Few experiences in life change you the moment they happen to you. My short time at Azraq Refugee Camp is one of those rare cases.
It was both unforgettable in the way it challenged me, just by the very nature of my surroundings, but also enlightening in the stories of triumph and defiance that were shared with me.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my twenty-six years on this earth, and I know I’ll never forget it.
We arrived bright and early, on another blistering hot morning. A quick checkpoint inside the main gate we waited at yesterday, and we were met with smiles this time, instead of frustration. It’s amazing what several permission forms will do!
For context, the camp is 90 km from Syria, 255 km from Iraq, and 75 km away from Saudi Arabia.
The camp sent a worker with the Interior Ministry of Jordan to lead us around for the day. We were lucky to have him, as the camp sits on an enormous stretch of land.
Azraq is nearly 15 square kilometres, and has the potential to house over 100,000 refugees, making it the second largest refugee camp in the entire world. The first is Dadaab camp in Kenya.
Azraq was built on the same site where Iraqi and Kuwaiti refugees were housed during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.
It was used as a transit camp then, and it’s clear that Azraq isn’t meant to be a permanent solution now either.
Our guide brought us up to the highest point of the camp, overlooking the vast landscape of rows upon rows of white steel and tin caravan houses.
Over 36,000 people have escaped something they can no longer go back to, and now call Azraq home, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Coming up over the hill, it was as though we were peering over some sort of prison scene out of a movie on Mars. Dusty roads, surrounded by sand and rocks, and these white steel “tents” lined up in neat little rows, sectioned off in neat little villages.
None of it seemed real.
But it’s reality at Azraq.
The camp is divided into villages, each one with a number, a certain amount of rows, and a certain amount of caravans per row. It’s an organized system, down to an art form.
The villages are separated based on family types – so single women in one area, families in another, etc.
Families of up to seven people live in one house, anything over that and they’re given a second shelter.
Each village has a school, where boys and girls attend separately. The girls in the morning, and the boys in the afternoon – every child has access to education.
Access to energy and electricity is another story. There’s a plan in the works, with solar panels lining the road when you enter the camp. The goal is to provide enough power to operate lights, a fan, keep food cold in a fridge, and maybe even watch TV.
It’s a work in progress, with solar streetlights and lanterns being distributed by UNHCR in the meantime.
Electricity isn’t the only issue. Unemployment is high at the camp, as well as in Jordan in general.
One way UNHCR has tried to combat this is with two market areas operating inside the camp walls.
In total, there are 200 shops, half of them owned by Syrian refugees in the camp, and the other half by Jordanians in surrounding communities, outside the camp.
You can buy anything – from Nescafe specialty coffee, to hair clips, to bicycles, to phone repair services.
That’s where we met Nedal, a 28-year-old man working inside a cell phone repair hut.
He escaped Daraa, Syria with his wife and child five years ago, and has been living at Azraq for a year.
Tinkering with the back of an open cell phone, he explained what he left behind.
“In a word, disaster,” he said, through JHR trainer Mohammed Shamma, as my interpreter.
His town was under siege by the Syrian Regime, and destroyed everything in its path.
He escaped to Irbid, Jordan, but was there illegally. Jordanian police were forced to transfer him and his family to Azraq, instead.
Walking along the neatly lined shops, we then entered an accessory store.
The owner, 38-year-old Faisal, escaped Homs in 2014 with his wife and their seven children.
Faisal is one of the originals at Azraq, here since its opening in April 2014.
Back home in Syria, he worked in a shop very similar to the one he now runs in the camp. UNHCR helped him set it up, with supplies and a space, to make life seem as normal as possible.
But the situation isn’t as normal, or as easy, as he wishes it could be.
“People don’t have money,” he said, with frustration in his voice.
Every person at the camp is given 20JOD (roughly $37 CDN) per month from the World Food Programme.
This usually goes towards the expensive grocery bill, leaving little room for extras, like those sold in Faisal’s shop.
But at the end of the day, he’s happy to have a job and a place to earn a little extra for his family.
“What can I do, I have nothing to do but this shop,” he said.
Add to this the story of Jumala, a 31-year-old single mother who left Hamas when her husband was killed in the war.
She lives in the sixth village with her three and a half year old son. She leaves him with their neighbours when she goes to work, because they’ve all become like family.
