Restless in Zaatari

Syrians in the world’s largest refugee camp are no more comfortable than when they first arrived two years ago.

Zaatari refugee camp with Syria in the distance. (photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
Zaatari refugee camp with Syria in the distance.
(photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
LAST SPRING, Jordanian officials found themselves in a bind. The Syrian refugees at Zaatari had lodged several requests for cement to pave roads, build basic infra - structure and construct trenches for waste.
The appeals had increased in frequency.
And, yet, the Hashemite Kingdom – with its open arms and borders – had drawn a line in the sand, right in front of the cement trucks.
The laying of cement would change this place fundamentally. Virtually overnight, the miles of sprawl of temporary tents would take a concrete step toward permanence. That was not a step with which the government in Amman was comfortable.
Nevertheless, the 80,000 people here – who chose to flee violence from the northern war and seek the help of the world – would not take no for an answer. Without the Kingdom’s help, they would attempt to build hardtop roads themselves.
In preparation, the grounds throughout this barren terrain were plowed up for gravel without much success – and with some unintended consequences. The sandstorms, which pass through here on a near-daily basis, are now aggravated by the plowing of that thin layer of ground that held together the dust beneath.
They come unannounced, the dust devils, rushing uninvited into the ram - shackle homes and jerry-built shops of these refugees. They drag the slow- moving camp to a halt. The meat on shwarma racks, on display along the city’s two main commercial arteries, is caked with dust; the stores fortunate enough to feature doors and windows quickly become refuge for those loitering outside. The dust blows through without a sound and with great speed and, once gone, the storekeepers emerge to sweep away what the twisters left behind. The fresh fruits, now dirtied, are still in high demand.
August 2014 marked two years since the Zaatari refugee camp, still a temporary facility run jointly by the Jordanian government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began accepting residents from across the border. More than 450,000 people have passed through the camp since; 56 percent of its inhabitants to - day are under 18 years old.
In recent months, reports from the camp have reflected the resilience of its residents – without a coherent organization, the people here have improvised, building a life out of nothing and a community out of hopelessness.
That hopelessness has been indiscriminate. It has blindsided families across the socioeconomic spectrum in Syria, shocked that they, too, have become a part of the refugee experience. Some of the wealthier mi - grants to this desert came with just enough money to invest in a storefront on one of the camp’s thoroughfares. All, including those with savings, left unexpectedly and with few belongings.
“We are less comfortable than when we first arrived, simply because we are still living here,” Abu Mohammed tells The Jerusalem Report, as his children play nearby. Mohammed, from Dara’a, in southwestern Syria, lives on less than one dollar a day; he sold his caravan to feed his five children. He was a truck driver in Syria. Now in his late fifties – what skills can he offer the people of Zaatari, in terms of work that pays? Documents are the common item carried by most refugees crossing over from Syria, where more than 150,000 have been killed in three years of fighting. One boy brought two of his books, now almost completely memorized. One woman carried with her a suitcase full of bottled cooking oil, afraid she would run out and would be unable to feed her family.
There is a grocery store on the edge of the camp and cooking oil is its most popular  item. The store accepts coupons distributed by UNHCR and stocks the basics, as well as some pricier items, such as cake mix, lending an aura of luxury to shoppers who have few alternatives.
The Jordanian government, to the pleas - ant surprise of many, has not yet shut its borders and has generally accommodated the influx of biblical proportions. This de - spite the fact that many of those who have passed into Jordan – more than 3,000 per day this summer, according to UNHCR – have chosen to make their way to Jordan’s cities, putting massive security, economic and political burdens on the government.
If the Syrian refugees were to become permanent Jordanian residents – and all evidence suggests they will be unable to re - turn home into the near future – they would constitute nearly 20 percent of the country’s entire population.
“It’s becoming a lot more stringent at the border,” notes Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s representative to Jordan. “We have seen a notable decrease in the numbers of people who have crossed over.”
That decrease, Harper informs The Report, has coincided with a spike in killing in the regions of Syria bordering Jordan. The casualty count per week is now in the hundreds, the highest rate since the war began.
The refugee experience is part of Jordanian culture. Before the Syrian crisis began in 2011, nearly half of all Jordanian nationals identified as originally Palestinian and almost one in 10 hailed from Iraq or Kuwait.
And yet, the Kingdom has specifically singled out the Palestinians in Syria as unwelcome, drawing yet another line in the sand. Jordanian security at the border presumes that those without documents at - tempting to cross are of Palestinian descent.
They are refused entry.
More than 100 refugees have been deported on suspicion of being Palestinian, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Jordan’s Foreign Ministry says that Palestinian Syrians should instead go to their ancestral homeland – in Israel.
The most pressing concern, however, is the possible existential threat to the state – infiltration by jihadis. Strict security at the border attempts to filter out jihadists from those who legitimately seek refuge.
Two areas in Dara’a, on the border, have been “broadly” infiltrated by the Islamic State jihadist movement, one security source in Amman tells The Report.
“The issue isn’t the threat coming from the border,” the official says. “It’s what the infiltrators can trigger inside Jordan.”
Zaatari itself may host groups of “relatively moderate fighters who moved to Zaatari and who, over time, became more radicalized.”
The Zaatari camp is located near Mafraq, a center and crossroads between Amman, Damascus and Baghdad. It is one of the cities described by the security community as becoming radicalized Many Zaatari residents have family fighting just over the border, in clear sight of the hilltop settlement. One boy, Yousef, 18, says he believes that his father is a member of Al-Nusra, a branch of Al-Qaida. “We stayed until the last minute,” Yousef says, “until the killing started. The [Assad] army blew up an entire family of 11 by the road, tearing them into pieces right before our eyes.”
That image has stayed with Yousef, who has been a Zaatari resident for 18 months.
But the story doesn’t faze him as he prepares a mattress to host visitors in an otherwise empty shipping container that serves as his home.
He hopes to study computer science one day back in Syria, Yousef says, adding that the family with him in Zaatari “expects to return.”
Harper, who used to manage UNHCR’s Iraq support unit, says what has become self-evident to many: The region has be - come a “complete dog’s breakfast” of bloody conflicts.
Jordan remains secure, he contends in the early morning interview. But that “certainly can’t be taken for granted.”