Syrian refugee children receive aid distributed by an aid organization at the Zaatari refugee camp
Syrian refugee children receive aid distributed by an aid organization at the Zaatari refugee camp, located outside the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. Sweltering heat, dust, lack of electricity and at times sexual harassment are some of the hardships faced by refugees in this UN-run desert tent camp in northern Jordan. © Khalil Mazraawi - AFP
Syrian refugee children receive aid distributed by an aid organization at the Zaatari refugee camp
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Musa Hattar, AFP
Last updated: August 15, 2012

Syria refugees battle heat, dust, and sexual harassment

Sweltering heat, dust, lack of electricity and at times sexual harassment are some of the hardships faced by refugees in this UN-run desert tent camp in northern Jordan.

Those who fled atrocities at home say they would rather return to Syria than be humiliated in the sprawling compound, as their trials came to a head Monday when a group of Syrians clashed with security guards who prevented them leaving.

"My eyes and nose hurt, my throat aches from the dust and heat. My mother suffers from pneumonia and all of us are sick with allergies," said 14-year-old Ziad Yunis, one of some 6,000 Syrian refugees housed in the camp near the border.

"My father is still in Daraa. I wish I could go back there to hug him instead of this humiliation," the teenager told AFP as he paced back and forth.

Nearby, four-year-old Omar cried as his mother stripped him naked to bathe him outside their tent. "Please, mum, let's go to a bathroom, I don't want to be seen naked," he insisted, as other children laughed at him.

But his mother could not help. "What I can do for you? This is what we have," she told him.

As the "iftar" meal which breaks the dawn-to-dusk Muslim fast of Ramadan neared, scores of refugees lined up to receive their meals from a UN refugee agency truck.

"If you don't stick to your turn and stop shouting, you will get nothing," a UN employee snapped at a man who complained about the long queue and demanded a quick handout.

A woman considered herself lucky.

"Thank God, this time, I only waited half an hour," said Fatima Subeihi, 38, carrying a plastic bag containing bread, bottle of soft drink and water, cheese and jam.

It is not easy to fast more than 15 hours a day in this desert area during the month-long Ramadan, as average temperatures in the summer soar to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

"You don't know how it feels. The worst thing is dust, and the tents are not good enough to protect us," said the mother of six, covering her mouth with a white mask.

The authorities started to transfer some of the country's 150,000 Syrian refugees to the seven-square-kilometre (two-square-mile) Zaatari camp in July. The UN say the camp, outside the city of Mafraq, can take up to 120,000 people.

"This is a large prison. We are not animals, and even animals would not accept to live here, this way," said 50-year-old Mohammad, refusing to give his full name.

Jordanian anti-riot police were called in on Monday to quell a protest by angry Syrians as they clashed with guards when they tried to leave the facility in protest at poor living conditions.

A father of four covered his head with a piece of white cloth but dust invaded his face, including his eyelashes, as he queued up to receive relief items.

"There's no electricity, no water, no phones. We are isolated and I cannot check on my sons who are fighting the regime in Syria," lamented the man.

Unlike the refugee tents, all offices of the United Nations and aid groups in the camp are linked to a power grid.

"I do not understand why we don't have electricity in our tents," said Subhieh, 37, adding that UN staff and others had air-conditioned caravans.

"We cannot breathe here and the food is bad, while we wait for three to four hours to use the bathroom. I miss Syria," wept a mother of five, wearing a traditional black dress that has turned into beige because of the dust.

The Jordanian government says thousands of tents in Zaatari will soon be replaced by caravans.

"We did not escape death and humiliation in Syria to be humiliated here. I would rather return and die there. It's easier and faster, trust me," complained Marwan Basti, 38.

"Everything is disorganised here. Some people get five portions of food a day while others get nothing. We can handle this but our children cannot. We would not have fled here if we knew all this."

He said a new group of Syrian refugees were brought to the camp on Monday.

"When they saw the situation, they tried to leave the camp but of course they were prevented," he added.

Many Jordanians come and visit each day to donate food, water and clothes to the refugees. But other visitors cause trouble, adding more pressure on the Syrians.

"Two days ago, a janitor tried to harass a woman when she wanted to use the toilet. One of her male relatives beat him. Police came, took the janitor to hospital and arrested the other man," said Khaldun Qaddah, 25, from Homs in central Syria.

"We demonstrated near the gate of the camp to release the man. But nothing happened. This is unfair."

Some Syrian refugees have repeatedly complained of sexual harassment.

A grey, off-road vehicle with Kuwaiti number plates entered the camp, just before iftar, trying to follow a Syrian woman in her twenties. The driver tried to give her his phone number, as a passenger took pictures of her using his mobile.

"God damn you, you dogs," the woman shouted at them as she carried bottles of water as well as food.

"What can I tell you? This is sick. We have complained to the authorities but they haven't done a thing. God damn (Syrian President Bashar al-) Bashar who forced us to come here," she told AFP.

Activists have said the camp "falls short of international standards," but Jordan and the refugee agency UNHCR say limited resources and the continuous influx of refugees hamper their ability to deal with the crisis.

France has dispatched tonnes of aid supplies and medical equipment as well as a field hospital to the camp, while the United States, Britain, Canada and Germany have granted Jordan more than $135 million to help it cope.

As the world's Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan ends early next week, Syrian refugees said there is nothing to be happy about.

"What Eid? Are you serious?" Um Mohammed told AFP, smiling, as she washed clothes outside her tent.

"Eid is not for us. Look around you. How can we have any joy here? We are barely alive. Maybe we will celebrate Eid once this misery ends and Bashar is gone," she said.

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