A new family, a family she no longer has close to her.
“You leave your home and an explosion happens beside you, I remember, it was so hard,” she recounted. “How can I deal with this bomb and take my child and run away from this bad situation.”
That bad situation killed both of her parents and two of her siblings.
She was with another sister in a nearby town, and survived the explosion that took her family and her childhood home.
She has relatives in Canada, Lebanon and some who still live in Damascus. She said it’s hard to communicate with any of them and know how they’re doing, but she thinks about them constantly.
As for her one wish for her scattered family?
“I wish to be with all of them, here.”
She’s made Azraq her home and doesn’t plan to leave any time soon. It’s as stable as life can get for her right now.
When things calm down in Syria – if things calm down in Syria – she’ll return to her former home.
“What can I do? I will survive,” she said.
Survival is the name of the game at Azraq – everyone is just trying to live their lives.
We walked to the third village, just outside of the market, to meet with some families. None of these meetings had been set up ahead of time; they simply invited us into their homes to share their stories.
On our right, and two houses in, Mohammed welcomed us into his caravan.
He held back the plastic makeshift door covering, cut into strips from a UNHCR tarp.
We removed our shoes in the front hall of his home, and he told us to sit wherever we wanted.
The floor was lined with orange and blue UNHCR burlap mats, and grey mattresses circled an open space in the centre of their home.
Mohammed is 32 and lives with his wife and their two young children. His daughter is four and a half, and his son is only six months old, born in the camp.
He explained proudly that his daughter will start pre-school next Sunday.
Mohammed’s story is unique, in that he moved around from place to place before deciding it was time to get out of Syria.
His family lived in a few towns, but Syrian police kept following him around, and they felt it was best to leave.
The final straw came when air strikes began decimating Damascus.
As for life in Azraq?
“I’m satisfied with my situation here,” he said. “It’s not bad here but I’m not comfortable with the weather and dust and everything.”
He’s not alone.
For many, summer is the worst at this camp. The dust and heat alone would drive anyone to leave, but there’s nowhere to go. Given the chance, though, Mohammed would take it.
“Give me five minutes, I’m ready with my family.”
To pass the time, he explained that his family naps, plays with their birds (they have a pigeon coup beside their home), visits the markets, or works.
Mohammed was a restaurant worker back home, and wishes he could find a similar job here, at the camp.
For now, he works at a cleaning centre for a few extra dollars a day for his family.
There’s an Incentive Based Volunteering (IBV) program set up for refugees, where they play an active role in how the camp actually functions, and earn some extra income.
Mohammed says it’s not much, but it’s something.
A brief moment of silence is broken by the laughter of the dozen or so children who have followed us into Mohammed’s home.
They keep glancing at me and giggling, playing peek-a-boo between interview questions, and coyly trying to draw my attention.
We finished the interview and headed outside to see Mohammed’s birds, and the children followed.
We all high-fived, and I made sure each and every one of the kids felt special, at least for a brief moment.
As we walked away, a girl, maybe only ten or eleven years old, declared “I love you,” staring up at me with her big brown eyes.
The heart pangs were immediate, and I turned back several times to continue waving to them.
Another girl ran up to us and asked disappointedly why we didn’t ask to visit her home. She called out to her mother, who didn’t want to be interviewed, even informally.
Our guide explained that many women don’t want to speak about their experiences without their husbands present; it can be a cultural thing.
It wasn’t an issue , though, for Omad and her daughter Leila, who saw us walking down the row of shelters and invited us inside.
We were warmly welcomed into their strategically decorated caravan. Sheets hung a third of the way through the room, acting as a divider for privacy. The same UNHCR mats and grey mattresses were spread out, much like Mohammed’s house.
This mother and daughter pair stayed home while the husband and son of the family were in a nearby town, waiting for surgery.
The father has an ulcer, and though emergency services are provided in the camp, surgeries are another kind of medical issue best dealt with in one of the nearby hospitals, with UNHCR covering the cost.
The family escaped their dangerous life in Homs nearly six years ago, when the first signs of the Arab Spring had sprung.
They set out for Aleppo, but the situation took a turn there as well, and they decided to move to Jordan, since other members of their family live here.
