Jordanian camps offer little, but it's life of a sort
110,000 refugees exist on border as Syria is torn apart by civil war
THEY have travelled hundreds of miles under extreme conditions and the constant threat of death to get here, arriving with nothing but their lives. Some tried to carry suitcases with a few possessions but discarded them along the way, opting to carry their exhausted children instead. Now they exist day-by-day, dependent on the charity of the world.
The Za'atari refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border is home to more than 110,000 Syrian refugees, the majority of them children, who have fled the conflict that is now in its second year.
Bashar al-Assad's regime may not be able to harm them here, but there are others waiting to prey on the vulnerable children. Police patrol the perimeter, but inside there is no security and serious problems are emerging.
The people here are the poorest of the poor. Those with the financial means to sustain themselves are allowed to leave the camp and stay no longer than a few days after crossing the border.
Young girls in the camp are especially at risk; some as young as 13 are being sold as wives to men from Jordan and the wealthy Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for as little as 3,000 Jordanian dinars (€3,200) for short-term marriages.
The men wed the girls after making the marriage payment (mahr) to the families, take them away for a short period – usually a week or two – then send them back. In a culture where prostitution is deplored, it is astonishing at how acceptable the situation is. Dressed in the veil of marriage, it is legalised child prostitution.
It is a sensitive issue, and none of the families inside the camp are willing to talk openly about it. Unicef believes some families are finding themselves in such dire situations that it is becoming a case of "one less mouth to feed and a means to get some much-needed finances".
Most of the children here have suffered severe psychological traumas prior to crossing the border. All have seen bodies on the streets. Some have witnessed family members raped or killed while others have been tortured.
Inside the camp psychologists are working with children who they say have gone into "survival mode" and left childhood behind.
Unicef communications consultant Alexis Masciarelli said: "One of the biggest difficulties is trying to get children to be children again. All of them have been exposed to violence. Some have been tortured for providing food to the rebels or if their father had joined the rebels.
"To go through this violence they switch off their brain and go into survival mode. Our task now is to reconnect them with being a child again."
Sale Mayyan, the director of the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab High School in Za'atari, said he has never seen so much aggression in children in his 30 years of teaching.
"It is the effects of the war but it is very, very difficult. We try to change this, and have one psychologist in every classroom, but it is difficult," he said.
"We have been working with parents to try and get more children to come to school, but there is no obligation for them to come."
I was brought on a tour of one of the schools in the camp. The children are studying the Jordanian curriculum, and it is hoped they will take the state exams at the end of the academic year.
I asked a class of 16-year-old boys what they would like to be when they leave school. Most said doctors or engineers. One boy, however, stood up from his chair with his shoulders back and chest puffed out and declared loudly that he wants to return to Syria to fight Assad.
I asked the same question of a group of 12-year-old girls. The first response I received was chilling and blunt. "There is no point in going to school, because there is no future," said the girl.
Za'atari was designed to accommodate 50,000 to 60,000 people, but is now home to more than 110,000 refugees. The figure is increasing as 1,500 to 2,000 Syrians cross the border daily.
Abuj Asad, a Bedouin who lived in the Syrian countryside, said life in Za'atari is like being in a prison and he wants to return to Syria.
"I have been here for one month. If we were in Syria it would be much better. We are not comfortable in this situation, this is a difficult life," he said.
"I don't want to sit here like a prisoner every day. We were living in heaven – we had a farm with animals, money and water and now we have to live like dogs. I want to go back to Syria now but we cannot while Assad is still there. Hitler would not do what he is doing."
As I meandered through the seemingly endless rows of tents, a family from Homs invited me inside. They have been living here for five months. There were a few mattresses and a small bundle of clothes in the corner.
One of the men in the tent, Mohanad, is the same age as me. We exchanged emails and I agreed to send him pictures I took of his family. He does not know when he will have internet access again, but insisted he will update me on his circumstances.
Days in Za'atari are long and arduous. The sun beats down on the desert camp and tension runs high as frustration levels peak. During my visit I witnessed two violent outbursts. The first was a fight between two men outside a school. We were rushed away and my questions went unanswered. In the second, a man was reprimanded by other refugees for allegedly stealing something from the local market. He was beaten by a group of men before being led deeper into the camp by other refugees.
Children wandered aimlessly through the litter-strewn desert, some alone, others in groups. Ten children are born inside the camp every day. Most women give birth in a maternity ward in the camp, while others are moved to a hospital in nearby Mafraq if complications occur.
A new camp will be opened on the Jordan-Saudi border next month. It is hoped it will reduce the pressures on Za'atari, which has become Jordan's fifth-biggest city.
This article was funded by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. The aim of the fund is to promote more and better quality media coverage of development issues in the Irish media. It was founded by Irish Aid to honour the memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers, who was murdered by apparent Al-Qa'eda supporters while filming in Saudi Arabia.