A Syrian refugee woman tends to her child inside a UNHCR tent at the Zaatari refugee camp
A Syrian refugee woman tends to her child inside a UNHCR tent at the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on August 6. A charity that cares for thousands of Syrians who fled violence said last week that the first official camp to house the refugees in neighbouring Jordan falls short of international standards. © Khalil Mazraawi - AFP/File
A Syrian refugee woman tends to her child inside a UNHCR tent at the Zaatari refugee camp
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Kamal Taha, AFP
Last updated: August 10, 2012

Syrian refugees face dust and disease in Jordan

Mohammed and his wife Walaa escaped death in Syria after sedating their two-year-old daughter so her cries of pain would not be heard by regime troops as they fled to Jordan.

The young couple are now among some 3,000 Syrians sheltering in the desert Zaatari refugee camp 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the kingdom's northern city of Mafraq that was opened last month to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

"We decided to run away a week ago from Daraa to save our lives," said Mohammed, a 26-year-old tailor, standing next to his wife inside the dust-covered white tent they share with three other people.

"We gave the baby some syrup, a tranquilliser, so Syrian soldiers would not hear her crying and kill us. The child was in pain."

Even with the baby asleep, Mohammed and Walaa said their escape from Daraa, where the 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime first began, was never easy.

"We nearly got killed as we fled with four other families under non-stop Syrian army fire. We took nothing with us, just the clothes we are wearing now," said Mohammed, wearing a black tank top and shorts.

Syrians attempting to flee to Jordan are often targeted by their own country's military as they make the crossing. The Jordanian army, which has reinforced the border, fire back to help the refugees cross.

Syrian troops fired on a group of civilians fleeing into Jordan last month, killing a three-year-old child.

"Thank God we were not harmed, but we are not well here," Mohammed said. "Here we are, very worried about the future, and waiting for an end to this misery. No one knows when it will end."

Jordan is hosting more than 150,000 Syrians, most of them living in temporary residences in Ramtha, a town across the border from Daraa, or with relatives or friends elsewhere in the north.

The authorities have started transferring some of the refugees to the seven-square-kilometre (two-square-mile) Zaatari camp, which the UN says can take up to 120,000 people.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 276,000 Syrians have fled mainly to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, from a conflict that activists say has claimed more than 20,000 lives.

Residents of the Zaatari camp, which lies just two kilometres from the Syrian border, say dust, hot weather, lack of electricity and poor medical treatment add to their hardship in Jordan, where desert covers 92 percent of its territory.

"We have to put up all the time with dust and sand, which cover our tents, bodies and clothes," said Jadou Mulla, 65, sitting inside his tent.

"We have food and water, but we have no electricity, no television and no means at all for communication here."

The father of six fled with his family a few days ago from the Syrian city of Homs, a main opposition stronghold and target for Assad's forces.

"We are sad and miserable," he said.

His 56-year-old wife, Khalfa Hmoud, has cancer and had to abandon her chemotherapy treatment when they fled.

"I do not want to die here. I want to go to hospital and continue my treatment," she said, showing her medical reports and begging for help.

Maryam, 46, who fled from Daraa with her family more than a month ago, described living conditions Zaatari as "catastrophic."

"We live in dust. My children are sick and even the food we get is canned and unhealthy," she said, adding that they are not allowed to leave the camp.

Bathing is also a problem.

"It is useless because dust covers us again the minute we leave bathrooms for the tent," she added, caressing the hair of her five-year-old son.

The Ketab and Sunna Society, a leading local charity that cares for more than 50,000 Syrians in Jordan, says the camp "falls short of international standards... and lacks enough bathrooms," and has called on the UN and the government to improve conditions there.

But Jordan and the UNHCR say managing the continuous influx of refugees is a major challenge.

"We are talking about a refugee camp, so it is normal that living standards are not very good in here," said a UNHCR official on condition of anonymity.

Despite the difficulties, the camp now has food supplies, a medical centre and several ambulance vehicles, and is working to provide the refugees with electricity, he told AFP.

The Jordanian government says limited resources hamper its ability to cope with the crisis, despite a recent $100-million grant from the United States to help accommodate the refugees.

Britain, Italy, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have dispatched medical equipment to treat Syrian refugees, especially those injured in the conflict.

And the UK-based Save the Children organisation has sent dozens of volunteers to Zaatari to carry out arts workshops with the children.

A handful of children sat on the ground smiling, crayons in their hands and dust covering their faces, drawing the flag adopted by the Syrian rebels fighting Assad.

"We are doing our best to make them smile, feel safe and dream of a better future," said Mohammed Asmar, a Save the Children volunteer.

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