The Resilience of the Human Spirit

Reflections on a Visit to Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan
September 17-20, 2017

We traveled to the Za’atari Refugee Camp on Wednesday, an hour’s drive from Amman and 10 miles from the Syrian border. Za’atari hosts 80,000 Syrians—the largest camp in the Middle East and fifth largest in the world. It is run by the Syrian Refugee Affairs Department, but UNHCR is responsible for the management and coordination of humanitarian services. It is divided into twelve communities which hold a meeting every other week with the authorities.

We spent the better part of a day at Za’atari, starting with a briefing from the camp leadership and UNHCR representatives. We visited a Community Center and food market, were hosted to tea by a refugee family in their caravan, and met with a group of community leaders.

Signs everywhere identified the donors: government agencies like the Norwegian Refugee Council and USAID, UN agencies like UNHCR, NGOs like Mercy Corp, Oxfam, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee.

As we moved around the camp, it felt more like a real community than a compound. There is an orderly street grid, a string of local shops commonly referred to as the Champs-Élysées, and rows of family houses that resemble metal trailers (called caravans). There are schools, places of worship, and two modern, well-stocked food markets.

We visited a multi-purpose community center which included:

  • A shop for perfume, clothes and other locally made products.
  • A playground where we interacted with a group of happy youngsters.
  • A counseling center.
  • A library with two internet-connected laptops.
  • A tech room where young men and women were learning computers and design. And mapping the camp and collecting key data.
  • A lounge for the elderly.
  • A barber shop.
  • A sewing center.

The center sponsors four groups, a women’s committee, a seminar on Syria Tomorrow, a youth group and an arts gathering that includes painting and design. Attractive as this center is, we need to remember that only a modest fraction of the camp’s residents use it.

The supermarket was impressive, fully stocked with fresh vegetables and dairy and meat products. It features Syrian brands favored by the refugees. Each family receives a $31 per month allowance, which is monitored by a modern iris scanning system. That amount does not sustain a family for a month and families buy an ample proportion of their food from local shops. While basic needs are met, there are challenges including severe water rationing and electricity only from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. The camp is raising money to build a solar system that will lengthen the hours if completed.

We had a moving visit with a family of seven who have been at the camp five years since fleeing a mortar attack in Syria that killed members of their extended family. We met in the sleeping room which was next to a living room. There was also a kitchen and a bathroom, although I do not know if it had running water.

The youngest child, a boy of perhaps five, cheerfully made the rounds shaking hands with each member of our delegation, making eye contact and smiling broadly. The oldest child, fifteen, is training to be a barber and an appliance technician. He is bright and energetic and reminds us that the youth of the camp do not have a clear path to higher education.

The mother, who works for an NGO, took the lead (speaking in translation) in describing daily life. Her account was factual, not complaining or displaying self-pity. The family was grateful to be safe, was coping with diminished quarters, and preparing for a better future. Knowing that our Council came from Canada, she made a bold plea for refugee status. “Please take us to Canada,” she implored Lloyd Axworthy. She talks regularly over WhatsApp to friends who made it to Canada and are happy there.

When asked whether they wanted to return to Syria, she started with the observation that their home had been destroyed. But she went on to say they would go back if security were guaranteed by the great powers, all fighting stopped, and the regime changed. She then came back to the pitch for Canada.

We next met with the council of community (tribal) leaders in what they called “the House of Syrian Jordanians,” complete with a picture of Jordanian royalty on the wall.

They started with a plea for more aid for Syrian refugees channeled through the Jordan government. “We are disappointed in the international response to our crisis,” the leaders told us. “We can’t live on $31 a month.” They need bigger houses as their children grow – and better furniture.

The council made a passionate plea to address the fact that many do not have proper documentation and that prevents them from the path to independence by denying them work permits.

We also heard a plea to upgrade the healthcare facilities to include a hospital where advanced surgery could be performed.

The most animated exchange came in response to a question about conditions for their return to Syria and how they would think about an international peace keeping force. The leader said bluntly, “The international community has failed us. We do not want them.” Another was more temperate: “A true peacekeeping force is okay, but we don’t want an occupation force. Tell your government we are proceeding with the revolution until the regime changes.” In spite of this, the atmosphere was friendly, occasionally punctuated with laughter, and the conversation ended only when prayer time came.

The conditions in the camp were better than I had expected and compared favorably to rural villages in Northern Nigeria I visited while at the MacArthur Foundation. That said, our hosts took care to show us the best of the camp. We did not have a chance to talk informally with a cross-section of the residents. The experience must be a challenge to people who lived in their own homes, and had jobs and independence before the Syrian conflict.

But bottom line: the combination of a progressive approach by Jordan, the mobilization of the UN and government aid agencies, and the partnership with many NGOs has bought time for the Syrian families. I am impressed with how much is known about how to organize a refugee rescue mission. Now what is needed is adequate funding from the international community and a determination to help refugees regain their independence.

*  *  *

This was my second visit to Jordan. Twenty years ago I visited Petra as a tourist but did not visit Amman. Amman is a dense city built on seven hills, best viewed from the Citadel, an area on the peak of the highest hill that has been occupied since the Bronze Age. The Citadel contains the remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules and an impressive series of historic buildings surrounding the Umayyad Palace, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E. and never fully rebuilt.

It felt safe, orderly, and at ease. I was struck by the density of the housing but also by the comfortable feeling of people on the street, especially kids playing. We stayed in a modern hotel and apartment complex near the financial district, which featured a Broadway between two rows of towers. The pedestrian walkway was full of shops and restaurants, another world from the real Amman.

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