By Bruce Campion-Smith
Zaatari camp in northern Jordan is home to 100,000 refugees and new Syrians arrive daily seeking to escape the violence.
AL-MAFRAQ, JORDAN—Just hours after crossing from a dangerous past into an uncertain future, the exhaustion and shell shock still play out across Ali’s face.
In the cover of darkness Friday, he had slipped into Jordan from war-torn Syria, the latest desperate move in a year-long odyssey to stay ahead of the fighting — and stay alive.
It had meant a 17-hour drive to the border — at almost $150 a head for him and his family — and then a nighttime walk to elude Syrian government forces to get into Jordan, which has become safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrians like him.
PHOTOS: Harper visits Jordan refugee camp
And now Friday morning, Ali was in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan with his family — and the small cluster of belongings they could take with him. He was joined on the escape to safety by his wife, daughter, brother, niece, aunt and uncle.
“A few days ago I decided that the time was now to move to Jordan because there is not any hope to make things OK,” he told reporters, speaking through an interpreter.
He hadn’t slept for three days. His brother lay sleeping on an adjacent metal-framed cot, covered in a grey blanket marked with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Beside him were 3-year-old daughter Fidaa and his brother’s daughter Safeia, 5, their wide eyes taking in the activity around them.
He declined to give his last name and asked journalists not to take his picture because his parents are still in Syria and he fears reprisals.
Originally from Homs, Ali, 28, took his family from the city more than a year ago.
“There is no place to stay because the houses have been destroyed and burned,” he said.
Since then, the family has moved from village to village within Syria before deciding that their future rested on getting out.
Asked when he hopes to return home, Ali replies that it depends on God’s will.
“I’m thinking this time, no way to return back to Syria because if they catch us, they will kill us,” Ali said.
“I want to try living inside the camp, then I will decide what to do.”
This barracks-like room, with its cots and mattresses and open air design, is a stark welcome for the refugees. But it’s safe. And for everyone who passes through here, that is enough.
“No shooting, no fighting. We are safe,” Ali said.
Some 300 refugees like Ali and his family arrive every morning at this sprawling camp, about an hour’s north of Amman.
With some 100,000 residents, it’s the second largest refugee camp in the world, part of an exodus from Syria that is straining Jordanian resources.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to this dusty outpost Friday to pledge an additional $150 million in humanitarian assistance, to be spent this year, to address humanitarian needs.
Of the total, $100 million is earmarked for basic needs such as food, shelter, clean water and sanitation inside Syria and neighbouring countries. Another $50 million will support the “No Lost Generation” campaign, aimed at helping children caught in the crisis.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg of the refugee problem and the tremendous human suffering we see,” Harper said.
“It’s sometimes easy to forget these are all individual lives. We are touched by this,” he told reporters after travelling to the heart of the camp.
“Unfortunately it appears that this is only going to get worse,” he said.
Maj.-Gen. Omar Al-Khaldi, Jordanian Armed Forces Chief of Strategic Planning, thanked Harper — and individual Canadians — for the funding.
“If it wasn’t for the Canadian help, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
“I know it’s taxpayers’ money but it’s going to the right people.”
Since its creation in July 2012, the camp has become a sad symbol of the human toll of the fighting in Syria as rebels attempt to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s the place where we can all see, feel, touch, smell the Syrian crisis,” said camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Syria, lying just 12 kilometres to the north, can be seen from the camp — along with the battles that continue to ravage the nation.
“We can hear the fighting. You can see the fighting. You can see the artillery flashes,” Kleinschmidt said.
“That doesn’t help in the psyche of the people here. They are constantly with the war,” he said.
“It’s not a tsunami that happened a year ago or something . . . they hear it, they feel it, they get the news,” he said.
Most of the refugees are from the Syrian district of Daraa, just a short distance across the border.
They are among the almost 500,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan to escape the conflict, leaving this nation struggling to cope with the influx of humanity. It’s estimated that some two million Syrians have fled their country to neighbouring nations, such as Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
More than half of the “households” in the camp are led by the woman in the family; most of the men are “in action or missing in action,” Kleinschmidt said.
Ask residents on the streets and laneways of the camp if they hope to return home to Syria and they respond in Arabic, “Insha’Allah” — God willing.
But truth is, in a grim assessment of the Syrian crisis, residents and camp managers are settling in for the long term. Trailers are replacing tents. Hydro, water and sewer connections are being made.
It might be a temporary home, but for now it’s a home and some residents are trying to make the best of it. Laundry hangs on lines. At a few trailers, gardens grow, and in some cases, several residents have pushed their trailers together to make a communal courtyard.
And a second camp, named Azraq, is being readied nearby with a capacity for another 130,000 refugees.
Many of the residents have their own solution to the violence that has engulfed their homeland — eliminate al-Assad.
While the Harper government has called on al-Assad to leave office, Harper voiced a cautioned that the president’s departure alone would not end the crisis.
“I don’t think . . . we should be simplistic about the nature of the conflict here, about the threats posed by extreme and brutal elements on both sides of the conflict,” Harper said.
“Obviously as a government we’re doing what we can to encourage . . . the development of modern and broadly based opposition to the regime and doing what we can to encourage reconciliation and peace process between the two sides,” he told reporters.
Zaatari refugee camp
By the end of January, 60,000 tents will have been replaced by $100 million worth of trailers, thanks to contributions from Gulf states.
2,500 shops, streetside vendors operated by Syrians themselves selling prepared food, vegetables and fruit, clothing.