential rains, caused havoc, destroying tents and morale even further. Many people, adds Ihab, have also fallen sick from drinking dirty water and inadequate health care.

“There are no proper medical treatments here and the doctors sometimes do not want to touch the children when they are treating them,” says one woman, who arrived here last month with her six children. Her husband, says the woman who calls herself Barrah, stayed behind to fight with the resistance against the regime.

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Eight months pregnant, Barrah says she is very nervous about the very real possibility of giving birth in the camp.

“The healthcare is very bad here but I don’t know if I will have a choice,” says the woman, who watched her teenage daughter die two days after arriving here, mainly because of a pre-existing condition and not being able to get the proper medicine due to shortages in Syria.

According to statistics from the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), some 16 people have already died in the camp from illnesses such as tuberculosis and hepatitis, which are spreading daily.

Even though there are seven hospitals and health centers in Zata’ari, the health situation is growing more difficult, admits Mahmoud Omoush, head of JHCO’s operations in the camp.

“We feel like we are in a big prison,” states Mahmoud Kalesh, who arrived here in September after fleeing his native village of Marakeh. “At the start of the fighting, there were strong words from countries like Turkey and Britain but now everyone is silent and we are scared that our country will end up being like Iraq and we will be forgotten refugees like the Iraqis.”

Sitting with several other men from his village Kalesh adds that he has had enough of life in the camp and is ready to go back and fight with the rebels.

“When we left, there was not enough arms for all of us to join the resistance but now so many people have died, they need our help,” he says, claiming that the Jordanian authorities are reluctant to allow fighting-age men to return to join the war.

Sure enough, at a nearby administration office, groups of young men wait agitatedly to apply for a pass to leave the camp and head back across the border. The camp’s director, Col. Zaher Abu Shihab says that two to three busloads of people, roughly 170 individuals, are going back to Syria every day and admits that there are more who want to go.

In the meantime, the camp is taking on a life of its own with the various walkways snaking between the United Nations-issued tents even being given fancy names.

The so-called Champs Elysee or main “street” through the camp is bustling with life, as hundreds of men, women and children go about their routine business, collecting their aid, visiting friends or shopping in the dozens of makeshift stores that sell everything from mobile phones to vegetables to simple household appliances. Resigned to the fact that this situation is likely to go on for a lot longer than first expected, most are just trying to find a way to keep life as normal and as comfortable as possible.

As we made our way out of the camp, we could not mistake the misery on the faces of those less fortunate. The world’s newest refugees who have no option but to stay caged inside, entrusting their fates into unknown hands and representing another episode in the history of human suffering.

Hani Hazaimeh contributed to this report. Video translation by Munir Atalla and Adam Hedengren.

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Ruth Eglash
Ruth writes for The Washington Post. She is the former Deputy Managing Director of The Jerusalem Post. Ruth is a member of Your Middle East's Advisory Board, and currently lives just outside of Jerusalem.
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