The refugee camps layered across the hillsides here look like an archeological excavation, revealing the sediment of one era of Middle East conflict after another.
Layer upon layer, the hills hold the stories of families desperately fleeing wars from Palestine, Lebanon, Armenia and Iraq and their arrival to a kingdom that has somehow always found a way to absorb them. Today, it’s the story of Syrian refugees flooding into the neighboring Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, an estimated 1.4 million of them.
After five years of a war in Syria that has claimed 250,000 lives, spurred a total of 4.5 million refugees across the region and displaced another 7 million internally, Syrian refugees in countries like Jordan have run out of money and any hope that they might return home soon.
Their needs for jobs, food, schooling and healthcare are badly straining the economies of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They’re also testing the limits of European societies as more than 1 million refugees risked everything in 2015 to take a chance on a better life there.
This week, the world’s donor countries convene in London to asses how to respond to this growing Syrian refugee crisis and how to sustain the ongoing humanitarian effort to care for millions of refugees whose lives are getting harder and harder, particularly for women and children.
“This is the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, and it is not going to be over any time soon,” said Hovig Etyemezian, the UNHCR Camp Manager, overseeing the UN refugee camp at Zaatari, which currently holds 80,000 refugees in a small city of canvas tents and corrugated tin huts crammed into approximately three square miles, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing.
On a cold, gray day at the edge of the camp, Etyemezian, a Lebanese national who descends from refugees who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915, said, “the refugees today are trapped. They live in limbo as we are just not seeing any end to the conflict in Syria. The history of refugees in this part of the world tells us that humans are resilient. But that resilience is deeply challenged right now by a lack of resources.”
“Women and children are always the ones who lose the most in war,” said Etyemezian.
That axiom of war could be found at every turn in the narrow, muddy warrens of the refugee camps along the Syrian border and in the ramshackle shelters and rented rooms where refugee families are dwelling in the shadows of Jordanian society.
Rama, a 12-year-old girl who had lost her father and all three of her brothers in fierce fighting in the Syrian town of Daraa, was among a wave of refugees who fled to Jordan two years ago. She and her mother ended up in the Zaatari refugee camp where amid the desperation and the chaos of the camp, her mother died of a stroke. Rama’s surviving relatives, including a stepmother, brought her to the outskirts of Amman and placed in a group home which offers counseling and support for children orphaned and traumatized by the war.
The facility is called Dar Alehsan, or House of Kindness. It’s funded by a mix of private Jordanian and Saudi donors and international aid organizations, including Save the Children, and it sprouted up in an apartment complex where many refugees have congregated.
Dressed in a gray-and-blue headscarf, Rama spoke softly about how much she misses her home, which she described as having “a lot of trees around it and a lot of sunshine.” She remembered her friends and family she left behind in Syria, and she said when she returns she’ll return to raising chicks in her backyard.
“I had lots of them. When one died, I would buy five more to replace that one. They never live very long, so I wanted to have lots of them,” she said.
When asked how she is dealing with the loss and trauma in her life, she said, “I try to help other people, to help my friends here.”
When asked how she helps them, she replied, “I try to help them forget. I just talk with them and tell them, 'Let’s go play.'”
In the town of Irbid, at the northwestern tip of Jordan about 10 miles from the Syrian border, we arrived at a public elementary school where a remedial learning center has been established to accommodate Syrian as well as Jordanian students.
Radwan, 12, is one of the students in the program, which is funded by the Japan Platform Fund and implemented by World Vision. Radwan’s family fled Syria three years ago.
His father was wounded in the fighting around their home and is physically unable to work. But even if he could, he would not legally be permitted to work in Jordan. That puts an extraordinary burden on the shoulders of children like Radwan, who works laying tiles for a contractor.
Hard manual labor leaves Radwan very little time for schooling and he has fallen far behind, but is trying to stay on track in school through the remedial program.
There are five of these programs in Jordan serving 1,000 students. Mohammed Gozlan, regional director for the Ministry of Education, said such efforts were critical. He said the needs are straining the Jordanian educational system to the breaking point as it tries to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees into its system. Jordan has already added double shifts in many of its schools to serve the estimated 180,000 children currently enrolled in Jordanian schools.
