Thursday, August 9, 2012

Returning to the Camps in the North

This week I have kept busy with preparing for a charity Iftar dinner (I am organizing the food donations), marking students' writing (very interesting!) and preparing for lessons on time-management and learning styles for students in the JCHEM program. Then a sudden opportunity presented itself at the last minute to accompany Kadar and three other friends to Ramtha and Mafraq in order to deliver supplies and assess further needs. I was originally not planning to go, but at the last minute, Kadar's friend who was going got sick and she asked if I would like to come. I was delighted to return to the North to accompany her.

Our first stop was at the Cyber City camp, which was the one that Kadar and I had visited about 2.5 weeks ago. It was a relief to find the situation there much better for the residents. The controversy surrounding food supplies had been solved and the UN is now providing them with an assortment of healthy food supplies to cook with. They are faring much better than the residents of other camps because, although crowded, their rooms are solid and permanent (not tents) and they have fans to cool down the indoor temperatures.

Our second stop was at King Abdullah Gardens. The name seems to conjure up a lush green space with flowers and other plants offering shade. This is hardly the reality. There is not one green living thing in the compound. The camp originally was established as a transit facility with trailers to accommodate families while security checks were run. Then after a week or two they were released to the community to fend for themselves, with the assistance of community members and some NGOs. Last week with the opening of the Zaatari camp, the first “official” UN sponsored refugee camp in Jordan due to the increasing waves of people crossing the border by foot each night (now between 1000-2000 daily), the policies have changed, and Syrians are no longer being discharged from camps into the community, but they are staying in the camps indefinitely. This is both a blessing and a curse. Living in the camp makes it easier for Aid agencies and UN to make sure that their basic needs are provided for (instead of families fending for themselves and relying on the kindness of strangers), yet the downside is their lack of freedom and total dependence on whatever they are given by the UN. Because the number of people needing shelter exceeded the number of trailers available, more recent arrivals to King Abdullah Gardens live in bedouin style tents made from thick woven tapestries.

We pulled up to the “gardens” and Kadar spoke with the guards at the gate, who let us drive in. As we drove past the entrance, a woman walked past with what appeared to be a newborn baby (not more than 2 months old) in the hot sun. Mahmoud, one of the members of Kadar's group has taken responsibility for organizing Antenatal care packages for ladies who deliver babies while in the camps. The packs contain diapers, wipes, talc, blankets, clothes, and Halawa for the new moms (it's an Arabic sweet that is traditionally eaten by new moms.) I could see how valuable these supplies would be for women who left the camp for 1-2 days to give birth and returned back to these difficult conditions with a newborn baby in less than 1 week.

We parked in front of the main office of the camp and Kadar went inside to have meetings with the different leaders of the camp to see if she could establish a good rapport with them and get ideas about the unmet needs of the people inside the camp that we could help to meet. Meanwhile, the three others of us from the car waited outside the camp office. There was a group of camp residents milling about, and as much as I tried to blend in, it just wasn't going to happen. At first there were stares, then it was the teenage boys who approached me. They asked me if I spoke Arabic, and I told them that I understand a little, but I don't speak well. Then they started asking complicated questions, to which I

responded a statement which I have grown very
used to using, “Ana Asfa, la afham” (I'm sorry, I don't understand). So they searched the scene for an interpreter, and brought back a tall red-haired boy (about 16 years old), who had done well in his English class back home in Syria, but even he and I could not understand each other. Several other boys resorted to communicating through their mobile phones...showing messages containing love poems in english on the screen. I laughed and wondered where they had gotten these cheesy poems, and why? Just in case they needed to try to flirt with some foreign strangers? Although for the most part they were very sweet and harmless, I could see the crowd of boys around me growing bigger and bigger, so worked my way to the other side of the car where there were some teenage girls, with whom I felt more comfortable. The boys followed, but at least now the crowd was mixed! It's a amazing how much I have come to appreciate female company after living in Abu Dhabi for 2 years. Female company has become my comfort zone.


After another 15 minutes of misunderstanding each other, I was approached by a young man with a sweet smile who looked to be in his early 20s. He greeted me in English and translated for the group. After answering a few personal questions that he translated for curious others, I asked him a little bit about himself. His name is Mohammed, and he's a 3rd year Economics student at Damascus University. Inshallah the fighting will end soon so that he can finish his education. He explained that they are getting restless in the camp. There is nothing to do there but think about the revolution. The food is uninspiring: rice and meat everyday without variation. Still he smiled and announced, “You will be my guest in the new Syria!” This hope is all they have for an end to the monotony of their lives in the camp. I sincerely hope that I will meet him (and many other dear friends) in a free Syria soon.

Another man I met, Osama, was working as an English teacher in Damascus before he finally had to leave. The friend who was with him was from Homs, Bab Amr district...his eyes were red and distant. He didn't speak much, but clearly he has been though hell these past few months. Other men asked: “Please, can you give us money? Food? Guns?” Uh...I told them I would try to work on the food issue, but I'm afraid the other two won't do much good in their current conditions. After diagnosing the state of things in the camp, Kadar's group and Sanabel began to sponsor cold water and some more fresh foods to supplement what the people at the camp were eating.

