Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development

Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development

Engaging Men and Boys in Zaatari

Lewis Turner

It’s a strange feeling to visit somewhere you’ve heard so much about, and seen so many pictures of. For many people, there’s no image more closely associated with the Syrian refugee crisis than Zaatari refugee camp, currently ‘home’ to approximately 80,000 Syrians. Since its creation in the summer of 2012, pictures of Zaatari, of the rows upon rows of tents, and now rows upon rows of caravans, have accompanied the reports of journalists, NGOs and governments. Even though the vast majority of refugees in Jordan, and in the Middle East as a whole, live in villages, towns and cities, so often the stories and reports focus on the minority of refugees who live in camps.


Zaatari camp is in the far north of Jordan, just a few miles from the Syrian border. To get there most people drive through the small village from which the camp takes its name, and arrive at a security checkpoint underneath a large arch, where the Jordanian police check that all the people in a vehicle, and the vehicle itself, have the requisite permission to enter. After driving down a long and narrow road for several hundred metres, you reach the actual entrance to the camp (and another security post), and then you arrive into Za’atari. The camp about which you’ve heard so much, and of which you’ve seen so many pictures.


My visit to Zaatari is part of my internship with ARDD - Legal Aid, where I am working on one of the programmes they are running with UN Women. This particular programme offers psycho-social services to men in the camp, and works to engage them in discussions about gender-based violence; its causes, types, and consequences. From October to December this year, we will be working with around 200 men and male youth, from all different ages and family circumstances, offering workshops that will allow them the space to learn about and discuss these sensitive issues among their peers, and to think about how men can contribute to ending gender-based violence.


We drive over the bumpy, narrow roads and lanes of Zaatari, many of which are peppered with puddles of water, a reminder of the prospect of the cold and wet winter to come. We work our way through the rows of caravans, many of which camp residents have adapted using pieces of tent, sheets of corrugated metal, or presumably whatever resources were available to them, to make small yards, communal areas, or extensions. Some of the caravans have become shops, with food shops and barbers seeming to be particularly popular. One of the things that strikes you as you drive around is the level of activity, children going back and forth to school,some people shopping, others sat outside on plastic chairs chatting, and lots of men and boys transferring wheelbarrows full of materials from one place to another. We arrive at one of the three UN Women ‘Oases’ in the camp, community centres that provide employment opportunities and skills workshops for women, as well as safe spaces where children can play.


The workshops are part of a new strategy to try and combat sexual and gender-based violence by ‘engaging men and boys’ – listening to their opinions, giving them facts, and discussing what contributions they can make. The Syrians we work with, unsurprisingly, have a range of different views, in particular about why gender-based violence happens, and about how much it really happens in the camp and in their communities. But on the whole, despite their differences of opinion, they are very willing to listen to each other, to discuss and debate, and the workshops create a rare opportunity for those conversations to take place, and I come away feeling genuinely encouraged. Gender-based violence is a serious problem in every country in the world, and there are no easy solutions, but discussions like this feel like a necessary and important contribution to the wider struggle for gender justice.


It’s hard to describe how one feels upon seeing Zaatari with your own eyes. The scale of loss and devastation is quite overwhelming. Many of the refugees living there are only a few miles from their homes in Syria, yet it must feel like a world away, as many enter their third, or even fourth year living in the camp. Officially a ‘temporary’ solution for a non-permanent population, one wonders if the fate of the Syrians here will be the fate of many refugees across the world, who increasingly spend decades, not years, away from their homelands. The camps such as Zaatari that dot the landscape of the Middle East are a reminder of how far away a solution for Syria and its people remains.