Zaatari Camp 7: Tents are not enough to accommodate large families as long winter looms Image Credit: Habib Toumi/Gulf News

Zaatari Camp, Jordan: Rays of the timid sun pierced the clouds over the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, bathing the thousands of young men and women walking down the middle of the only road.

The roaring engines of the heavy lorries delivering aid filled the cold air of the camp that is home to an overwhelming wave of refugees from the Syria conflict. The latest estimates put the figure at 41,000, the size of a regular Jordanian town.

The camp, 80 kilometres northeast of the Jordanian capital Amman, is two kilometers off the major highway that leads to Syria.

At a large junction, the blue and white “Syria” sign has an arrow pointing to the north, but the strip of asphalt is empty. Nobody is moving in the once busy and commercially lucrative direction anymore.

Instead, cars and long vehicles make a turn into the village of Zaatari, a collection of simple homes and small shops catering to the few people who have chosen to settle here and brave cold winters and hot summers.

A right turn at the end of the village leads into the camp. Dozens of cars are parked near the only entrance as their drivers patiently wait to pick up passengers. Other vehicles belong to Syrians who have settled in Jordan and have come to the camp to talk with relatives or friends they believe are now in the camp. Some Syrians are pushing in documents to prove that they can sponsor their relatives if the authorities allow them to leave the camp.

Just in front of the gate, security men, young and courteous, check the car papers before they nod to colleagues to allow them in.

A drive of 200 metres on a new but narrow road leads to the second gate where fewer people are assembled. Another check of the car documents is performed before the gate is opened.

The first sight of dozens of people walking nonchalantly on the road is overwhelming. Almost all of the men, women and children are empty-handed and seemed like characters in a Kafka novel, moving around the camp, but without signs of fear or grave concern on their faces.

In the months they stayed at the camp after fleeing their homes to avoid attacks and abuses, they have learned to be stoic.

Small tents mushroomed on the edge of the road, leaving almost no room for pedestrians who are forced to walk among moving cars, adding traffic chaos to the surrealist scene.

Several refugees have opened up the tent shops to sell mainly vegetables, but also plastic household items, bottles of water and groceries.

Some tents have been turned into fast food kitchen restaurants and the smell of falafel lingers in the air.

“Some Syrians have applied to set up the tent shops and make extra money,” Samir Badran, communication specialist for Unicef, said. “They feel that they have the skills to succeed as bread bakers or falafel makers or grocery sellers and they go for it.”

Shops were also set up in the alleys between the main tents, giving the impression that each family wanted to make extra money by engaging in commercial activities.

However, the limit cash liquidity among the refugees has created an imbalance between the offer and the demand and only a little food or second hand items are sold.

As the camp’s first winter was inexorably approaching, the rays that many of the Zaatari camp refugees wanted right now were not those of the sun, but rather those of hope.

Even though the conditions have slightly improved, braving the natural elements would be a formidable challenge to all the families clustered in tents.

“The camp needs at least 8,000 caravans and these should be made available as quickly as possible,” an official said.

Saudi Arabia has pledged 2,500 and two other Gulf states said that they would give 300. But the figure is well below the expectations.

Hisham, a teenager, said that he and his friends wanted an end to their status as refugees and return home.

He and his family were forced months ago under the threat of imminent danger to flee their home located less than 10 kilometres to the north of the camp.

They had hopes that their transit would be short.

“I feel safe at the camp here and I am deeply grateful for that,” he said. “But, despite all the good intentions and concrete help we have received, the camp simply cannot replace home,” he said as he stood with three boys around his age.

Traumatised by the unexpected dramatic events that had shattered their lives at home, Syrian refugees said that they were ready for more sacrifices for the sake of a better future.

But they said they wanted better living conditions.

“We are holding onto our dreams,” Manal, a former teacher, said. “We stoically accept our fate, yet we long for more normality. The Jordanians have done a lot and many other countries have contributed. However, the international community has chosen to look the other way, providing at best a lip service that does not feed or protect our children.”

A Western expert on refugees told Gulf News that the increasing number of tragedies to blight the world has also increased the number of applications filed by agencies and organisations seeking financial assistance.

“There is a tough competition between the aid agencies for money and we do face a serious problem,” he said. “For some countries, it is a matter of politics, ideologies and plans, but for suffering people, it is a matter of survival,” he said.

In the meantime, refuges, young and old, men and women, have to put up with what is on offer at the camp and get ready for a difficult cold winter compounded by more frustrations while dreaming of the comfort of their lost homes.

Mohammad, a Syrian teacher, said that most of the children were too young to realise the new facts in their lives.

“They are too young to appreciate that life at the camp is their new reality on the ground,” he said. “They believe that they are on a short trip out. They have to appreciate the new situation and live accordingly. They have to think and act as if they were in their own towns and villages in order to add the normality factor.”

But can children understand that they are facing a new reality that often times offers more frustrations than gratifications?

Earlier this month, young boys and girls had to claw their way to the front rows to get one of the 500 toys that were being offered to the children as a large recreation tent was opened to help give a more accurate definition to entertainment in the desert.

However, as the toys were being distributed, more than 1,000 children showed up to claim their gifts. The scene turned into a tragedy when those who were left out burst into inconsolable tears.

Not many people were around to wipe out the tears rolling down their cheeks and help them out of their new frustration.

In a camp where children less than 12 years old are believed to make up around 70 per cent of its inhabitants, more realistic visions should be generated and greater help should be provided.

“When I left the tent where they were giving away the toys, I found Raghd, a five-year-old-girl,” Jordanian columnist Sultan Al Hattab recalled. “She was sitting outside crying profusely. I thought she was lost and needed help to get reunited with her mother. When I got near her, I could hear her utter under her breath that she wanted her so much. She was referring to the doll that she could not get inside the tent. Fleeting minutes, her brother joined her. He too was crying after falling off the swing when stronger boys pushed their way into the large recreational tent. The sight of the two siblings sitting next to each other and crying was unbearable,” Sultan said.

He added that he then found himself contrasting how other people looked after their children and how the Arabs were taking care of their own.

“I wondered how many Arab homes had toys to spare, toys that they could generously and graciously donate to needy children. Arabs sure do have pens, colouring pencils that they could offer to the needy children at the Zaatari camp. I wondered why not enough is being done to help these children forget, be it for fleeting moments, their tragedies,” he said.