October 25, 2014 1 Comment
When Wa’el Jiradha was kidnapped by an armed group in Damascus, his wife Nazeq Aliqu had to use most of their savings to pay the nearly $6,000 in ransom that the group demanded.
“They beat me, they took my money, two mobile phones and my wife’s gold necklace,” said Jiradha, 32, recalling the four-hour ordeal.
Jiradha, a clothes trader, doesn’t know who detained him. Kidnappings for ransom have become a common tactic to raise money for resources, or the release of prisoners on either side, in the protracted fight between rebels and the Syrian government – a civil war that, now in its fourth year, has cost more than 160,000 lives and displaced about 9 million people making it the fastest-growing exodus since the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Syrians the world’s largest refugee population.
Robbed of their savings, Jiradha and Aliqu found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as the price of food and rent in the war-torn capital kept rising. Three months after the kidnapping, hunger forced them to flee their home they could no longer afford. To avoid the risk of being stopped, interrogated or captured by rebels or government forces at checkpoints, friends helped smuggle them on to the back of a truck. They felt like sheep and it was hot, they said. After nine hours travelling south, they reached the safer confines of neighbouring Jordan where border officials directed them to Azraq, Jordan’s newest refugee camp in the north.
They were among the first wave of refugees at Azraq arriving on May 4, in the first week of the camp’s official opening. And completely unprepared for their new home awaiting them.
“After the long journey, my wife fainted when she saw the empty caravan with a gravel floor,” said Jiradha. “She is six months pregnant, she has anemia, and I was shocked, frustrated and very angry. It is very hot and we are sitting on gravel.”
Jordan is a hot country all around at this time of year with temperatures soaring well above 30 C and a humidity of almost 70 per cent, but the harsh desert winds are especially noticeable in the wide open spaces surrounding the camp. Although Azraq’s modern shelters are better designed to keep out extreme heat and cold better than the tents and caravans at other United Nations refugee camps, the air inside the zinc and steel containers is nonetheless still and stifling, and summer is only just beginning.
“We are not used to this kind of heat,” says Aliqu, 29, sitting on a tarpaulin sheet on the ground to soften the feel of grainy sand and sharp pebbles under her. “Since we arrived, my skin has been red and itchy and I cannot sleep at night because of it.”
Azraq is a brand new civilization with a population of just over 7,000 people, and like any living entity, it is not immune to birth pangs. In some ways, it is trying to emulate Zaatari, its older sister, also in the north, and Jordan’s largest refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but officials say there are lessons to be learnt from Zaatari and incidents to be avoided.
Zaatari grew organically in response to the daily influx of hundreds fleeing violent scenes of death and destruction in their home towns. Many came from Daraa, a stone’s throw north of the border with Jordan, as well as from Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, still farther north. The camp was borne out of necessity, and shelters, schools, hospitals and healthcare programs for those injured and traumatized in the war needed to be set up in a hurry. While local authorities, UN officials and aid workers scrambled to keep pace with the steadily increasing stream of refugees, the camp witnessed multiple uprisings against the very people responsible for building it.
Maintaining peace and order was arguably the biggest challenge at Zaatari. There have been multiple riots and deadly clashes between refugees and police officers. In January 2013, there were reports of refugees attacking aid workers with sticks and stones in frustration over their poor living conditions. More recently, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee was killed and 29 police officers were injured in a melee that both the refugees and police have vastly different accounts of. A week later, local media reported the discovery of weapons-grade explosive materials in the camp. There have also been reports of sexual assaults and small amounts of heroin being smuggled in for individual use.
Azraq has had the advantages of foresight and prior planning, say UN and local officials, and has therefore not seen crime on the same scale as Zaatari. The most serious crimes reported so far are the theft of personal belongings from people’s tents.
“We have learnt lessons from Zaatari,” said General Waddah Hmoud, director of the Syrian Refugee Camp Affairs. “Till now, we haven’t had any serious complaints from the refugees. The situation is running very smoothly.”
When the Zaatari camp was created in July 2012, refugees were initially all lumped together in one unit and there was no gendarmerie for more than six months. In January 2013, Hmoud’s staff began to re-organize the camp into sectors to make policing easier. Azraq has been pre-planned for a year to contain villages of approximately 13,000 people in each. There are four villages with four community police stations, and two sub-stations for every two villages.
