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Michael Jansen: Life in a refugee camp
October 12, 2012
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Al Zaatari refugee camp is 80 kilometres from the Jordanian capital and 10 kilometres from Jordan’s border with Syria. Today the inhabitants of the camp number 30,000, tomorrow there could be 30,300 or 30,500, depending on where the battle rages across the border in Deraa province. Most of the refugees are from Deraa but there are some from Idlib and Homs as well.

The camp is located at the end of a rough, dusty road and guarded by a single Jordanian armoured scout car and a smiling soldier, who recognising my companions as frequent journalistic visitors, waves us through. Our passes, issued by the Interior Ministry, are checked by officials from the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation, which runs the camp with material assistance from UN agencies.

The camp is efficiently laid out, with medical compounds provided by France and Morocco, blue painted breeze-block buildings for showers, chemical toilets, simple cement-block buildings which serve as kitchens, a kindergarten tent decorated with bright paintings, and a school tent. Laundry hangs on lines strung between tents while excess bread rolls spread on pieces of cardboard dry in the sun.

The Moroccan army field hospital is a compound of tents arranged around a rectangular courtyard.  The Moroccan doctors in charge are mightily proud of the facility which offers treatment in a dozen specialities from sun-burn to neursurgery and has a fully equipped laboratory. Dr. Karim, the hospital’s coordinator, tells The Gulf Today that the hospital has had 20,000 patient visits and delivered 25 babies since it was established two and a half months ago. “We have 60 beds for in-patients.” These are in two tented wards, one for men, the other for women. Two men with broken legs hobble about on crutches in front of the men’s tent. Women and children hover at the entrance of the pediatrician’s and the dermatologist’s tent. “Children suffer from upper rspiratory problems,” Dr. Karim remarks. “Syrians are fair people, they cannot take exposure to the sun,” he states as we reach the well-stocked pharmacy. Sun, wind and dust are the refugees’ main enemies here.

Most of the refugees have come in the past few weeks. Tents inhabited by newcomers are pristine white while tents sheltering residents who have been here for even a few days have been dyed red by the desert dust. Families have customised their camp homes with awnings or created make-shift shelters from material scavaged from packing materials and plastic sheeting.
One family group clusters around a convex metal disk, a tabboun, where a woman is baking thin, crisp rounds of village bread, smearing it with olive oil and sprinkling it with sugar.

“Welcome, welcome,” says one of the groups offering an entire loaf on a piece of cardboard. It is impossible to get away without trying some. Hospitality remains an imperative for these people who have left their homes, possessions and lives behind in Syria. By offering a guest a piece of bread, a biscuit, or a carton of juice, refugees reassert their existence and pride.

Women also express their pride by wearing their best caftans and traditional embroidered dresses. Sawsan, a pretty young woman, is in green, her friends Mariam and Yisra are in black with silver trim. A whirl-wind throws sand in our faces, forcing us to cover our mouths until it passes.

“The sand and dust are our curse,” asserts Mariam, holding out a packet of biscuits and commanding me to take some. They draw me into the shade of their tents and pull up cement blocks. “No chairs,” apologises Sawsan, 22, mother of two. Yisra has four children, Mariam one boy, Qusay, who insists he is eight but Mariam says nine. Time is lost here, for there is little to do. The charity provides two cooked meals a day in take-away cartons and ingredients for supper.

The women come from Taibeh, a town of 15,000 in Deraa province. The camp already has twice as many inhabitants and the population is expected to grow to 60,000.

“We will cut off Bashar’s head, if we get a chance,” states Sawsan, knowing they will never get the chance. This is the the Zaatari refrain, written in felt tip pen on walls here and there. If president Bashar al-Assad steps down, would you accept vice president Farouk Al Sharaa, as Turkey proposes? I ask. “Yes,” they respond. Sharaa is from Deraa and, it is believed, has no blood on his hands.

One of the men who joins us, states, “50-50 for Sharaa.” I suggest the names of well known opposition figures but they do not know who they are. Manaf Tlass, a close friend of the president who deserted the regime in July, is rejected because he is a millionaire.

Muhammad, an army conscript who fought against the rebels in the devastating and deadly battle of the Baba Amr suburb of Homs, says, “I spent seven months in prison because I am from Deraa.” He does not explain.

Perhaps there is no explanation.
 
Mariam stuffs my jacket pockets with a packet of biscuits and a small carton of juice, I cannot refuse.
Huge water tankers and supply lorries constantly ply the track cutting the camp in two, raising dust which envelops boys crouching alongside the route selling cigarettes, plastic water jugs, and kerosene lamps. The Syrian commercial spirit cannot be crushed by war, refugeedom and dust. There are several barbers in the camp, a good number of neighbourhood shops selling bananas, tomatoes, apples, and other fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ibrahim Naimi managed a cafe in a prison in Syria; now he runs his own cafe at Al Zaatari. The cafe is constructed of metal supports covered with plastic sheeting stamped with the letters UNHCR — the UN High Commission for Refugees, one of the main sources of funding for the camp. Mattresses are laid down along the tent walls, cement blocks serve as side tables, empty tins as ashtrays. Ibrahim, whose family is originally from the Israeli-occupied Golan, offers coffee, tea, and water pipes. About 50 customers come each day, three or four at a time.  He states, “People pay in Syrian, Jordanian, dollars, euros, whatever they have.”

New arrivals burdened with pathetic bags of possessions cluster around the table near the gate where they register before collecting mattresses and blankets, pots and kettles. The stream of refugees is never ending.
____________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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