Stories from the Zaatari Refugee Camp
In the arid Jordanian desert, the Zaatari Refugee Camp houses some 80,000 Syrian refugees in makeshift shacks and tents. The UNHCR, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, provides the refugees with just enough food and water to survive, but for most, daily life is a struggle. Refugees need special permission to leave the camp; many of the children have never left its confines. With the war in Syria entering its 12th year, hopes of returning to Syria and a better future are dwindling.
The following stories have been recorded throughout the Humanitarian Digital Health project. Names have been changed in order to protect those who generously opened the door to their homes and personal lives.
“From being able to help others; now they were barely scraping by themselves.”
There was a time when people would stop by for a cup of tea at Ayah’s place – a primitive shack made of metal sheeting, similar to the thousands of homes in the Zaatari Camp. Back then her husband had a job at an NGO, enabling her to help out neighbors and friends in need with small sums of money. In the camp, then as now, many families are in desperate financial straits. And many people stopped by for tea at Ayah’s.
The visits came to an end around the same time her husband lost his job and their financial situation changed. From being able to help others; now they were barely scraping by themselves.
A few days ago, Ayah’s husband broke down after he got off a phone call with his mother in Syria. Her well-being depends on the financial support he had been providing. How will she, his own mother, survive now? he asks.
Ayah’s husband is not a cheerful and generous man anymore, and she needs to shield him from their teenage daughter asking him for things that he cannot afford. Though he spends more time at home, Ayah feels lonely and abandoned. Even the woman next door that she considered a close friend, avoids her, ignores her phone calls.
A while ago, Ayah made an appointment at the Jordanian NGO, JHASi’s, mental health clinic. At the end of the session, the female psychologist stood up and gave her a warm hug, touching something inside her that had lain dormant for a long, long time. It was an act of compassion, an overwhelming experience, Ayah keeps saying. The hug changed something. She is not entirely sure what, but she has kept regular appointments at the clinic ever since. In secret. In many families, mental health services are associated with negative stereotypes of mental illness; if people find out that Ayah is seeing a therapist, it might be difficult to find a husband for her teenage daughter.
Paradise under construction
“Hashem does not believe he will ever be able to return to Syria. Traveling to Europe is not a realistic option either.”
Hashem lives next door to JHASi’s mental health clinic. He knows the staff well, but he has never made an appointment. He deals with his suffering in his own way, by keeping himself busy. He goes for long walks around the camp, he invites and visits friends so that he is never alone. And then there is his garden.
Before fleeing to Jordan, Hashem was a farmer. He can make anything with his hands, he says, even his own paradise. And so, he does. In a space between the shacks that house his two wives and 11 children, he grows fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers from the seeds he collects around the camp. Whenever he comes across a piece of fruit with seeds, he tries his luck. In the center of the garden is a working fountain, made from rocks and other materials that Hashem has found in the camp. He is proud of it, especially the construction that makes the water circulate.
Hashem does not believe he will ever be able to return to Syria. Traveling to Europe is not a realistic option either. So, even though he is 54 and his body is worn from many years of hard physical farm labor, he has promised himself to create a paradise for his family here at the camp. And he will succeed in that, he reiterates with a nod to his 11-year-old daughter sitting on the edge of the fountain, daydreaming and taking selfies to be shared on social media.
Leaving goats and heart behind
“His mind keeps wandering to Syria where he left his goats, three daughters, and his heart when the war broke out.”
51 year-old Ahmad has constant stomach aches. He feels stressed in the Zaatari Camp, as if things are never quite right. His mind keeps wandering to Syria where he left his goats, three daughters, and his heart when the war broke out.
In Syria, Ahmad lived in a tent with his wife and their seven children. Herding goats and selling the milk provided him with just enough to support his family. In the camp, he struggles to provide the family with food and other necessities. In 2014, each family member received a food coupon worth 28 JD per month. Today, despite high inflation, they receive only 23 JD, They frequently experience power outages, and sometimes the water tanks run dry. When there is no more water in the tank, Ahmad is forced to buy bottled water which he cannot afford. Recently, he started selling food coupons for 20 JD, losing three JD for every sold coupon, in order to buy water and other necessities for his family.
While life in the camp gets increasingly harder, Ahmad longs for the simplicity of his past life in Syria. ”If I could just have my tent and goats here, I would feel content,” he says.
“Ismael is one of thousands of children born and raised in the Zaatari Camp.”
Two years ago, on his way home from school, a dog bit Ismael. The wound required a visit to the emergency room, and the seven-year-old boy was allowed to leave the camp for the second time in his life. Not that the outside world made a big impression on him then, nor the first time when his family were permitted to visit an uncle on the outside.
