What lies ahead for Syrian refugees in Jordan?
ZAATARI - Thousands of Syrians in four makeshift refugee camps in Jordan increasingly appear as though they are there to stay as the multi-sided civil war in their homeland drags into its sixth year and President Bashar Assad has clawed back territory with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies.
Zaatari, the oldest of the Jordan-based camps, is a flat expanse in an isolated corner of the Jordanian desert, where inhabitants complain of whirling sand, scorpions and snakes. The camp has grown from a tented settlement sheltering four families in 2011 to a sprawling city of 80,000 inhabitants and tens of thousands more when there are delays handling refugee entries into Jordan.
“Turning Zaatari camp from a tented settlement into a vast city so quickly indicates that the refugees will be there for a very long time, possibly forever,” camp social worker Jamil Barakat said.
“This is reminiscent of the Bekaa refugee camp for Palestinian refugees which was a tented settlement when it was inaugurated with an influx of Palestinian refugees from the war with Israel in the West Bank in 1967,” he said. “It was quickly turned into mud-and-brick homes before it was rehabilitated into white limestone buildings which were integrated into Jordan and its inhabitants became Jordanian citizens.”
Two main paved roads in Zaatari are dotted with more than 3,000 shops, including convenience stores, money changers, pizza delivery services, electrical appliance, cell phone and computer shops, barbershops, women’s beauty parlours and food stands.
Residents are given coupons to exchange for food and other supplies from the shops. However, plenty of cash changes hands in the local market, where refugees say it comes from back home.
For entertainment, a street named after Paris’s famous Champs-Élysées has coffee shops offering light summer drinks with water pipes. Elsewhere in the camp, anything from drugs to alcohol is sold. There are two brothels, said to be frequented by single fighters who travel from Syria for a short respite to see family and friends.
“There is a plan to settle us in Jordan because Bashar Assad is going nowhere and the conflict back home is likely to continue for ages,” lamented Nasser Azroui, who fled the Syrian border town of Daraa on the Jordanian frontier along with his wife and three children in 2011.
“It’s comfortable to live here,” added the mechanic, who works at a Jordanian car repair shop in nearby Mafraq. He said he leaves for work every morning and returns before sunset.
But for Eyad Masri, 28, also from Daraa, living standards are below expectations.
“We came here in 2012, desperate and uncertain of what is waiting for us in this camp, which consisted of few tents, no electricity and resembled a barren land but we had no choice. We had to escape, fearing for our lives,” said Masri, who works as a teacher at one of the four official schools in the camp.
“We thank God for everything, especially for our safety, but still this is not what we had in mind. We are well-educated people and we deserve to live and have a normal life. The war in Syria seems like it will never end, which means violence and killings will remain,” added the father of two who lives in a pre-fabricated home called a caravan.
“We have everything from shops to cafés but still this is not our home. Many tried to travel back to Syria but could not return. For me and my family I cannot take this risk,” he said.
Masri, who is making enough to meet his family’s daily needs, said that sometimes they feel like Palestinians who left their homes due to the Israeli occupation.
“Palestinians left their country and settled in camps and today they are living in camps and this idea is haunting us here,” he said. “I see myself returning home and back to my normal life soon but according to what is happening I prefer to focus on my work and family here and hope things will change. Sometimes, I really find it hard to explain the situation to my children.”
He said the camp is more organised than before.
“There is a sharia court that handles marriages in the camp as it was a chaotic and random matter with stories of little girls married to really old men but now there are regulations and laws to govern this,” he said.
According to the UN refugee agency, 80 children are born in the camp each week and 57% of the population is under the age of 18. However, one in every three children in Zaatari does not go to school because parents do not see any use for them to enroll. Instead, parents put them to work to make money.