Sand-whipped desert camps overflowing with Syrian refugees

Sand-whipped refugee camps in the Jordanian desert are fast becoming the new home for Syrians escaping the fighting next door. There is a clinic and a swing set for the kids, but not much more, Derek Stoffel reports.

UN expects exodus to reach 700,000 by year end

Residents at Zataari refugee camp in Jordan line up outside the UN warehouse for toiletries and basic supplies. The white tents are now a distinctive shade of pink because of the desert storms. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

There is a swing set and a slide, and half a dozen young girls are gathered to play, as they would anywhere in the world. But look closely and you can tell this playground is different.

The face of one of the girls is covered in a pinkish-brown dust. Some of the others look exhausted.

These are the young refugees from the civil war in Syria next door. They are trying to pass the hours of boredom at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, about 30 kilometres from the Syrian border.

They are also children who have witnessed the bloodshed first hand.

"There was shelling all the time. So much shelling," a 12-year-old boy named Saleh told me. "I saw the soldiers shooting people back home."

Like most of the residents of the camp who spoke to CBC News, Saleh did not want to give his full name because he fears for the safety of family members who remain in Syria.

Nearly half a million Syrians have fled their country because of the fighting, the UN refugee agency estimated last week. And while only about 294,000 have registered as refugees, the UN is expecting that number to grow to over 700,000 by the end of the year, particularly given the intensity of the recent violence.

That is seven times more than what the UN was expecting just a few months ago, and neighbouring countries like Jordan and Turkey are expected to bear the brunt of the increase and the emotional toll on those forced to endure it.

Living through more than 18 months of civil war has hardened escapees like Saleh. "Why would I be scared of these men," he replies when asked about the soldiers. "I want to go home and take a weapon and fight them."

Saleh and his family have been at the Zaatari camp for a month a half now, having arrived from Dera'a, the nearby city where Syria's revolution against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad began.

"We fled here because of the shelling. They are destroying all our houses," said Saleh's mother. "Our children could not sleep, so that is why we came here, to be safe."

Boiling point

Approximately 34,000 Syrians now live in the Zaatari camp. More arrive each morning, risking sniper fire as they try to cross the border into Jordan.

Younger refugees while away the hours at swing set. Plans for regular schooling have fallen through. (Derek Stoffel / CBC)

The camp was established at the beginning of August and UN humanitarian officials say it will be able to house about 80,000 people.

Zaatari is row after row of white tents, turned brown by the blowing dust. Toilets and showers have been set up every few rows.

Water is available from faucets located near the camp's main road and they are now meeting places for people who come carrying buckets and jugs.

The dust is the first thing you notice when you walk through the main gate. Zaatari was built in the middle of the Jordanian desert.

It's new residents complain that the frequent dust storms often make it hard to breathe.

"It's difficult to live here," Saleh's mother tells me as her two boys look on. "The conditions are terrible. There is so much dust."

But like most who have come here, she knows the alternative is much worse. "It is much safer than living in Syria, so we stay here."

For some refugees, however, frustration has boiled over. Riots broke out earlier this week, after about 1,000 Syrians protested against the living conditions in the camp.

A few clashed with Jordanian police who used tear gas to control the crowds and arrested eight people.

While the protests have quieted down, some Syrians complained that they still are unable to get basic supplies. "All I want is some diapers for my baby brother," said 16-year-old Julianard.

The camp is run by the UN's High Commission for Refugees, its humanitarian relief agency, and every morning camp residents line up outside the UNHCR warehouse to pick up everything from diapers to shampoo and other toiletries.

New residents are given mattresses and cooking supplies at the distribution centre.

The warehouse has become a focal point for anger in the camp, with some refugees complaining they are forced to wait for hours in the blazing sun to collect supplies.

"It's like we have to beg for everything here. We have no dignity," said Julianard.

A small city

One thing the camp is missing is schools.

There was a plan to see young Syrian refugees join local schools in nearby communities. But as the school year got underway, that plan was cancelled.

Residents who have been at the camp when it opened in August now live in pre-fab homes, not tents. But the washing up still takes place outdoors. (Derek Stoffel / CBC)

It's now believed the Jordanian authorities are working with UNICEF, the UN's children's agency, to establish schools inside the camp.

And several countries have committed money and doctors to staff field clinics at the camp. Canada has committed $6.5 million to Jordanian and UN agencies to help with the costs.

When I was there last week, about a dozen children were waiting for medical attention at the Moroccan clinic.

A woman named Soha had brought her two boys to see a doctor about a skin condition.

She was grateful to both the Moroccans and Jordanians for the assistance her family is receiving. They fled Dera'a after a bounty was placed on her husband's head, apparently for trying to get Syrian soldiers to switch sides in the conflict.

"I don't know if I will ever be able to go home," she said. "They are trying to destroy my village."

The toughest part of her family's decision to come to the camp was leaving her parents and brothers behind. Two of her brothers are fighting with the rebel Free Syrian Army, Soha said.

She had not been able to contact either brother in a week, and she now feared for their lives.

"This war is destroying my country," she said, fighting back tears. "I just want it to end."

Others in the camp say they cannot wait to go back and join the battle.

Ahmed Mohammed Hariri fled cross the border to Jordan a week ago to seek medical attention. He says he was beaten by Syrian soldiers in Dera'a because they suspected that he supported the Free Syrian Army.

"The minute my doctor tells me I am OK, I will not stay one minute more in this camp," Hariri said. "I will go back and fight."

Like many Syrian refugees, Hariri was critical of the international response to the situation in his country.

"We need safe zones, no-fly zones to protect our women and children in Syria," he told me, as he became increasingly upset. "There are massacres back home. People are slaughtered."

For him, Zataari is not a place anyone should call home. "We don't need more money to expand this camp," he says. "We need weapons for the Free Syrian Army so they can fight the regime."