Saturday, July 21, 2012

Refugees in Ramtha

I don't even know where to begin to describe what an amazing experience it was to go into the refugee camp at Cyber City, Ramtha, to deliver donations and supplies for the families living there! This was my hope before I came to Jordan, but I had no idea how in the world it would happen. Then I met a group of amazing new friends, who have put together a grass-roots campaign to help Syrians. Like most things here, I came to be associated with them through contacts with friends of friends of friends of friends. This is the way things get done in this part of the world. Forget sending an email, just talk to people and they will connect you with the right other people. My friend Tariq in Abu Dhabi introduced me (electronically) to his friend Sonabel. When we met, she told me about her good friend Riyadh whose work is organizing logistics for a Swiss Child Protection NGO. Riyadh was so kind and encouraging, and gave me 3 or 4 different ideas of how he thought I might get involved to help Syrians. One of those ideas was introducing me to his friend Kadar, with whom I became good friends.

Kadar's father is Syrian and her mother is Jordanian. Her three brothers live in the UAE, while her parents and sister live in Syria. They have not heard from her father for over a month now. He is well-respected in his community and was trying to make peace and understanding between two ethnic/religious groups when he disappeared. A family friend told them that he caught a glimpse of their father while he was in prison, but didn't have the chance to talk to him. Now they are waiting and hoping. The thing that I admire most about Kadar is her relentless determination to help others without preference or prejudice, and how she mobilizes those around her to pitch in together to accomplish the goal. Obstacles and challenges are no reason to stop or slow the work.

She began her humanitarian work a few months ago by showing up at the refugee camps with supplies and asking the guards to let her inside to make the delivery. They did, and she started talking to the people inside the camps and finding out what their un-met basic needs are. Many of them identified hygiene items as a scarcity (for example, most families run across the border after midnight with only the clothes they are wearing, so they do not have a clean change of undergarments). After identifying the needs which were not being met already in the camps, she then enlisted the help of a friend, Mahmoud to find the best price for the items, posted the report on her facebook page (click here for more details), and asked if anyone would be willing to donate or buy the requested supplies for the people in the camps. Because of her honesty and transparency in reporting details of every purchase, donation, and delivery, people know that 100% of what they donate will be used in the most effective way to help the people who need it most immediately.  Friends and colleagues began to join Kadar's project and now it has really grown.  Getting into the camps to make a delivery is not always easy to negotiate, but Kadar was able to make a connection with a small local charity called Sanabel Association which has been caring for orphans in the community (that's a sad story for another day), located in the 1967 Palestinian Refugee camp at Al Husn, just a few Kilometers from Ramtha. They were glad to have support and receive supplies from her group in Amman, and she gained greater access to the refugee camps under their name. For the last couple weeks I have been meeting with her and a collection of her friends at a cultural/artistic center in Amman to sort donations of clothing, toys, food supplies, diapers and organize them into packets that are easily distributed to families.  I have been very touched by the outpouring of generosity of time and goods by people in this community.  It is very inspiring. 

Before I left Abu Dhabi, I sublet my house to a sweet friend and have used the rent she payed to buy new supplies such as underwear, bras, diapers, and food stuffs to contribute. Kadar's focuses on  involving contributors in the process of  buying the items and/or delivering them to the recipients.  It forms a connection between people and helps contributors to feel much more fulfilled and connected with the recipients then just writing a check and then forgetting about it. People from the community have come forward to help and she has involved them in the project to the point that this has become almost a full-time job for her. I'm glad once in a while to work on some of the small tasks so that she can focus on the larger things that I cannot do because of my Arabic language deficiency (which I have started working on again...but it's slow going!)

Yesterday she invited me to accompany her to distribute the goods we had collected to the people in Cyber City camp in Ramtha. I was absolutely delighted! Upon arrival in Jordan, I realized that the chances of me actually seeing one of the camps with my own eyes was quite unlikely and I was even hesitant because I'm keenly aware of how conspicuous I am and how I did not want to draw the wrong kind of attention and create more problems than good. I kept reminding myself that my purpose here is to help people in the way that benefits them most, not in a way that gratifies my own ego or agenda. However, the opportunity to reach out and connect to people was something I really longed for!

On Thursday morning, Kadar, Mahmoud, and I met at the cultural center and lugged about 25 massive garbage bags full of donated supplies up the hill and into a truck. It was an extremely hot day and we were soaked in sweat after just 1 hour of loading the truck. Then after saying goodbye to Mahmoud, Kadar and I hopped in the front with the driver and set off for Husn camp to meet with the leadership of Sanabel Association and Ahmed and Ahmed from Kadar's group who were already up north. The truck slowly crept up and over the mountains that separate Amman from Ramtha and Irbid in the north and it seemed to take forever to get there. We met at the Sanabel Association headquarters in Husn Camp and left many of the supplies in their store-room to be distributed as needs arise over the next few weeks. After some deliberations, we got into their van and drove over to Cyber City to make a delivery.

