Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp Becoming Refugee City

Syrian refugees search for their belongings at a burnt tent at the Al Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria 28 January 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Ali Jarekji)

By: Mona al-Omari

Published Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The first question that crosses one’s mind when entering the Syrian refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan: Where is all the aid that countries claimed to have sent?

There are 65,000 refugees in the Zaatari camp and growing: about 1,200 to 2,000 people arrive here weekly. The reality of the Zaatari “internment camp,” as its residents call it, is bleak. It is rooted in the stories of a people who escaped death only to find humiliation and deprivation. It is a disaster that is not going to end anytime soon.

Entry into the camp requires a permit. Inside, one is met by a big tent that houses the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), which is responsible for managing the camp. Nearby is a French hospital set up to treat only Syrian refugees. There are several other hospitals in the camp: Saudi, Moroccan, Jordanian, Italian. They treat everyone free of charge.

The main street is lined with small tents and caravans that make up a large central market. Here, one can find produce, cigarettes, and sweets like awwama, or honey balls. There is a barber and a money changer.

The image of Palestinian refugees and their tents flash in front of your eyes. Is that how it was for them, or was it worse? How can a people who have lived comfortably on their lands flee to live in a foreign country?

My head turned when I heard a salesman tell a woman with an accent from the region of Houran in southwestern Syria, “Take a kilo of tomatoes for the kids.” The woman replied, “I swear I don’t have money to buy.” To which the man said, “We are a magnanimous people, good woman.”

There are camps within the camp. The gravel camp and the soil camp are divided into blocks numbered from one to ten. Our guide explained: “Each constellation of tents has its own kitchen and central bathrooms.”

The Saudi, or “caravan,” camp is located at the end of Zaatari. It would appear to be the fancy part of the camp, but it lacks a certain livelihood. Laundry lines stretch between the caravans from one window to another, but even in the caravans the roofs leak.

The fact that they are digging foundations for new infrastructure is panic inducing. The residents of Irbid, al-Hosn, and the Gaza refugee camps before them had also thought their stays wouldn’t last long. If the camp continues to grow, will names like the “people of the caravan” or the “people of the water-resistant tents” become entrenched? In one of the tents, a family had a new baby. They called him “al-Faransi,” meaning the French one, because he was born in the French hospital, the parents informed us.

A 5-year-old girl named Ghizlan runs between the tents. Ghizlan has a beautiful face even after shrapnel lashed her forehead. She was being treated in the King Abdullah Hospital, but treatment stopped once the Qatar Red Crescent halted payments. The Qatar Red Crescent “declared its bankruptcy” not because of the high cost of treatment, but because the hospital was charging double the normal cost of medical supplies.

Inside the tent of Ghizlan’s family, there is a veritable hrisi, or semolina pastry, factory. Trays of pastries and cans of syrup are aligned meticulously. The father said: “We own sweet shops in Daraa. I can not sit without work.”

The hrisi is delicious, but the father complained: “I am sad because I can’t create the same flavor as I did in Syria.” The grandmother elaborated: “The wheat in Syria is local. Here, it is American. Our ghee is also homemade. When we return, you will come visit us and you will try hrisi done the right way.”

When we asked a World Food Organization worker in the camp how the refugees get their food provisions, she explained the process: “A person has to go through three tents. The first is to verify his or her identity after showing them the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) card. The second is to get the temporary card and the third is where he or she collects the food rations and hands over the card. The refugees get these materials every 14 days.”

One female resident said, “We are craving meat but we can only get rice, sugar, lentils, and oil on the food card.” She added: “Meat is not allowed inside the camp. A guy managed to smuggle a kilo of meat, but when the management found out they confiscated it.”

Another told us, “We did not come here to beg for sugar and oil. We escaped the bombing. We are a generous people and our tables were rich with kibbeh and other hearty dishes. We are living in real humiliation now.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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