Solar power gives 'new life' to Syrian refugees

Fridges, fans and TVs now commonplace in Jordan camp, where once people suffered in 50C temperatures

Image Credit: AFP
A general view shows the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan on May 17, 2017.

Azraq, Jordan: Before solar power came to the Jordan desert camp she now calls home, life was tough for Syrian refugee Racha Hadar and her eight children.

“Imagine life in this desert without a fan or cold water,” she says, as the temperature outside her makeshift home hits 40 degrees Celsius.

But today she watches television surrounded by her children, aged from three to 14 years old, under a large spinning ceiling fan.

“Things have changed. There are no more power cuts. We can drink fresh water,” says Hadar, who fled war-torn Syria’s Homs to arrive in the camp 18 months ago.

“Our life is better,” she says, after a solar plant started operating at the camp in northern Jordan.

Temperatures in the Azraq camp, around 100 kilometres east of the capital Amman, can soar to 50C in summer and drop below freezing in winter.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday officially launched the $9-million solar plant at the camp that was funded by the Ikea Foundation.

The plant, which has a capacity of two megawatts, is first to provide around 20,000 of the camp’s 35,000 residents with power for the first time in two and a half years.

It will provide electricity to “refugees living in two villages in the camp allowing them to light up their homes, connect fridges and TVs and maintain contact with their friends and families through charging their phones,” says Stephano Severe, UNHCR representative to Jordan.

Electricity is then to reach the camp’s remaining 15,000 residents at a later date, when its capacity reaches five megawatts.

‘A different life’

“The importance of electricity goes well beyond mere comfort. It impacts health, security, education,” Severe says.

UNHCR deputy high commissioner Kelly Clements says Azraq was “the world’s first refugees camp powered by renewable energy”.

“We know that this will significantly reduce the cost of running this camp and we will be able to reinvest it in other ways in order to support refugees,” she says.

Syria’s war has killed more than 320,000 people since it started in 2011, and displaced more than half the country’s population.

UNHCR says it has registered some 630,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan since war broke out in the neighbouring country, but Amman says the figure is more than one million.

Before the advent of solar power, cooking, cleaning, studying and even walking home safely after dark had become difficult for people in Azraq camp, which opened in 2014.

But since January 2017, parts of the camp have seen an almost uninterrupted and free supply of electricity, which should allow its management to save $1.5 million (Dh5.5 million) in running costs.

In the camp’s central market, Amer Akla, a 32-year-old from Syria’s Daraa, is delighted he now has power to cool the ice creams and fresh fruit juices in his shop.

Since he fled in 2013, “it’s the first time we have something resembling normal life — even if we’re still refugees,” he says, serving a small girl an ice cream.

Farida, a woman in her 30s and a member of a family of 10 from Syria’s Hama, is equally as happy for her grocery store.

“It used to be almost impossible to refrigerate anything. We’d buy ice blocks so produce stayed fresh,” she says, the sound of fridges buzzing behind her.

“Now we have fridges that work, a fan, a television — a different life,” she says.

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