Syrian refugees build makeshift life in Za'atari camp

The Za’atari camp in Jordan is home to an estimated 120,000 refugees from the two-and-a-half-year Syrian war and has become Jordan’s fifth-largest city. While it was born out of necessity, the CBC's Michelle Gagnon reports that Za’atari is also a testament to generosity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, to the desire to simply do something — if only for the meantime.

Za'atari refugee camp now Jordan's fifth-largest city

In just over a year, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has seen the rise of a new city.

The Za’atari camp, which is located 12 kilometres from neighbouring Syria, is home to an estimated 120,000 refugees from the two-and-a-half-year Syrian war and has become Jordan’s fifth-largest city.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called the refugee crisis a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity” and “the great tragedy of our century.”

Initially, Jordan resisted establishing camps, for the simple reason that once they’re open, they’re hard to close.

Exiled Syrians first moved into Jordan’s cities and towns, where the majority remains today. But the burden on the country’s scarce resources – water especially – proved too heavy, which is why the government opened Za’atari in July 2012.

While it was born out of necessity, Za’atari is also a testament to generosity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, to the desire to simply do something — if only for the meantime.

Inside the camp

A giant map hangs on the wall at base camp in Za’atari. It divides the camp into nine districts. The most densely populated are districts 1 and 2, while new arrivals are directed towards District 9.

The number of child refugees of the Syrian civil war numbers one million. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

The Jordanian government is ultimately responsible for the camp and the country’s armed forces and police are deeply involved with border patrol, transport and security. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is the lead agency here, but they are not alone.

Logos for UNICEF, the World Food Program and numerous other international NGOs can be seen across the base camp. To carry out this massive effort in civic administration, these agencies have carved up the responsibilities, which include providing water, sanitation, food, hospitals and schools.

Yet, despite their good works and continued donations from the international community, the camp remains underfunded, running at about 52 per cent of its target.

Tensions running high

Several of the roads inside have been paved for the movement of refugees, camp personnel and supplies. And while swirls of dust still eddy along the roadside, white gravel has been spread across the ground to help stave off the ever-encroaching desert sands.

We are advised not to go to districts 1 or 2. Tensions are running high today, we’re told. No specifics are offered, but anger, frustration, anxiety and fear are part of the fabric here. Gang activity, vandalism, theft, rape – all have been reported in Za’atari.

We drive down the main street, known to the locals as the Champs Elysées. Apparently, irony is not among the losses here.

The “boulevard” has all the trappings of an early-century frontier town. Everything is makeshift. Old tents are tied into awnings and odd pieces of corrugated steel are slapped onto the stalls as extra siding. Nothing is wasted, but instead reassembled, an obvious metaphor for the lives of the residents.

Somehow, almost all modern conveniences are on offer. Cell phones, electrical adapters, kerosene heaters, ice cream cones, bridal gowns, TV repair shops, barbershops, a falafel stand, even a video arcade – all are here for those who have the means.

Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh, crouched centre, and Canadian foreign minister John Baird, far right, visit the Za'atari camp in 2012. (Mohammad Hannon/AP Photo)

Satellite dishes dot the rooftops. Among other improvements to living conditions here, the UNHCR is working to replace all tents with prefab homes. The camp now has 17,000 of them, but another 10,000 are needed to complete the job.

Kids run amok, not surprising since two-thirds of Syrian refugee children in Jordan are not in school. They jump onto the back of moving trucks, shouting out the few English words they know.

“Hello, hello, how are you?” they snicker, laughing and prodding at the same time. Mugging for the camera, they flash the peace sign, innocently reproducing what has become a clichéd symbol of their plight.

Lining up for weekly rations

The World Food Programme is handing out its weekly rations under the midday sun. People press up against the gate, waiting their turn. The gate hasn’t always been here, but crowd control has made it necessary.

A few refugees try negotiating with the guards. The gate opens and lets in a dozen or so people, while others come out pushing wheelbarrows loaded with their weekly food allotment.

As we set up on the Champs Elysées, a man approaches, pointing down the street. He tells us a fight has broken out; a second man insists we film it. People in Za’atari gather quickly for anything resembling an event. Within seconds, an ambulance appears on the horizon. Its siren silenced, it moves slowly, mindful of the erratic crowd.

A turn to the right, and we enter District 2, home to those who have been here the longest. We meet a family from Dera’a, Syria — two brothers, their uncle and their respective wives and children, they number 26 in all. Za’atari residents for over a year, they occupy three trailers.

Inside their home, laundry is hung up to dry, and several caged birds chirp away as countless curious children gather. The women huddle together in a doorway, steering clear of the camera. One looks to be about six months pregnant. A man walks in and holds up a newborn for our benefit.

A view of Za’atari’s boulevard, the so-called Champs Elysées, on a recent Saturday afternoon. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

However settled, they insist they are only biding time.

“I don’t think of it as my home,” says Ousama, 26, one of the two brothers. “I will never forget my real home, and I’m definitely going back with my family one day.”

A new deal… and a new camp

Last weekend, the U.S. and Russia reached a deal on disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons stock, dispensing with the pretext for a U.S.-led military strike, at least for now. More days of diplomatic tussling, and breathless brokering certainly lie ahead, but a sense of reprieve has set in.

But there is no relief on the ground.

A three-month record was set this past weekend: 475 refugees entered Jordan in 24 hours, more than double the recent average.

Za’atari can accommodate 20,000 more people before reaching capacity. Meanwhile, a new camp has been completed in Azraq, a border town due east of Amman. A contingency for the time being, it stands empty, but is built to house another 130,000 people.

Syrian refugees were among the few people in Jordan to welcome the prospect of a strike, many believing it would help pave their way home.

“Do you see this camp around you?” Ousama asked a few days before the U.S. decided to stand down. “Within 24 hours of a strike, all the people here will start moving back to Dera’a. This is the only optimistic thing I can think of.”

Optimism is at a premium here. And though there has been a shift on the diplomatic front, the civil war rages on in Syria, leaving so many with no alternative but to flee.


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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