Syrian refugees find consolation in Jordanian camps

Expatriates from the Syrian civil war question whether refugee status is better than violence at home.

August 3, 2012 12:01
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp in Jordan

Syrian refugees at Zaatari camp in Jordan 370 (R). (photo credit: Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)


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ZAATARI CAMP, JORDAN – Angered at having been forced from their homes and what they say is humiliation at the hands of aid group and local police, Syrian nationals who have crossed into neighboring Jordan to find refuge and an escape from life-threatening violence, are complaining bitterly of life in the hurriedly set-up Zaatari refugee camp. Stormy weather and simmering heat adding to their misery, some of the refugees have begun protests, insisting they would be better off back home taking their chances with mindless artillery shells and snipers than in Jordan suffering in low standards of living, a lack of proper food and an absence of medical services.

Jordan security forces cordoned the camp and stopped protesters from leaving after hearing the demonstrators say they would prefer to return to temporary centers in the heart of border town of Ramtha, where the spent the past months, rather than continue living in the desert camp.

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Abu Kamel, an activist from the restive city of Deraa, told The Media Line that refugees would rather face death under Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime than face humiliation abroad. The rugged and dark skin of Abu Kamal are symptoms of arduous life. The barrel chest man, speaking from beneath his thick mustache, said he arrived in Jordan two months ago after learning he was wanted by the air force intelligence services for giving a tour to UN observers in his home town of Harak. “They wanted me dead or alive. I had to leave my family behind and run for it,” he said, recalling scenes of horror on the border as he crossed under fire from Syrian border guards.

He almost didn’t make it. The 57-year old was shot and injured while trying to cross clandestinely to Jordan.

Another refugee, who gave his name as Abu Ahmed from Homs, echoed the anger of Abu Kamal. “They promised to provide good conditions, but the situation is bad,” he said. “Living in Homs under bombardment” is better than life in the desolate Zaatari camp."

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“Until now, the situation is zero, as if we are not humans. I am saying we were sitting under bombardment, but it was more honorable and comfortable,” he added.


Both men have spent the past two months in the King Abdullah Reception Centre for single men, most of whom are activists escaping prosecution by Syrian government forces.

When the crisis in Syria began, Jordan resisted the temptation of opening refugee camps on geopolitical and economic grounds, preferring instead to disperse asylum seekers within the urban population. But rising numbers of refugees and incoming aid helped Jordan reconsider its position. The first camp opened earlier this week and the government said as many as 20 camps could be opened in future.

The King Abdullah Centre, a sports complex turned into a makeshift holding facility for refugees, has witnessed repeated clashes between refugees, police and staff from the United Nations agency for refugees, UNHCR.

Eye witnesses told The Media Line that authorities have sent tens of Syrian activists back to Syria for provoking protests at the center. But while UN officials defend the facility, saying they are doing their best to provide proper conditions, they complain of a lack of funding from the international community and call for patience among the refugees.

"When we have 1,400 to 2,000 people arriving every night, we have to do what we can. People make a decision that this maybe is a desert, but it is better to be here than to be in Syria at the moment,'" Andrew Harper, UNHCR representative to Jordan said as UN staff continued evacuating families from makeshift homes in Ramtha and Mafraq to relocate them in the camp.

Zaatari is set up on an area of 300 square kilometers and can accommodate up to 9,000 people. Jordanian officials said more camps will be opened in the near future on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria that covers 84 kilometers, running between the cities of Mafraq and Ramtha.

The Jordanian authorities estimate about 142,000 Syrians have come to Jordan since the uprising began, but diplomats say not all of them are classified as refugees. In Ramtha, dozens of arrivals refused to go to the new camp at Mafraq, saying they would rather return to Syria than stay in the desert.

Meanwhile, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said on July 29 that his country will continue providing the safe haven that the Syrians seek but asked for help from the international community. “At the same time, given the numbers, the increasing numbers that we have seen in the last few months, we sought the assistance of friends around the world - the international community, international organizations, and in particular… UNHCR,” Minister Judeh said during a press conference.

Most Syrian refugees have found accommodations on their own or through Islamist charities and compatriots who had fled during an earlier wave of repression by Assad's father, the late President Hafez Al-Assad, in the 1980s.

Syrian troops have tried to prevent refugees from crossing into Jordan by mining parts of the border, and in some cases, shooting at fleeing civilians, which has prompted Jordan to send armored reinforcements to the frontier.

Diplomats say there have been several instances of Jordanian and Syrian forces exchanging fire following the killing of refugees as they attempted to cross, while they were in the "no-man's land" between the two countries.

Meanwhile, refugees in Zaatari camp say they have no choice but to endure the living conditions in hope that the crisis in their country ends very soon.

“We are suffering not only because of the difficult life here, but we are also worried about our country, our families and what the future holds for us,” said distraught looking Abu Kamal.

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