A few minutes later, I noticed a lady about my age with a beautiful face. The others brought her to meet me because she is also a math teacher (after one of my responses to a personal question). Fatima told me her story: She is a math teacher from Deraa. Ten days ago she spent 4 days waiting near the border until it was safe to cross it by foot with her 3 small children. Her husband is a physical therapist and was still working at the hospital in Deraa. She was feeling restless and useless...school should be starting soon, and there are around 700 children in the camp...if only they would allow her to work! She helped to translate more questions from the crowd: “Do you have a husband?” “Do you love him?” “Do you support Real Madrid or Barcelona?” Do you pray? Do you cover your hair when you pray? Why not? I thought their questions were very interesting and cute. During a subsequent visit to the same camp, I met Fatima again. This time her husband had come, and brought his brother's child with him. The girl's mother had been killed and her father was fighting with the FSA, so her uncle and auntie had become her caregivers. Fatima's husband was also feeling restless and so eager to work. It's such a shame that with his many years of experience and specialized medical training, they can't connect him with a position where he could work to meet the needs of others in the camp or the community! I imagine staying for just a couple days in this small camp with literally nothing to do, and I think I would go absolutely stir crazy! I don't know how they are surviving, but I know that it's making the people increasingly agitated and hateful toward the Syrian regime and more likely to start unrest in the camp. Things are under control, but I could tell a difference between my first visit to King Hussein Gardens camp and the last trip I made to the north on my last day in the country 3 weeks later. The restlessness and frustration is building....but fortunately for the residents of this camp, things are not half as dire as our next stop, which was the “new” Al Zaatari camp in Mafraq.

The government of Jordan walks a fine line trying to take care of people who have fled from neighbouring countries (Iraq, Palestine, Syria), without being dragged into the various conflicts. I think that everyone agrees that Jordan getting embroiled in any regional wars would be catastrophic. It's the only reasonably peaceful, neutral country in the region. However, how Jordan goes about maintaining neutrality is a subject of a lot of debate and criticism depending on who you talk to here. Because the situation in Syria was so volatile, Jordan held out as long as possible (about 17 months) before allowing UN to build a formal refugee camp. Thankfully, Jordan follows an open-border policy for neighbours, so
 Syrians who crossed the border Illegally were given shelter, even if they did not have passport or visa

documents. Jordan maintained several make-shift transit camps in the northern cities near Irbid, Ramtha, and Mafraq to receive and register newly arrived Syrians. But they kept the transit camps very quiet and refused to call the people refugees for fear of becoming a target of the Syrian regime. Eventually, as the number of people became too big, they were forced to acknowledge the need for UNHCR to make something bigger.


In the beginning of August, the first formal refugee camp was created at Zaatari, a desolate, dusty, forbidding place in the dessert outside of Mafraq. The camp opened quickly to try to satisfy the needs, but unfortunately it was riddled with problems from the moment it opened. The camp is in a very inhospitable dusty plane where sand storms blow dust into and through the tents. The tents themselves are like little greenhouses in the sun that get hotter and hotter as the day progresses. In addition, the water tanks get increasingly hot during the day so that by Iftar (time to break the Ramadan fast), the water is ready to make tea with, but not suitable for quenching thirst. Our brief visit to Zaatari was in the first week after it opened, and things were understandably chaotic at the outset, but unfortunately in following month, not much changed except for the camps' population swelling to 6000 people, with new refugees arriving each night.  The day after our visit, the Jordan Times published an article that summarized the situation quite well: Jordan Times:Efforts Underway



We stayed at Zaatari only briefly that day. As we entered, there was a convoy of trucks bringing in supplies , and there were many NGOs and officers of UNHCR present (more so than the other camps), however it was a disorganized scene. There was a visiting delegation from Saudi Arabia there making promises of funding to improve the camp in front of news cameras. Kadar went to talk to officials while the three others of us waited outside on a carpet under one of two canopies provided to the refugees for shelter. We sat on the carpet, trying to be inconspicuous. A sandstorm whipped through and coated all of us in dust. Everyone breathed through their shirts and babies cried. I took out my camera to snap a photo and some young boys noticed it and
approached me after the dust died down. For about 10 minutes I let them use my camera to take pictures of our new group of little friends until Kadar came back and told us it was time to go. The camera was the most
 fun toy they had played with in a long while. I wish I could have given these boys each a disposible camera to document what their lives there are like. It would paint one amazing story! Soon it was time to go, and I bid them goodbye. It was sweet to connect with them, even if just for a brief moment. I have followed the reports of progress at Al Zaatari camp in the news ever since, and things do not seem to have improved much, despite the promise from donors and NGOs. Even the president of the association of engineers has recommended moving the camp to a more hospitable location, but so far after one month things are still quite bad, with camp residents attempting escapes from the refugee camp to try to fend for themselves outside the camp. I don't blame them.  Read here for more information on the state of things in Zaatari Camp at the end of August 2012 from a Jordan Times Article.

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