A desert haven for 120,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the raging conflict

"Like everywhere in the world these refugees were very angry people. They’d lost their homes, they lost family members"

The relief and the exhaustion were palpable.

Dust from the desert through which they’d travelled to seek sanctuary still clung to their clothes.

And they were the lucky ones – the ones who had just arrived in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Eight miles south of the Syrian border, the camp is distant enough to be safe but close enough to still hear the sounds of shelling between Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

It is a constant reminder of the reason they left and what awaits them if they return.

The refugees who had arrived that night were given water before receiving medical and administrative checks and joining the 120,000 others clustered in what is now the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.

The entrance to the camp. For many refugees, entering the gates is the first time they feel truly safe. Some families have endured two years of continuous flight within Syria to escape the fighting ... more 
The entrance to the camp. For many refugees, entering the gates is the first time they feel truly safe. Some families have endured two years of continuous flight within Syria to escape the fighting before finally leaving for Jordan. (Photo by Jared J. Kohler) less 
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Yahoo News
Thu, Oct 31, 2013 15:00 GMT

‘I am secure, I can sleep and there is no shooting. I am secure,’ said a father who had travelled there with his wife and four children.

At his feet lay huge makeshift bags fashioned out of curtains in which the family had carried their belongings.

The sounds of children laughing and running around outside drifted in to the subdued atmosphere of the refugee reception area.

He explained how their home on the outskirts of Damascus had been destroyed shortly after the conflict erupted two years ago, and that since then they had become just one more family in the 4.25million people displaced within Syria – nearly a quarter of the total population - desperately trying to avoid the constantly shifting battle zones.

Finally they decided to leave the country, but with vast stretches of the border too dangerous to cross they had to head east towards Iraq. They travelled for four days in a truck with 100 other people wedged in so tight they all had to sit with their legs and arms tucked in.

Camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt stands in front of a map dividing Zaatari into 12 districts. In front of him are …

They moved by night and hid by day. At times they were shot at by fighter jets – an elderly woman motioned with arms outstretched how they would throw themselves to the ground when attacked.

The family’s escape was a reminder that although the camp – now the Jordanian kingdom’s fifth largest city – has its frustrations, namely tensions over shelter, electricity and water, it is ultimately a haven where families risk everything just to get in.

That particular night 250 people arrived. Earlier in the year the number peaked at 3,000 arriving every night. There are currently around 550,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, mostly in urban areas. The Jordanian government has repeatedly asked the international community for more aid, saying the influx of refugees is putting a massive strain on already overstretched water and power supplies as well as demands for housing and education.

Zaatari holds its 120,000 refugees within two square miles and is surrounded by a five-mile perimeter road. What started out on July 29th 2012 as a camp for 100 families - opened at two week’s notice - is rapidly evolving into a temporary city divided into 12 districts. It also now dwarfs the nearby village of 12,000 whose name it shares.

More than two million refugees have fled Syria and now live in limbo in neighbouring countries. (PA)

Aoife McDonnell, a UNHCR worker from Ireland, said the first tents were put up at night by families using the light from her mobile phone to guide them.

It also soon became clear that the fragile desert surface was dissolving into a fine dust through the sheer number of people walking over it as well as trucks carrying equipment.

‘It was like walking on talcum power. You would be caked in dust up to your knees,’ said Aoife. But because of the shortage of water, dampening the ground was not an option so gravel was supplied to the refugees who shoveled it over the ground themselves.

Those same stones would be used as missiles against police and UN officials by gangs of children when frustrations over access to electricity and pre-fab shelters would boil over.

The impact of the conflict has also caused an imbalance in the camp’s population; 75 per cent are women and children.

On average, 10 to 13 babies are born in Zaatari every day. The youngest refugee to arrive was two days old, and the oldest a 105 year old woman who had never left her village. Four months later she passed away.

A youngster hard at work in the bakery carries freshly baked bread with makeshift tongs. (Photo by Jared J. Ko …

It costs US $500,000 (£310,000) every day just to keep the camp running with 500,000 pieces of bread and 3.5million litres of water being distributed every day.

In the summer temperatures rise to 45C and in the winter they drop below zero.

The sound of shells being fired in the distance as well as the constant influx of new refugees, means the conflict is ever present.

Whether from children or old men, traumatic accounts are never far from the surface.

The sniper who shot at children every time they went to a sweet shop when the owner thought it was safe to open his doors again. The mother who hid her two young children in the fridge during an air attack, thinking that was their best chance of survival if the house took a direct hit. The husband killed in the fighting whose wife then killed herself in grief, leaving behind an orphaned baby who was taken in by an aunt.

