Wednesday, October 2nd. We set foot for the first time in Za’atari, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world. Za’atari is now home to 120.000 Syrians seeking refuge from the horrors of war.
The facts and figures are simple: over 2 million Syrian refugees fled their homeland in the last two and a half years, since the uprising against the Assad regime began in 2011. Out of them, 600.000 crossed the border into Jordan, increasing Jordan’s population by 10%. 120.000 found safety in Za’atari. Refugees still arrive in the camp every night. But it is beyond the figures that things get complicated. I can’t even begin to understand how it must feel to leave your country, not because you are looking for better opportunities, but because your house has been bombed, your child has been killed, you or your close ones have been imprisoned or tortured or you have been shot at. How it must feel to hit the road with only the cloths on your back, sometimes having to leave your family behind. And these are just some of the stories I heard from refugees.
So, one must keep in mind that this story isn't about figures. Not mainly anyway. As Kilian Kleinschmidt, Senior Field Coordinator, UNHCR, presently running Za’atari refugee camp, said in an interview we recorded, “we must recall one thing: this is not a statistic, not a commodity, not a warehouse. These are 120.000 human beings, with 120.000 stories, with 120.000 worries and, as well, 120.000 hopes.”
And Za’atari is “just the tip of the iceberg”, Kleinschmidt explains, it is “what you can see, feel, smell, touch when it comes to the refugee crisis. 2 million. 2 million Syrians have left Syria and are somewhere.”
With 77% of the Syrian refugees in Jordan living in an urban setting, the day before going to Za’atari camp, we visited the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) registration center in Amman. It is their largest center in the world, processing up to 4000 Syrian refugees on a daily basis.
I cried there. For a few moments I let my camera down and I looked directly into an old woman’s eyes. The woman was just sitting, waiting alongside others in a large room filled with refugees. I could not look any longer. I went outside and started to cry.
“The large numbers of Syrians entering into Jordan cross illegally the Syrian-Jordanian border, which stretches 360 km. At the moment, we’re seeing most Syrians coming in from the far eastern border and going through a very difficult journey in order to cross into safety”, says Tala Kattan, Assistant External Relations Officer, UNHCR. “The majority of Syrians have witnessed a lot of violence and trauma and were displaced multiple times before coming into Jordan”. Some were subject to torture or wounding.
Once they cross, they are taken by the Jordanian armed forces, given food and transported into Za’atari camp. Some of the refugees leave the camp because they have friends or family living in the urban environment, but often people remain in Za’atari.
If I were to describe Za’atari in a single word, I would not use sad or depressing, even though they are first impressions that come to mind. I would say surprising. Yes, this is the word. Za’atari, more than anything, surprised me.
The main entrance into the camp leads into the commercial street of Za’atari, some call “Champs-Elysées” after a street sign mounted in its vicinity. Walking down this street, you can’t really believe you are in a refugee camp. You get to see so many businesses... restaurants, barber shops, clothing, food and vegetables, mobile phones shops, internet cafes, even bridal shops and billiard clubs, where refugees play pool. There are over 680 shops that UNHCR has counted so far.
93% of the Syrian refugees in Za’atari come from the south of Syria, from Daraa. “Coming from a region close to the border, most of the families in the camp have a history of trade”, Kleinschmidt points out. Syrians are recognized as the best traders in the world, together with the Lebanese. Therefore, even in a refugee camp “we are seeing innovative steps”, Kleinschmidt adds.
But is it only their trading skills that drive these changes and these developments in the camp? The impression you get in the camp is that people also want to make the place feel more like home. Because they need the occupation as well, not only the money. Because they need to feel useful, not only displaced.
With refugees starting to realize that the conflict in Syria is far from being over and their wish of returning far from coming true, they are at the same time starting to develop their shelters in the camp as they would be living at home. It’s only natural for them to keep saying they would like to go back to Syria if it was safe, that this is not really their home or their country, that they don’t have memories here and they feel displaced. Of course they complain, find life in the camp hard and boring or fear the coming of another winter. Who can blame them?! But at the same time, walking around the camp you get to see flower pots at the windows, little gardens in front of the tents, even fountains in the middle of a courtyard. The fountain is the symbol of feeling at home for Syrians.
You get to see houses in Za’atari which have been built with elements of UNHCR containers that refugees cut into pieces and reassemble in fact as a prefabricated villa, Kleinschmidt explains.
That’s why I say Za’atari is surprising. With all the stories about the war, the traumatizing experiences of violence and destructions, the bloodshed and loss of lives, the longing for going back – things that, without fail, you find in every refugee’s eyes, voice or words – you still somehow get the twisted feeling that live moves on in Za’atari. That people are in some way getting back to normalcy.
It is surprising because you get to see a boy that fled the war playing counter strike in a gaming hall. You see other boys playing with made-up guns on the streets of Za’atari, babies sleeping near a toy pistol. And at the same time, you see a little girl not losing her faith and praying.
Out of the 525.000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, over 50% are children. Za’atari was full of children. “Soora, soora”, “Sourini” you could hear them shout anywhere in the camp. It means photo in arabic. Almost all of them are coming from Daraa, the region in Syria where the conflict began and the uprising became visible. Kleinschmidt says “it is the kids of Daraa, who are still today in the camp, which began to throw the first stones, started the first demonstrations and were arrested for the uprising”. And by the looks of it, even the little ones are growing up in an atmosphere of hatred, with stories of tyranny and oppression surrounding them at all times. But I can’t help wondering about the babies that were born in the camp and never saw Syria, the ones that don’t know other home but Za’atari and most likely won’t know other for a while. What does their future look like? Will it be easier for them in time to treat the refugee camp as their home, their only home now? Or will their parents, brothers, neighbours’ tales ignite in them the longing for the country they normally belong to? I honestly don’t know. Reading statistics is much easier.
When Kleinschmidt arrived in Za’atari, he went public in saying that “this was the most depressing and most difficult camp he has ever worked in, one of the most depressing locations”. When we arrived in Za’atari, we found “a sort of a living town”.
So, despite everything, life does move on. Syrian refugees in Za’atari, most of them people who have lost everything, are finding themselves more and more connected to a home away from home.
Multimedia documentary by:
Audio&video: Laurentiu Diaconu-Colintineanu
Photography: Ioana Moldovan
Video editing: Cristian Burtan-Fleischer