A First-Hand Account of the Aid Workers in Zaatari Camp
Following last year’s imperative scramble to transform a water-stressed barren desert terrain into Jordan’s fourth largest city, to host a vast influx of refugees fleeing their war-torn country of Syria, has led to the formation of the second largest refugee camp in the world; an estimated 120,000 individuals are registered in this ‘instant city,’ also known as the notorious Za’atari Camp. The camp has been receiving aid, relief, and assistance globally to provide its inhabitants with their basic food, sanitation, healthcare, community mobilization and educational needs. International organizations including the UNHCR and OXFAM have taken an initiative to deliver such aid through professionally trained aid workers, working to treat as many individuals in a fair and ethical manner.
After visiting the camp, and having several discussions with numerous aid workers there, it was apparent to me that working as an aid worker is highly challenging and complicated, especially in locations such as in Za’atari camp. Aid workers have to be able to apply both professional as well as humanitarian standards consistently in a rapidly changing and hectic environment, compounded by a population growing by an estimated 1,000 individuals every day. Essentially, the job requires extreme dedication; as workers need to themselves be able to function rather well in a challenging environment, in order to offer essential assistance to hundreds of thousands of individuals in need. This is especially distressing when there is inadequate funding, where the demand outstrips available resources.
The international community has yet to find a solution to end the brutal conflict in Syria which has displaced these individuals, and has not provided sufficient or adequate aid to assist the victims – and quickly, the needs of the people are outpacing funding. Accordingly, aid organizations and ultimately aid workers are assisting far less people than what they should be or want to, due to the lack of funding. Correspondingly, when aid workers are unable to attain to the refugees requests of basic needs, it may lead to a whole other set of problems such as vandalism, theft and other criminal activities.
It seemed only normal for a curious individual like myself to look into why so many of these workers had given up stable and comfortable jobs, in air-conditioned offices – willingly – to work in a stressful, primitive environment for less benefits. There seemed to be one common sentiment widespread amongst the aid workers of whom I had the pleasure to speak with, and that was that they perceive such a job as meaningful, and provides them with the opportunity to make a difference; it was much more than ‘just a job’ that pays the bills, and is genuine to their values and passions. Being able to help individuals who are in a real, legitimate need of help provides these workers with a really satisfying and rewarding sense of being.
However, being able to take part in changing the world for the better, as enchanted as it sounds, is not an easy exploit; aid workers have to endure conditions that are both physically as well as emotionally strenuous. In addition to having to basically live in the same conditions as the refugees themselves, on an emotional level, the death, displacement, destruction that the workers are exposed to on both first-hand and second-hand accounts can take a massive toll on an individual. Broken dreams, diminished moral grounds, lost dignities, destroyed futures, and absent realities are a daily reality for the refugees in the camp, and can feel very real and personal to the aid workers. Furthermore, the needs and aspirations of the Syrian people go beyond meeting their basic needs for food, water, and shelter, such that aid workers must also manage these expectations in order to provide the Syrians with the respect and dignity they deserve. In the end, some workers in The Za’atari Camp cannot handle the frustrations of the job, and it spills over into their lives at home, causing them to leave. On the other hand, there is a set of workers who have found the ability to clearly distinguish between life at the camp, and life at home.
What is especially challenging about working at the Za’atari Camp at the moment is that it is currently the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, where Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk. Even non-Muslims are expected to refrain from eating or drinking in public, but not in private. Therefore, refraining from water and food in temperatures that vary from 35-42 degrees Celsius in the Jordanian desert can add strain physically to an individual. However, the aid workers see a light at the end of the tunnel; a true sense of satisfaction from helping those in need.
In the end, the time spent at The Za’atari refugee camp gave provided me with an understanding of what makes this refugee camp what it really is; it is a desert, it is isolated, and it is heartbreaking. A huge group of people were pushed into a barren plot of land, and forced to temporarily rebuild life as we know it, from the start. But also, it is home to a group of humanitarians who embrace their role to the fullest, and contribute to their fullest extent. These humanitarians sincerely want to simply help, and make a difference in any way possible; and ultimately, some of the most inspiring, genuine human interactions take place in such a traumatic site.