People feel angry and abandoned by the international community - particularly among those who have been in the camp for longer periods.

A youngster walks away with part of a police station in Zaatari - made of prefabricated shelters - which was dismantled …

‘The world does not care about the Syrian people,’ said one father of three, a truck driver. ‘People are watching the Syrian people being killed and are not doing anything.’

Another man who said he had been a mayor in his village before fleeing added: ‘All countries say they will help but nobody helps. Syrians looked after Iraqis and Libyans [during their upheavals] and now no-one is looking after us. It is just a promise, it is nothing.’

The man charged with the day-to-day running of this makeshift settlement is Kilian Kleinschmidt, 51, a big, straight-talking German who has done several tours in UN hotspots - most recently in Mogadishu, Somalia.

He said when he arrived people were desperate.

‘Like everywhere in the world these refugees were very angry people. They’d lost their homes, they lost family members. There is a lot of suffering in the conflict in Syria,’ he said.

‘That is why we had the period of tension and violence [at the camp’s inception] because we did not understand them and they did not understand us.’

Smuggling and theft were commonplace. An entire police station made up of eight prefabricated shelters and left empty because of a miscommunication was dismantled and carted off by a gang of children in just two days.

The first big test of Kilian’s authority came after a 250-strong crowd over-ran the centre where refugees are processed on arrival. They were demanding the immediate provision of prefabricated shelters after four young boys died when a fire tore through their tent.

‘I said I am only talking to 10 of you,’ recalled Kilian. ‘Then we had a real discussion.’

He outlined his plans for the camp to them including roads, drainage, electricity and shelter. As the men left, one of them said: ‘Now we throw stones, but if this works we shall throw flowers.’

In Somalia he had a 21-strong security team when he left the safety of the UN compound but that did not
stop him from developing a relationship over food with local community leaders to build up trust and an understanding of what he intended to do – a strategy he has repeated here.

In Zaatari, he regularly stays alone overnight in one of the prefab shelters and deliberately walks into those areas of the camp where people have been hostile towards his staff.

He shares food and endless cups of tea and coffee with community elders to establish a network of trust.

Some families plant herbs in a patch of desert earth to remind them of home. One mother of two displayed a strip …

The population lives in 25,000 shelters composed of 8,000 tents and 17,000 pre-fabricated shelters which measure 15 by 18 metres.

It is the prefabricated shelters that families want to live in. They are insulated and, with a door, offer a degree of security in a place where private space is extremely important. Furthermore they are raised off the ground – avoiding snakes, scorpions and mice. One father of two said: ‘In Syria the mice are afraid. Here, they climb into your tent and look at you.’

The UN’s children’s agency released a report earlier this year - ‘Shattered Lives’ - that highlighted that children as well as women in the camp were increasingly exposed to violence and abuse.

It said that the uprooting of communities from Syria had "exposed women and children to the risk of gender-based violence and abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence".

It added that information it had received indicated that gangs controlled access to the prefab houses as well as playing a role in determining access to market pitches and prices on the black market.

William Hopkins, a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist for the charity Freedom From Torture, said refugees placed in camps faced a variety of problems including violence, lack of privacy and the stress of living without basic facilities.

‘They don’t know what’s going to happen to them and also experience a lack of control and helplessness. A lot of things are done for them in camps. They don’t have a say about what food they’re going to get, when they’re going to get it and what the toileting facilities are going to be.

‘They also have to deal with a loss of role. They no longer can be the parent who can provide for or support their family, they’ve lost their job, lost their money. They can feel undermined and inferior and can’t get the things they need for their children.’

One of the many reasons so many struggle to come to terms with their new desert environment is the contrast with the lives they left behind.

They come from homes with gardens, fridges and washing machines. Many were farmers and were self-sufficient for fruit and vegetables. Water came out of a tap in the kitchen not a communal one. The children had bicycles and went to school.

Camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt said in the rapid construction of the camp the planning was done around communal structures for food, water and rubbish collection.

‘We think in communal terms. They [the refugees] think first about themselves like anywhere in the world. So for them communal structures are not acceptable,’ he said referring to the construction of private toilets.

'So they have destroyed a lot, they have stolen a lot. Now, have they stolen it or have they privatised it? I think they have privatised it.

‘Would you like to go, with 20 other people, to the toilet? You wouldn’t. So you want to have your own private toilet. That’s what they are doing, they are digging toilets every day.