“The Syrian students have tremendous needs. Not only have they missed school and found themselves far behind in learning, they are also suffering trauma. And many have to work or take care of family members injured in the war. We just don’t have the resources we need to help them all,” said Gozlan.
In the muddy warrens of the refugee camps closer to the border of Syria, Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, was on a fact finding trip to meet with families and witness the international humanitarian response.
He also met with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a trusted ally of Washington, who is worried about the enormous financial pressure the refugee crisis is causing.
Lynch said the US currently provides $630 million a year for refugee response in Jordan, and Lynch said he assured King Abdullah that he and other legislators would introduce a bill to commit to funding at the same level for at least three years. In effect, that would triple the US commitment from last year.
“This is a crisis, and it is going to take years for it to be resolved. In the meantime, these families need to be able to live with dignity, and Jordan deserves our support to help them do that,” Lynch said in an interview in Jordan.
Ahead of the gathering of donor nations in London on Thursday, King Abdullah spoke about the crisis with the BBC, saying the situation has reached a "boiling point.”
"How can we be a contributor to regional stability if we are let down by the international community?" he asked.
The donor gathering is hosted by the United Kingdom along with Norway, Germany, Kuwait and the UN. Leaders have called for donor states to double the pledges they made in 2015, which would bring total amounts pledged to approximately $8 billion. This year, a focus of the conference will be around education for refugee children and job creation in the countries like Jordan that are hosting these refugees, jobs that will go to Jordanians as well as a percentage of the refugees.
Frances Charles, advocacy director for World Vision International, will be in London for the donors’ conference this week as one of the leaders of a coordinated effort by 45 different international NGOs, such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps, International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and others. She will be on hand to deliver to foreign ministers of the countries represented the “NGO Joint Position Paper.” The report highlights a crisis in which donor support is “struggling to keep up with need” while poverty rates for are rising to “unprecedented levels.”
A draft of the position paper stated, “More and more refugees are exhausting their financial reserves and sinking deeper into debt, forcing them to accept exploitative work, driving impoverished parents to send their children into exploitative child labour, forcing desperate women and girls into survival sex and early marriage, and leading men, women and children to return to Syria, at great risk to their lives.”
It’s a modern refugee crisis, but one that sits atop a long history.
It could be said that the history of refugees begins in the rugged desert landscape here where tradition holds Moses brought his people out of slavery and pointed them in the direction of the Promised Land across the River Jordan.
On a hilltop in the sprawling Jabal Al Hussein neighborhood on the outskirts of modern-day Jordan, there lies a Roman ruin that also marks the hourglass of time to other ancient wars and conquests and the migrations of people the empires would have inevitably caused. And on a hillside just below the crumbling columns of the Roman acropolis, there is a honeycomb of housing that began as a 1948 Palestinian refugee camp. The sepia-tone photographs from that time show this then-barren hillside emerging as an encampment of tents in the aftermath of the first Israeli-Arab war, which left 3 million refugees without a home.
Upon those first tented Palestinian encampments came the ramshackle homes fashioned of canvas and corrugated tin where a second wave of Palestinian refugees, this time from the 1967 Six-Day War, arrived from the West Bank and Jerusalem after fleeing the triumphant Israeli army. Through the decades, the corrugated tin became cinder blocks and the roofs were fortified with timber. The tarps became stucco walls. Then in the 1990s, the Iraqi refugees of war began arriving here, renting from the Palestinians. And now it’s the Syrians who are often taking up these same dwellings.
In Jordan today, these Syrian refugees are hiding in plain sight. If you look close enough and listen carefully enough you can find them woven into the country in neighborhoods like Al Jabal Hussein where there is still a UN infrastructure to serve their needs. And the Syrians are everywhere renting rooms and living in abandoned buildings.
But it is in the sprawling refugee camps near the Syrian border that the situation is most stark.
The Zaatari camp lies in a basin, a small city of refugees who have created warrens of tents and corrugated tin shacks. Many of these dwellings are headed by single women whose husbands remain in Syria or who have been killed in the war, or missing and feared dead. Amneh Salah, 29, fled what she described as fierce fighting and relentless bombing in the Damascus neighborhood where she and her husband were living with their five children. She fled four years ago and her husband stayed behind. She has not seen or heard from him. She and the children struggle to survive on the monthly stipend of $170, which she says typically runs out after 10 days leaving her 20 days to scrape by relying on the kindness of neighbors in the camp.