There are 4 make-shift “camps” for Syrians and Palestinians entering across the border at Ramtha each night (just across the border from the Syrian city Deraa).  More details here. Jordan has an open-door policy of allowing Syrian citizens into the country, even without documentation, but they are cautious about security issues in the border areas of Jordan. So in the early hours of the morning when families run across the border, the Jordanian military and police bring them to these camps where they stay for about a week while registration and security checks are completed. This is extremely important because there have been several reports in the last few months of malicious people infiltrating the camps and trying to harm the refugees...for example the Jordan Times reported a couple months ago about a foiled plot to poison the water supply at one of these camps (click here to read the article). After newly arrived refugees clear their security checks, families are discharged from the camp into the community when a Jordanian citizen comes and vouches for them, giving a guarantee of financial support. In theory it seems like 

Inside Umm Samir's room in Cyber City
a good idea to have Jordanians take responsibility for newly arrived Syrians to form a social support network, but in reality there's nowhere near enough financially secure individual Jordanian citizens to support the 140,000+ number of refugees who have come.  What often happens is that Jordanians sign and pay the fees to release a Syrian family,
Assembling Hygiene kits for Women @ Cyber City
but the Syrian families never meet their benefactors, so they are on their own after that. Then it's up to international and local NGO's to keep track of these families in the community, make home-visits, and help the newly arrived families to integrate, enrol their children in school, and find enough food and clothing to survive. The influx of so many new arrivals creates a huge challenge to local communities and has caused problems such as a rise in the price of food and rent because of sharp spikes in demand, and scarcity of fresh water. At this point, not one permanent UN refugee camp exists for housing/providing for these people, although one is under construction at the moment and due to open next week. Still, the new UN camp, with capacity to house approximately 5000-8000 people, will hardly put a dent in the vast need for shelter. And with the recent upsurge in violence in Syria, the number of people crossing the border night has jumped from around 50-100 per night to now between 500-1000 each night.

As difficult as the situation is for displaced Syrians, it is even worse for Palestinians who were living in Syria. As refugees in Syria, the Palestinians were given almost identical rights and opportunities as Syrian citizens. But when they come to the border with Jordan, they are treated very differently. It's a complicated political catch-22 where Palestinians without the right paperwork cannot stay in Jordan, cannot go back to Syria, cannot go to the West Bank, and are stuck in limbo. So they send these families to Cyber City where they wait indefinitely while governments and various UN agencies wrangle about what their future will be. While they watch their Syrian friends come into the camps and then get released to the community rather smoothly, they feel even more upset and trapped. For now, they are being housed in the camp at Cyber City.

Cyber City is an old factory with a 5-floor dormatory for the workers which was abandoned several years ago because it was deemed unfit for the workers to live in. Now there are 360 Palestinians and Syrians living in the same quarters. Each family is given one dormatory room with 2 beds (families in this part of the world are not small....sometimes 7-10 people are sharing a room) and each floor of the building has a communal bathroom and kitchen. The location of the camp is quite isolated and there is very little for the people to do but just await an uncertain future. The residents of the camp have grown frustrated with what they perceive to be unfair treatment of Palestinians compared to Syrians.  Added to this, there was a problem last week in which residents of th camp made observations and accusations that the people responsible for providing food supplies for their camp were stealing and they reacted by boycotting food and eating only pita bread and tea.  Residents said that in response, the agency tasked with providing food supplies for the camp stopped bringing supplies entirely.

Sanabel Association Delivery of bread for residents of Cyber City
 The situation was becoming quite dire, so we brought with us many packets of bread. After visiting the camp and assessing their other needs, we used donations from friends in Abu Dhabi and friends of Ahmed in Kuwait to buy 2 weeks worth of dry/canned food staples, fruits, and vegetables for each family in the camp, as well as milk for the children. Hopefully the government/UN agencies will sort things out before this food runs out, but if they don't we'll be back again. Luckily because the Sanabel Association is only 1km from Cyber City, they can keep a close eye on the situation. While the political/refugee situation is far from being resolved, I hope that Ramadan will be a little happier for residents of this camp.   

Umm Samir and her generous gift of watermelon
One thing that touched my heart very much was that as we were preparing to leave the camp, Umm Samir, one of the ladies who helped Kadar and I organize and distribute ladies' hygeine supplies, approached us with a plate full of cold sliced watermelon. My heart was just overwhelmed by her generous action. Here were people who had barely eaten anything that week, offering to us the best of what they had left. It is not something I will forget.

Children came out to bid us farewell as we prepared to leave the camp, and they were so sweet. I can't even begin to imagine the traumatic things they have seen and experienced. Many of these families were displaced within Syria two or three times before finally fleeing across the border (some dodging snipers' bullets as they attempted to cross to Jordan). Yet they still smile! I wish I could do more improve their lives and forget what they have been through! Next time we go to Cyber City (if I am lucky enough for a next time), I hope to bring some soccer balls to give to the boys and volleyballs to give to the girls and engage them in some games. I am so limited in my ability to communicate with them verbally, but perhaps this might help me to connect with them and bring them a little happiness.

The next project will be to visit the three other camps in the coming weeks. Their living conditions are much less permanent, although they are spending much less time there too. Luckily their food situation is secure and they are being fed by the UN and Jordanian government. But there seems to be a need for hygenic supplies, especially clean underwear, and also care packets for mothers who are preparing to deliver babies in the next month. I'm looking forward to helping with these projects and hope to visit those other camps too. By the end of Thursday, I felt so tired and sweaty yet happy and fulfilled when we finally arrived home. Truly my life has been so easy compared to so many people in this world! I am inspired by the example of people who face such adversity and keep going and smiling. I'm also feel so lucky to have made new friends who are dedicated to working tirelessly to lift and help others. They inspire me to be my best self, and that's a wonderful blessing!

1 comment:

  1. It touches ones heart, to find out these plights.
    To read this entire blog was one thing I owed to my friend Britt, coz of the courage she carried to travel to these unknown places, to help people, and feel for their difficulties.

    The accounts of your activities makes me thoughtful, and appreciate Life as it is, and to think and remember in my prayers for God to ease their difficulties.

    This blog inspires me much,"God willing" I will someday do my bit of it to...If God accepts...!!