Ismael is one of thousands of children born and raised in the Zaatari Camp. Annually, 15,000 babies are born at JHASi’s hospital. He says life is good in the camp. He likes school and the stray dogs the most. Despite being bitten before, he gets upset when older boys in the camp hunt and beat the stray dogs. He does his best to persuade them to stop. The cruelty of the older boys is the worst thing about living in the camp, he says.
When Ismael returns from school in the afternoon his favorite stray puppy is waiting for him in the shadow of the water tank outside his home. Ismael feeds the puppy and gives him water. In school, Ismael studies hard because he wants to be a policeman when he grows up. Not in Syria but in Jordan. That’s where he is from, he says. He cannot wait till the day when he gets to walk around with a gun. His biggest dream is to be able to protect himself and his country.
A cry for a kidney
“They also do breathing exercises, which brings her some peace of mind. At least for a while.”
Raya shouts a lot, says she feels depressed and stressed. And angry. Some months ago, she was screened by one of the paramedics from the mental health clinic and was invited to join some counselling sessions. She goes there from time to time; it’s a relief to share her pain, anxiety and struggles with the staff and the other women there. They also do breathing exercises, which brings her some peace of mind. At least for a while.
When Raya walks home from the clinic, through the dusty dirt roads to her shack where her husband and 11 children are waiting, she tries to hold on to that state of peace, especially, when the thoughts return to her 13-year old daughter. A few years back, one of the daughter’s kidneys was replaced, thanks to a generous donation from a wealthy person known to the staff at JHASI’s hospital. But some months ago, they received the shattering news that the daughter’s second kidney was also affected. Another kidney transplant is needed and the donor is not able to provide anymore. The transplant will cost 10.000 JD – more than 400 times the value of the monthly food coupon she receives.
Between cooking, cleaning and raising the children, Raya spends her time looking for ways to secure her daughter’s kidney transplant. A few weeks ago, she started posting on Facebook, hoping that somewhere in the world, a kind person with sufficient means may be able to save her daughter’s life with a donation. So far she has had no response, but she won’t give up. She puts one foot in front of the other, she breathes deeply and does her best to stay calm.
The Photoshop dream
“IT is the future, and he trusts that becoming proficient in Photoshop will pave his way out of the camp one day, and perhaps even secure his entry to the U.S”
19-year-old Moarmar is a regular in one of the camp’s computer cafés. He wants to a be a professional Photoshop editor. IT is the future, and he trusts that becoming proficient in Photoshop will pave his way out of the camp one day, and perhaps even secure his entry to the U.S. That is why he is hanging around there, editing photos at the café every other afternoon on their outdated computers.
Moarmar came to the camp when he was around ten. He lives with his parents and five of his 11 siblings in one of the thousands of tin shacks in the camp. He does not recall anything of his previous life in Syria. He knows he was born there, but there are no pictures of his first childhood in his memory, and he has never really experienced life outside the 25 square kilometers of barren desert that make up the Zaatari Camp.
His older brother made it out of the camp, to Turkey. His mom hopes Moarmar will join him, but the two brothers have been at odds since the older brother accused Moamar of stealing his 800 Dollars. For Moarmar, joining his brother in Turkey is not an option.
Still, Moarmar is adamant that he will build a life outside the camp. He will continue to take the anxiety medication prescribed by JHASi’s mental health clinic that helps him to focus on his work at the computer café. His father says his ambition to become a Photoshop editor is a pipedream. His mother is proud of Moarmar for pursuing his dream.
In love and war
“She has trouble putting the details of her husband’s torture into words.”
Tala’s husband wears a diaper and spends his days lying on a mattress in the middle of the Bedouin tent. Sitting by his side, Tala’s mind often drifts back to Syria where they were married in 1975. Their marriage was happy. Even when he married his second wife, things worked out well.
However, Tala struggles to hold on to these warm memories for long. Her mind is haunted by the horrors that started in 1989 with her husband being kidnapped and tortured by government thugs. She has trouble putting the details of her husband’s torture into words. Neither can she express much about the bombings two decades later that leveled her neighborhood in Syria, killing almost everyone she knew there. She and her husband were badly wounded; both have scars and missing limbs to show for it.
Tala’s adult children are still in Jordan. Her husband’s second wife died decades ago, so she is his only caregiver. It is a full-time job. She has given up hope of ever seeing her children and Syria again, needs to accept her life here, she says. She lights a cigarette for herself and her husband and holds his shattered hand while smoking. Happiness is when he is happy, she says. Tala’s husband can hardly move, but his face lights up in a smile. Tala smiles back at him, and leans over to receive his kiss. He whispers something in her ear, and for a brief moment it is as if nothing bad has ever happened to them.