Syria's refugee crisis: Thousands who have fled the country have ended up in camps like Za'atari
Of the 1.2 million people who have fled Syria since civil war broke out two years ago, more than 150,000 alone live in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, waiting in hope that one day they can return to their own land.
Amina, a 42-year-old mother of five, is new to refugee life. A month ago, she was living in Daraa in southwestern Syria, in a house she and her husband had shared for 14 years.
"We had a nice house; four bedrooms and a bathroom and a kitchen," she says. Now she and her children, aged between five and 13, live in a makeshift tent in the largest refugee camp for Syrians, based in Jordan. She didn't even bring a spare change of clothes.
Amina's story is not unusual. It just hasn't, until now, been told. Media coverage of Syria has centred on more well-known names. President Bashar al-Assad, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Barack Obama; even Prince Charles, Camilla and Samantha Cameron have made the headlines. But Syria's bloody civil war is heading into its third year, having claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000 people and displacing millions more.
The political debate is growing: should we arm Syrian rebels? Send Western troops in? Lift our military embargo? Less is asked about the 1.2 million people who have already fled Syria. More than 8,000 are still leaving daily. k The United Nations says there has been a "staggering acceleration" in numbers; February saw more Syrians cross the border than any other month in the crisis. It is not just Jordan they are fleeing to, but Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. It is thought there could be three million refugees by the end of this year – or 50 per cent more than left Iraq after 2003.
Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, delivered a harsh warning this month: "We could have an explosion in the Middle East… The world needs to wake up. This is not just a regional crisis. This is a situation that presents a major threat to not only regional peace and security, but global peace and security."
For Amina, though, it is personal. She walked for two days from her house in Syria to the Za'atari camp, joining around 150,000 other Syrians, housed in tents and portacabins. She left her husband, who worked for Syria's water company, behind. Their house was demolished. She has been told that her brothers might be dead, and has no idea where her elderly mother resides. But her main fear is for her children's future. "All my children are ill," she says. "They want to leave every day. They ask me: 'When are we going back home?'"
Amina is not the only mother to worry. Out of the four million people affected by the civil war inside Syria, almost two million are children. There are at least 470,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, according to government estimates; a significant number, given the country has a population of just six million. More than one in 10 Syrian refugees registered there are children under three, while half are under 18. Indeed, there are so many minors in Za'atari, run by the UN Refugee Agency and a Jordanian NGO, that it has become known as the "Children's Camp".
Life there is infamously hard: it is freezing in winter and prone to extreme heat and dust in summer. Aid organisations are witnessing fires break out; 50 people share each latrine; and around one in five children are enrolled in a pop-up school. The camp is now effectively Jordan's fifth largest "city". Around 15 unaccompanied minors turn up each week, according to David Bull, executive director of Unicef UK, while up to 10 babies are born inside the camp every day.
"These children have nothing to do with the politics," says Bull. "They need things that all children need; they need to be immunised against diseases, they need water to drink, warm clothes to wear when it's cold; they need to go to school, and they need help dealing with the psychological problems in which they've been involved." Unicef provides around three million litres of water to the camp each day, as well as education services, sanitation and psychological support, but the charity is seriously lacking in funds; it has only 30 per cent of what it needs.
Fatima, 28, who arrived at Za'atari with her three children, aged 13, nine and four, at the start of the month, does not wish to stay long. She was nine months' pregnant when her home in Syria was bombed. Her baby daughter was born six days after she arrived at the camp. She and her husband, an ironworker, brought clothes for their children, but had no space for toys. "In our culture," she says, "the whole family would come and visit me after the birth, but now my family is not with me, which is very difficult. All we have built throughout our lives, we have left. I hope for my baby that things go back to normal and we can go back. I want my child to grow up at home."
Ahmed, a 42-year-old father of four, who has lived in Za'atari for seven months, remembers home life all too well. The former court writer from Daraa now lives in a portacabin with his family; his wife is four months' pregnant. They left Syria when the violence escalated. "I have witnessed unexplainable things. I have seen a human being with half a face, from a sniper shot," he reveals. "People were coming into our house and we had to hide; it was too scary to stay. My worse fear is seeing my children scared. They have seen so much they couldn't believe." k
His 11-year-old daughter, Hanan, who wants to be a painter and poet, is more wistful about her old life: "We can talk about Syria [in the camp's school] and what we used to do and our friends that we have left," she says. "I used to play in my neighbourhood and I like remembering that. I used to go to my grandpa's home."
While Amina, Fatima and Ahmed try to squeeze their suitcases and blankets into flimsy tents or sterile rooms, 80 per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are setting up home outside the camps, in "host communities".
Mohammed, 53, a fireman who has a weak heart, fled Syria six months ago, after a massacre in a nearby town killed 200 people. He now lives in a basement flat in a town called Irbid, 45 minutes from the border, with his wife, three children and five grandchildren. "Life here is like a prison," he says. "We have nothing and I don't have my medication so I can't really leave the flat. I would prefer to be in Syria, but I am here for my family. My priority is the children."
Barack Obama might have pledged an extra $200m in aid to Jordan to help Syrian refugees, but the international community is already talking about a crisis reaching a point of no return. Aid organisations speak of a "lost generation" and political experts warn of long-term consequences for Syria and the region as a whole.
For families such as Mohammed's, however, there is a simple desire: to go home. His wife Farah explains that their life has been turned upside-down. "My grandson is two-and-a-half, and he has known nothing but fighting," she says. "The situation hasn't changed in his lifetime. When he is older he will learn about what has happened. When he hears of relatives who have passed away, he will learn their stories. Only God knows when we will go home. The longer this situation goes on, the less hope I have.''
Some names have been changed. Donations to help children affected by the crisis can be made at: unicef.org.uk or by calling 0800 037 9797
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