Zaatari Refugee Camp waits for winter

This article was published by the Interdependent on December 3, 2012

Sixteen year-old Rasha had dreamt of being a doctor. Now she spends her days in a tent provided by The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), awaiting news that food has arrived in the Zaatari camp, located in a swath of desert on Jordan’s northern border with Syria.

syria_unhcr_650Nine people live in this UNHCR tent. The children are neighbors here, just like in their hometown of Dara’a. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

“We remain sitting down, looking at each other,” Rasha says. “Sometimes we want to explode from boredom.” Rasha, her parents, and five siblings are from neighboring Dara’a, a Syrian city along the Jordanian border. Like a lot of people in Zaatari, Rasha and her family have fled the continued fighting in Syria to the relative safety of a refugee camp. Still, extreme hardships persist.

When not confined to the tent, Rasha spends hours queuing for bread; there is only one central distribution point for food, and the average waiting time is three to four hours a day. “I have a family of nine, the youngest is ten years old,” says Rasha’s father Yasser. “Yet I only receive two packs of bread. It’s barely enough.”

barber_650A UNHCR tent has been converted into a barber shop by an enterprising resident, providing a popular service in the camp, where washing facilities are scarce. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)Rasha and her family have adapted quickly to camp life. Since arriving a few weeks ago, they have managed to borrow electricity from the grid that provides power to the streetlights, which means their mobile phones are charging in the corner of their tent and a light bulb dangles from the tent’s entrance. Neighbors have donated blankets, so that their children have more than the two blankets UNCHR provides.

Growing Problem

Since the Zaatari camp opened at the end of July, the stream of refugees has been endless; last week alone, there were 1,000 new arrivals daily, especially women and children. Across the region, the number of Syrian refugees in surrounding countries now stands at 442,256—an increase of more than 213,000 since the beginning of September, according to UNHCR Spokesperson Adrian Edwards.

The uncertainty about the number of refugees is UNHCR’s biggest worry. “We just don’t know how many people are going to be coming in the future,” says Jordan’s UNHCR spokesperson Andrew Harper. “The issue is what is happening in Syria, how many more people are going to be coming across the border, and where are we going to be putting them.” Harper maintains that preparations are under way for the next 60,000 arrivals.

syria_unhcr_1_650Clothes stalls like this one are popular with winter approaching. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

Jordan already hosts over 200,000 refugees, and their use of subsidized goods and services is straining the Jordanian government, which saw protests against the abolition of fuel subsidies in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the government has been trying to contain arriving Syrians within the Zaatari camp, where international donors, primarily UNHCR, pick up the tab. Ten NGOs are operating to take care of health care, schooling, family reunification, and hygiene, while Morocco and France have set up hospitals.

The camp has 45,000 registered inhabitants, says the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organisation, but the more likely figure is 30,000, as Syrians slip out of the camp to find work, or return home. A daily ritual sees about a 100 people sitting on their possessions near the entrance. Yet they are not new arrivals; they are boarding one of the buses, which the Jordanian government provides to take them back to Syria.

Twenty-five year-old Abu Hassan is taking his family back across to Dara’a. Despite the Syrian army having attacked their house, Hassan says it is better to go home than live in Zaatari. “This isn’t life” he sighs, as his family is sprawled around him on their scarce possessions. “It’s cold and dirty and we’re hungry.”

Winter Is Coming

Clouds of dust swirl continuously through the air, coating every exposed surface, including the skin. The rains will soon turn the camp into a mud swamp; the first rain a few weeks ago saw extensive flooding. “After the first two days of winter, the blankets and mattresses were soaked and the tents leak,” says Younes al-Hariri, who occupies two tents with his family of nine.

syria_unhcr_2_650The Nasser family arrived at Zaatari last month; they are a family of eight. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

Formerly a medic to rebel fighters, al-Hariri left Dara’a last month after local elders decided to hand over rebel fighters in a bid to restore peace to the city. Now, Al-Hariri is the representative for 14th street in the camp; since riots broke out over living conditions in summer, local representatives have been elected to convey residents’ concerns to UNHCR representatives.

After the harsh summer heat, with temperatures above 100°F, UNHCR is now racing against time and a lack of funding to ready the camp ready for the cold. “We’re rolling out winterization kits for 4,000 families,” says UNHCR’s Harper. Such kits include waterproof covers, insulated floors and insides, as well as a stove for each tent. That will cover 20,000 people, Harper says. In addition, 3,000 prefabricated houses, mostly containers, are arising in a new sector of the sprawling camp, which will house an additional 15,000.

“We’ll get through winter,” Harper claims. “It will be wet; it will be cold; it will be miserable, but people will be provided with everything that they need—the basics.”

The basics include dry food rations, such as rice and sugar, distributed every 15 days. The distribution can get rowdy; residents were fighting to get to the front of the line at the World Food Programme (WFP) tent recently, on the last day of a distribution cycle. A woman cradling a toddler said she had been waiting since yesterday, but couldn’t get through the crowd.

Stuck in Limbo

With so many people leaving the camp, official numbers fluctuate between 30,000 and 45,000. Fraud has plagued the ration-card system, and biometrics will be introduced in December in the form of iris scans. The WFP will also be switching to a voucher system, and supermarkets will arise to provide basic foodstuffs.

This will affect the informal economy, which has sprung up to cater for needs ranging from daily necessities such as cigarettes and phone cards to sweater, perfume, and coffee shops where you can smoke argileh. “They will adapt very quickly,” predicts Harper.

syria_unhcr_3_650Some people gather to return to Syria in buses provided by the Jordanian government. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

So far, vegetable stores have popped up to supplement UNHCR’s dry rations. One UNHCR tent houses a barber, and the high street is lined with fast-food stalls, where balls of awameh—a Syrian type of falafel—are fried in old petrol vats. Close to 100 shops have opened in the camp, most of them along the camp’s main road, which has been dubbed “Hamra Street,” echoing a popular shopping street in Damascus. Shoe salesmen are doing a roaring trade, as the camp’s stony ground bites into the cheap plastic slippers most residents wear. “A pair of shoes now costs 250 SYP,” complains one resident, which is roughly $3.50 in U.S. dollars.

Slowly realizing that they are more likely to be in Zaatari for months, rather than weeks, residents are trying to establish a semblance of normalcy—shopping for their groceries, and with children going to school. But the memories of the fighting next door aren’t far behind.

At an afterschool activity organized by Save the Children and the UN Children’s Fund, a group of boys, their faces decorated with rebel Syrian flags, are enjoying a drawing lesson. What they draw, however, reveals their scars: people with guns and flags dripping with blood. According to Save the Children staff member Marwan Abu Salim, “They draw what they know.”

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