'I Wish I Could Invite You Into The Beautiful House We Had Back Home': A Visit to the Za’atri Syrian Refugee Camp In Jordan

July 16, 2013

A Syrian family walk amid tents at the Za’atari refugee camp (Photo Credit: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images).
A Syrian family walk amid tents at the Za’atari refugee camp (Photo Credit: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images).

By Neil Sammonds, Syria Researcher at Amnesty International

Seven-and-a-half miles south of the border with Syria lies the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan. Over 130,000 refugees, who have fled the conflict in Syria, live here in a 4.3 mile-wide stretch on this otherwise lifeless desert plain, in a mix of makeshift emergency tents and mobile homes or “caravans.”

In the blinding sunlight, a young woman wearing a black abaya squeezes herself and a baby into a half-meter strip of shade beside a white wall. Dust clouds, kicked up by the wind or passing lorries, sweep across the barren landscape.

Most of the refugees have brought little more than what they could carry and the memories of the oppression and armed conflict in Syria. Some show us the battered and broken shoes and sandals in which they made the arduous trek to Jordan.

The vast majority of refugees we meet have fled from the southern governorate of Dera’a, where mass protests calling for change in Syria first began more than two years ago.

They arrested me because I wanted freedom,” says Ahmed softly, struggling to catch his breath.

He is sitting cross-legged in his family’s “caravan.” As he talks, his young son flicks through mobile-phone video clips of Syrian security forces beating and stamping on handcuffed men. Ahmed has a heart condition, worsened by nearly two years in detention during which he says he was tortured.

While many clearly oppose the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his security forces, others appear indifferent. Abu Hamza, a driver, now lives with his family in a dusty canvas tent.

“I didn’t go to protests. I’m not political,” he says. “We left because of the shelling and the sniping.”

Here, the family faces new problems.

“There’s not enough water. The toilets are too far away. My children have only been to school two or three times. They’re bored and fed up. Of course, there is no work here. I’ve not left Za’atri in our three months here. Where would I go?”

Za’atri is now the second-largest refugee camp in the world. However, most refugees from Syria are staying in private, rented accommodation.

Many others have fled to other neighboring countries: Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

And the flow is increasing. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the number of refugees fleeing Syria has topped one million so far this year – more than the number of new refugees worldwide in the whole of 2012.

And many are preparing for the long haul. Hundreds of shops are said to have sprung up across the camp, selling phonecards, wedding clothes and Arabic sweets.

Despite the dire conditions a young family extends their generosity and invites us into their tent.

“I wish I could invite you into the beautiful house we had back home,” says Dina, one camp resident with a sad smile.

They are making every effort to make this their home. At the end of the tent, brown water swirls in a small washing machine.

The camp is disorganized and living conditions are clearly challenging. Electricity cables are tapped into, triggering shortages and protests. Many refugees are traumatized, frustrated and angry. Most are young and have little to do. Low-level crime is a growing problem. Fifty-five water taps were fitted one day and within an hour they were stolen, we were told, and even the camp’s police station was dismantled and carried away in parts.

With no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, it seems that the refugees in Za’atri and elsewhere have a long wait ahead before they can return to their country. While Jordan has, to its credit, mostly kept its borders open to the large-scale refugee influx, it is not a resource-rich country. The international community must agree to resettle vulnerable refugees and ensure that Jordan and other host countries have the financial and technical resources to protect and assist refugees from Syria, until they can finally go home.