‘They are not done according to standards and not linking to some established sewer system but they are providing one thing to them, dignity when they go to the toilet, privacy when they are going to the toilet.

‘So they are saying I don’t want your communal toilet I want my private one and I am taking the materials from your communal toilet and just moving it a few metres and making it to a private toilet.

‘So you will find everywhere the bits and pieces of  the public toilets transformed into private bathrooms or kitchens or something.’

The pre-fabricated shelters themselves are also moved around. They are lifted on to long metal bars - formerly fence posts - which have wheels welded on to them and then rolled to a part of the camp where families can be closer to relatives.

Refugees wheel a prefabricated container to a part of the site where they want it - as opposed to the surveyor's …

One of those trying to make sense of this evolving landscape is British aid worker Rob Trigwell, who works for the REACH initiative supplying data on the camp to the UN to inform planning decisions.

‘People perceive private space as extremely important,’ said Rob, 26, who has worked in Bangladesh, Iraq and Libya, and arrived in Zaatari in February.

‘They want to go back but at the same time they want to stay alive.’

‘People have realized they might be here for a little while they are investing in their homes and their businesses.’

Nowhere is that dynamism more evident than in the stalls thronging the main street which runs alongside the ‘Old Town’ of the camp.

It has also picked up the ironic nickname ‘Champs Elysees’, thanks to a sign on the nearby French Military Hospital pointing out that the famous Parisian shopping street is 3,305km away.

Kilian said one of the differences between this camp and others was the speed of change. There are now 685 stalls and small businesses in the camp and he regularly loses his bearings.

‘It is incredibly fast – the speed at which things are evolving. In other places [refugee camps] you find a shop and it is there for a long time,’ he said.

‘They are people who have been traders all their lives. So it is very natural for them to set up shops. It is very logical for them that anything they touch they transform into business.’

The Jordanian government has repeatedly asked the international community for more aid, saying the influx of refugees …

But he is also clear that those businesses should contribute towards the cost of running the camp. He would like to charge them for use of the electricity which they take by illegally attaching cables to the lighting grid.

‘It’s not because you are a refugee that you cannot care for your own business. It is not because you are a refugee you should be getting everything for free. If you can pay, you must pay,’ he said.

Kilian added there was a shift now where people were investing time and effort into their homes.

‘The concept of home sweet home is becoming very important. So a lot of people are now investing and setting up structures. They will set up a fountain which for them is an expression of breathing, relaxation and reminds them of home. There will be a birdcage, there will be a flower, a plant that is growing.’

One mother of two showed me a strip of green carpet she’d bought to remind her of the garden she’d left behind in Syria.

But just as some people are resigning themselves to life in the camp, others have decided to take the risk and return to Syria.

Every evening coaches pull up on the camp’s perimeter road to take people back across the border.

‘There are those who want their kids to go to university and cannot cope with living in a tent any longer,’ said Aoife McDonnell. Others want to check on elderly parents unable to make the journey across, livestock at their farms or take up arms.

Kilian explains to Yahoo's Nick Petche the challenges and opportunities in the camp (Jared J Kohler)

As the physical structure of the camp takes shape so does a social structure. The leaders who muscled in during the first tumultuous months of the camp are being edged out by more traditional leaders.

‘The self-made leaders who came up through the conflict are disappearing and that gives us a chance to work along the lines of their traditional society and begin developing the common vision,’ said Kilian.

‘It is all about trust, it is all about communication. It is all about partnership and not working against each other, isolating those who are not playing the game. Realizing that there are rules and regulations. Realizing that there are dos and do nots.

‘The basic rules of a community are very important and that is what we are working towards.’

He has plans for each of the 12 districts to have community policemen and councils - made up from refugees, Jordanian officials and aid agencies - which will represent the needs of the people living there.

For the people who have been there several months, Zaatari is evolving into a temporary city and their pre-fab shelters are becoming something that resembles a home.

But for those just arriving it simply represents a safe haven.

A remarkable video series depicting the extraordinary challenges faced by aid workers and refugees in Zaatari will be shown exclusively on Yahoo UK starting on Tuesday November 12. See the trailer for the series here.

To find out more about the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees click on the link below


About this series

Zaatari is a refugee camp in Jordan, and is now home to over 120,000 people who have fled the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Starting 12 November, Yahoo UK will post an exclusive series of UNHCR videos depicting life during a typical day in what has become one of the largest temporary cities in the region.