Bitter memories, little hope for Syrian refugees

By Erin Banco and Sophia Jones 

MAFRAQ, Jordan – As the rate of defections increases and the battle intensifies in Aleppo, leading international powers are preparing for a new reality in Syria, one that will determine their political survival globally. But civilians who find themselves at the entrance of Jordan’s Zaatri refugee camp are dealing with a reality disconnected entirely from the fighting they fled just days ago.

While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad solidified the country’s alliance with Iran in a meeting on Tuesday in Damascus, representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rushed to break up a skirmish outside the registration tent. Although most refugees in the camp say their alliances lie with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and support the mission, their immediate concerns are not tied to politics. They worry about feeding their children and finding a decent place to go to the bathroom. Barefoot children walk on the hot gravel road and others wear face masks or scarves to cover their faces from the harsh, sandy winds.

Noor, a seven-year-old girl living in the camp with her family, crossed the border into Jordan nine days ago. She sat with her mother, father and brothers in a tent on the furthest end of the site, her skin matted with thick dust from the frequent sandstorms that pass through the camp. Her mother said that before they left Syria, her school was bombed by Assad’s forces. Her teachers scrambled to remove the children from the building, but during the chaos, Noor was taken by government soldiers. As we spoke about her kidnapping, Noor smiled meekly, and a large wet stain began to seep through her dusty jeans. Her mother handed her new pants. She had several options.

“I like the pink ones. They make noise when you walk. See? Listen,” she said as she wrinkled the pants through her fingertips.
Humanitarian crisis
Noor’s story is one echoed by many refugees residing in Jordan, both inside and outside the camp. Because of the bombing in Syria, many refugees said they were experiencing sleep deprivation, nightmares and bladder-control issues, symptoms often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But these conditions, often labeled as less severe than physical injuries, are virtually untreated within the camp. There is no psychological counselor available to speak with those who are suffering.

But PTSD is not the only medical condition that is difficult to treat in the camp. Several refugees said that they suffered from diabetes, but had nowhere to refrigerate their insulin.

According to recent UN figures, more than 142,000 refugees have fled to Jordan since the conflict broke out in Syrian last year, but only 37,000 have registered as asylum seekers.

Kamel Deriche, deputy representative for UNHCR Jordan, said the new camp in Mafraq held more than 3,500 people – about 3% of the total number of refugees known to be residing in the country. But the camp has the capacity of holding 25,000 people. Bulldozers in a dusty adjacent field are making room for the possible waves of new refugees should the conflict in Syria escalate. Despite the relatively small number of refugees living in the camp, UNHCR and other local charity organizations are already experiencing logistical problems, most of them as a result of limited funds.

Deriche said the regional response plan was funded at 26% for Jordan, but that number only satisfied about one-third of the needs of UNHCR Jordan. The Zaatri refugee camp, which opened officially last week, was not part of the initial response plan and the group has requested to double the figure to provide for the refugees better.

The camp “is one of the worst places I have seen in my humanitarian life”, Deriche said. “There is heat, severe dust, windstorms and sandstorms, and this is just the beginning of the tragedy.”

The politics that come hand in hand with international donations have weighed heavily on aid efforts. Unlike FSA officials and defectors in Jordan, refugee families in the Zaatri camp are not demanding international military intervention in Syria, but rather, refugee aid for asylum seekers like themselves.

“We didn’t come here to commit suicide, we came here to flee the violence,” Noor’s mother said.

The UNHCR is asking for outside donations to aid in the establishment and operation of Zaatri camp, as well as other refugee programs in Jordan. Deriche stressed the crucial role the Gulf countries may play in the coming months, noting the Saudi king’s national fundraising campaign, which reaped more than US$100 million in just a few days.

Communication gap
Although the conflict in Syria dominates media and political discourse, refugees inside the Zaatri camp are left with few ways of following the situation in their home country.

“Do you know where Assad is? He is dead,” one woman said as she waited in line to meet with UN registration officials.

But on Tuesday, Assad’s meeting with Saeed Jalil, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, made international headlines, as it was the Syrian president’s first television appearance in more than two weeks. Many refugees in the camp were not informed of the development.

The camp has no Internet and limited electricity. Walking down a path on the perimeter of the camp, an adolescent boy followed us and asked if we could charge his phone. Within Syria, war is raging not only on the ground, but also in cyberspace. Both sides of the conflict are using the Web to spread false information to weaken each other.

The information and communication gaps among refugees in Jordan may create a problem once they return home. Syria will have to rebuild itself based on unverified information and conspiracy theories.

Yet despite their disconnect from the situation just over the border, political and religious slogans mark many of the white UNHCR tents dotting Zaatri, one reading: “We will have our victory, or we will die.”

Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Follow her onTwitter @ErinBanco. Sophia Jones is a Ramallah-based freelance journalist and Overseas Press Club fellow. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_mjones.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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