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Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development

A Day in Zaatari Refugee Camp

Noora Barakat

“We’re lucky it’s nice out today,” said Lana Zananiri, ARDD-Legal Aid’s Gender and Media Unit Manager and guide on our visit to Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan. It was sunny and 32°C, but Lana was right – this was nice and mild weather by Zaatari standards. Temperatures in Zaatari are known to reach 42°C in the summer and drop below zero in the winter, and the wide-open camp is not spared any of the elements. Sun, sand, dust, wind, rain, mud, snow, and ice have all made life in Zaatari even more difficult for the camp’s residents.

The temperature seemed to climb as we traveled the 70 kilometers from West Amman, to East Amman, to Mafraq, to Zaatari. Streets were no longer paved as we approached Zaatari’s secured gate where Jordanian Gendarmerie authorities oversee who enters and leaves the camp. It’s so easy to forget that 80,000 men, women and children live in these 7 square kilometers of empty desert. Jordan’s now fourth largest “city” truly did emerge out of thin air, in the middle of nowhere.

 Once the officer had confirmed that we were pre-approved to enter, we made our way to Zaatari’s Management Office. There, we met with Zaatari’s Public Relations Officer, who gave us a brief history of the camp. I’d heard the story before: Jordan built Zaatari over nine days in July 2012 to host a maximum of 60,000 Syrian refugees, and was unprepared for the 156,000 who would reside in the camp by 2013. There were many demonstrations during the camp’s first two years, some of which turned violent. According to the officer, the third year was demonstration-free. He attributed this to improved relations between Zaatari’s residents and Jordanian authorities, but I wondered if the refugees had also lost some hope and morale over time.

A large map of Zaatari hung on the wall of the office, and it was divided into 12 districts. The sheer size of the map was overwhelming, and it included everything from mosques to schools to health clinics, and even a Taekwondo academy. Each facility was labeled with the country that funded it. It was hard to believe that Zaatari was the size of just one district three years ago. I had to remind myself that I was looking at a map of a “temporary” refugee camp, and not a permanent, developed city.

Our next stop was Base Camp, where ARDD-Legal Aid and other NGOs have set up offices to facilitate the delivery of services in the camp. Hundreds of refugees have received free legal consultations and representation by ARDD-Legal Aid attorneys there. Our conversations with the lawyers confirmed that Zaatari is indeed a city, experiencing all of the same crimes and problems as societies outside of the camp. There is now a Juvenile Police Department in Zaatari for children accused of committing crimes, as well as a Personal Status Department and Shari’a Court, which have significantly aided the process of registering marriages and births in the camp. Gender-based violence and early marriages are major issues affecting girls and women in Zaatari, and the numbers of these cases are only increasing.

As we left Base Camp, I looked out to the road that leads to Syria. I thought about the thousands of refugees who leave Zaatari each month on a one-way bus to their war-torn home, never to return to Jordan. Where are they now? Are they still alive?

Our last stop of the day was the UN Women Oasis, a center for women and girls in Zaatari. To get there, we drove through the camp’s famed and ironically named “Champs-Élysées.” Champs-Élysées is Zaatari’s narrow, dirty “main street,” where camp residents sell and purchase everything from falafel and pastries to lingerie, wedding gowns, shoes and bicycles. All of these makeshift shops are created and operated by the camp’s entrepreneurial residents. Champs-Élysées was so full of people, young and old, that I was amazed at how drivers were able to maneuver their vehicles around the crowds.

At the Oasis, we met with women who are employed by UN Women’s Cash-for-Work Program. Jobs include sewing baby clothes, assembling strollers, making jewelry and mosaic tiles, running the daycare, and styling hair at the camp’s salon for women. Some of the women worked in Syria, but many are working for the first time in their lives in Zaatari. I spoke to them about their feelings toward work and life in the camp. The women generally view the Oasis as a safe haven – somewhere they can go to get away from the men, to support one another and feel productive. But I also sensed a quiet detachment among some of the women as they struggled to accept the harsh reality that they may spend many more years living and working somewhere they don’t want to be.

The last person I met in Zaatari was baby Sham. She had the brightest smile and was very eager to play, completely oblivious to her surroundings and unaware of the significance of her name. Sham looks just like her homesick mother, who told me how she dreams of going back to Syria. I wondered how Sham will feel upon learning that she was born in a refugee camp, and I thought about the 45,000 other babies and children in Zaatari, many of whom don’t remember or have never known life outside of the camp. What happens when they finish their schooling, if they finish at all? With practically no opportunities for higher education or legal employment in Jordan, I can’t help but feel that an entire generation of Syrian refugees are being stripped of their futures. I watched the kids play in the Oasis’s tiny playground, their smiles and laughter bringing a sense of normalcy to a place that seems to lack it in every other way.

As we prepared to leave, a group of elderly women made a desperate plea for assistance, telling us how the electricity is cut off in the camp, that they need help, that they want to go home. I felt powerless in that moment, wishing I could offer more than a comforting word or prayer. I promise myself that I will tell their stories to anyone who will listen.

The rows and rows of caravans became smaller and smaller as we drove back to Amman, the brown dirt blending into Zaatari as I looked back. I realized how torturous it must be for the camp’s residents to know they are a mere 12 kilometers from the Syrian border, their home so close and far away at the same time. I thought about the millions of other Syrian refugees who live outside of camps, struggling to survive in urban cities throughout Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and beyond, as well as those attempting the treacherous journey to Europe in search of a better life.

 I found myself wishing to live in a world where Zaatari and all other refugee camps don’t need to exist at all. In the meantime, we must do a lot more to protect those who need it the most.

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