The tight-knit family has another son living in Istanbul, Turkey, and if given the chance, they’d leave to all be together.
“The situation in the camp isn’t good, but [it’s] definitely much better than Syria,” Omad explained. “It’s not easy, there’s no opportunity for work here.”
Her husband has struggled to find work in the camp. He was able to find a job for a month, but it didn’t last – she didn’t explain why.
We were interrupted by her two friends yelling through the window about a sale at the “mall,” or grocery store.
It was a good enough deal for them to come inside and sit and tell us about it.
A Sale is a Sale
A drive away from the third village, or roughly a 15-minute walk, and you reach the Sameh Mall, aka the grocery store.
Today, all produce was on sale and it was busy, to say the least.
We met a man at the market named Abdullah, who stood beside us in crutches, and immediately wanted to tell his story.
He left Aleppo with his wife and their 10 children. He hurt his back when a bomb went off next to him, and shrapnel ripped through his body.
He still has trouble walking, but is glad to be alive.
That doesn’t mean he’s content with his current situation, though.
He explained that the money given to each family from UNHCR isn’t enough to support an actual life. Yes they receive money each month, and loaves of bread daily, but the food is expensive and a family of ten goes through it quickly.
It can take two hours just to buy groceries, and that’s when there isn’t a sale.
Throngs of people snaked through the grocery store with their boxes of produce and goods in front of them, waiting in line to buy everything. Always waiting.
When they eventually reach the front, their electronic vouchers come up on the computer. Through an EyePay iris scanning system, the registration database shows how many family members are in each family, in other words, how much money they have to spend on food today.
Another necessary part of life: moving forward.
We hopped in the car and made our way to the UNICEF after-school program area.
Azraq is dotted with basketball courts, soccer pitches and other such centres for people to pass the time, but the work being done at the UNICEF centre is unlike anything else.
Much like regular school, the boys and girls are separated, but all have a chance to partake in the variety of activities available to them – from a painting centre, to computer labs, a soccer field, teakwondo lessons, to life skills and development teaching.
We met with Noelle, a refugee herself, who is now a teacher at the activity centre. She quickly put on a cartoon for the children to watch, while she explained the work she and her team are trying to accomplish.
They usually have 30 to 40 participants, and aim to give shy or scared children the opportunity to flourish.
She explained that it can be a struggle when girls are coming from terrifying lives in Syria and become afraid of their surroundings, even at the camp. The change alone is enough to make anyone nervous.
The activity centre provides these children a place to be themselves and learn how to deal with all of life’s difficulties – both old and new.
The children get together either outside, or in one of the trailers on site, kind of like a classroom. The one we visited was decorated with colourful artwork and crafts, all sorts of happy things you’d see at any school back home. There’s also a Canadian flag on the wall, as the centre is partially funded by Canada’s support.
I let the girls get to their Zumba lesson, as I stepped out of the trailer to speak with Malek Al Bitar, a project officer with UNICEF and Mercy Corps.
He explained the activity centre is there to provide psychosocial support for kids who come from terrible, extreme, and stressful situations.
“Adolescents from stressful situations…they become more aggressive, they don’t like life, they lose themselves,” he explained. “What we are trying to do here is just reconnect them.”
It seems to be working. He gave the example of a young girl named Roba, who wanted nothing to do with the centre. Now, she’s the captain of the soccer team, and thriving.
“Every day is a success story,” Al Bitar said with a smile.
Noelle and one of the girls poked their heads out of the trailer and asked if I wanted to come inside to see their Zumba dance.
Without hesitation, I jumped from my bench and headed inside.
As I sat there, watching them give their all – successfully I might add – I found myself welling up with tears. Though I didn’t let them fall, the fact alone that I was invited into such a private, yet joyful and proud moment, speaks volumes.
The dancing ended for the day, but it won’t as long as programs like these continue for these children.
We pulled away in our car, ready to leave the camp, and three boys approached us and began racing beside us. They waved excitedly, almost begging for my attention and returned gestures from the car.
At the end of the day, all of these stories, and all of these people, they just want to live their lives and make something of their future.
Innocent children have gotten caught up in the middle of a bloody civil war, but through it all, nothing stops them from being just that – kids.
Although there’s always room for improvement, and the daily struggle continues for these families, forward is better than anything that was left behind.