“The situation is very bad, but we have had to grow accustomed to it because the situation is not going to get any better,” she said.
The refugees here like Salah have tried their best to restore some semblance of their lives, and created a shopping street referred to as the “Champs-Élysées” with bakeries, barbers, fruit stands, cell phone stores and bicycle and motor repair shops.
There is one shop that rents wedding dresses and the business is booming; most disturbingly there is a rash of child brides. They are children, some as young as 13 and many no more than 15. Their parents have typically permitted their marriages out of desperation, and because it is not foreign to their traditional culture in Syria.
Sometimes it is to protect the girls from the vulnerability that comes with camp life, where idle young men have created a subculture of harassment and rape. Sometimes it is because they are broke and marrying off one of the girls is one less mouth to feed. That can come with a dowry or some economic benefit to the bride’s family.
But sometimes the dress shop is custom tailoring for love.
On a recent afternoon, a young teenage boy swept into the shop and scooped up a green bridal dress. He said it was for his sister and he invited us to come along to the party. Later that day, we joined the family and heard the story of Mohammed and Nagham. Mohammed, 23, and Nagham, 20, had been engaged for marriage three years earlier. But just days after they had completed the paperwork to be married the warfront shifted to their hometown of Daraa.
There was intense shelling and gunfire and both the family of the groom and the family of the bride had to flee for the border. They never had time to celebrate their wedding with their families. There was no honeymoon.
Mohammed ended up in Libya with his family. Nagham’s family ended up in the Zaatari camp. Over the summer, Mohamed ventured into the wave of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and risked his life crossing in an inflatable boat. He paid all of his life savings to make the trip, and he was lucky enough to secure a residency card for Germany. That document gave him the ability to return to Jordan and find his new wife, Nagham.
And on this day they gathered with their families in the cramped confines of a refugee tent. Children handed out candy and sweet tea to guests. The families posed for pictures. It was about celebrating their marriage but it was also a time to say goodbye. The following day, Mohammed and Nagham would be heading for the airport in Amman for the flight to Germany where Mohamed plans to complete language and engineering studies in Frankfurt.
“I am happy to be with my wife and I feel we are luckier than so many. But we will not ever be happy until we go back to Syria. We plan to return to Syria even if the war does not end. Our country needs us,” said Mohammed.
If the Zaatari camp is a collective effort to recreate their former lives, the second largest refugee camp in Azraq is a stark reminder of just how bleak the reality can be.
Here there are uniforms rows of white containers on a wind-swept, desert plan in the middle of nowhere. Life is harsh here year round. In the summer, temperatures soar to over 125 degrees. And on a recent cold, rainy winter day, it felt unusually dismal.
But across the dusty, brown patch of desert, there is a single rectangle of green, the artificial grass of a soccer field made by World Vision. And on this day, a group of teenage boys was playing an intense match: the Torch vs. the Eagles. Most of the boys were playing in bare feet on a cold day.
The mukhtar, or mayor of the camp, a Syrian farmer named Ziad Arafat, said the field was an example of the UN and NGOs’ misplaced priorities in the camp. He listed several critical problems, particularly a lack of electricity into the tents and faraway water tanks that make collecting water every morning a difficult chore. He said the sprawling camp also lacks transportation to medical care.
But World Vision’s field workers were convinced the soccer field represented the single best investment in happiness that they’ve made out of the $20 million in programs funded by the NGO. And for children like Ahmed Saleh, 15, there was no question this was the case.
Mayor Arafat is 45 and has five children. He hails from the area of Ghouta, a town outside of Damascus that was the site of what survivors described as a chemical attack in 2013. He fled to Jordan in September 2014, he said, “to save my children’s lives.”
“It seems the war will never end,” he said, warming his hands on a small gas heater inside a tent where his wife Alia, 35, was huddled on a mattress on the floor with several of their small children.
“This is where we are and this where we will be,” he said. “It’s our fate.”
And he had a question:
“Do you think the people in your country know how hard life is here? Do you think they even know we are here?”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of The GroundTruth Project reporting fellowship on the humanitarian response to Syrian refugees. Work in the field by fellows Christopher Lee and Oscar Durand was made possible in part through a grant from World Vision, an international aid agency. More details on the project can be found at The GroundTruth Project.
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