Canada has invested $7.5 million in these police stations, Civil Defence offices and a Joint Operations Centre which is the main hub for camp security. A further $100 million in development assistance over five years has been pledged, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Another take-away from Zaatari that helped quell discontent as the camp got re-structured was to have relatives living together, said Hmoud. Now, spaces have been left between shelters at Azraq in case more family members arrive in the future. It is hoped that this structure will also reduce reports of sexual assault and harassment of females. There are two washrooms for every six shelters at Azraq essentially making them family washrooms, said Hmoud.
The April incident that claimed the life of a young Syrian man was initially, according to media reports, triggered by the detention of refugees trying to exit the camp without permission from the police. Hmoud, however, said the fighting started when police tried to search the bags of refugees entering the camp through back roads. It is not clear who fired the bullet that killed the refugee. It was the first major incident in more than a year since Zaatari began to be reorganized and the gendarmerie arrived.
At both Azraq and Zaatari, refugees must get permission to leave the camp. At both camps, refugees have tried to escape without being noticed, usually to find work even though it is against the law. If they are caught, police write up a report and return them to their shelters.
“It’s not a jail,” said Hmoud. “Refugees have a right to leave the camp to visit friends and family.”
Azraq is located near a military airport base and is designed to accommodate 130,000 people. It it meets this limit, it will overtake Zaatari as Jordan’s largest refugee camp where an estimated 85,000 people currently live. The camps only represent about 20 per cent of the Syrian refugee population in Jordan, however.
The Jordanian government approved the construction of Azraq in March 2013 when approximately 3,000 new refugees were arriving each day and Zaatari’s population ballooned to over 120,000 – just over twice the number it was designed to accommodate. Although construction began a year ahead of time to deal with a projected increase in refugees, some basic infrastructure elements are still missing. The all-natural gravel floors, which the UNHCR says will eventually be covered by compacted base course (a concrete composite), are a case in point.
The remote location of the camp also means that it is not hooked up to an electrical grid. Families are given two solar lanterns when they arrive and these can be used to charge cell phones as well. There are also charging stations throughout the camp that are powered by generators.
The eventual goal is to find solar solutions to power everybody’s needs at Azraq, said Andreas Needham, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at Azraq. The UNHCR is looking at a proposal to install a small solar panel on each roof. The solution would cost $100 per household and be capable of running larger appliances such as fans.
Perhaps the most positive lesson to be learnt from Zaatari is its large and bustling marketplace borne out of the enterprising nature of refugees needing more than the aid they receive, or just needing something to do. The sale of groceries, clothing, household appliances and salons, and even video game stores have given rise to a robust economy helping refugees earn a livelihood. Needham said a marketplace is in the works for Azraq as well.
“Zaatari happened overnight. At Azraq, it will be more planned with more regulations whereby the authorities will regulate the plots or the market stands,” Needham said. “It will be a mix of Jordanian retailers from the local area so there is a benefit to the economy and also refugees.”
Although Azraq is relatively peaceful, it has its own challenges. Its far-flung distance from the nearest town – at least 45 minutes driving at the speed limit – could make it difficult for refugees to ship goods in and for trade to flourish. With nothing but a long stretch of highway and desert sands for miles around, it is also difficult for refugees to visit their relatives outside the camp. The improvement of current living conditions, including the provision of steady, 24-7 electricity, depends on international funding – a joint funding appeal for $1.3 billion for 2014 by 64 aid agencies working in Jordan has received 27 per cent of the funds to date. There is only one supermarket within the camp where food vouchers can be used and it is difficult for some refugees to walk to considering the vastness of the camp and the crushing heat of the desert sun. Needham says another supermarket could be opened if the camp’s population grows large enough. And although there is a water station approximately 50 metres away from each camp resident, it is an arduous task for some to carry jugs of water back to their tents for drinking, washing dishes or laundry.
Farouq Khadri, 50, says he has had to rely on the kindness of his neighbours to help him fetch water because of injuries to his knee ligaments. He had only been in Azraq for two days, having arrived with his wife and four teenage children from a town on the outskirts of Damascus. The sounds of tanks, scenes of houses shelled to rubble around his own, news of car bombs and random interrogations at army checkpoints haunts him, he says.
Khadri says he was shocked to find how hot, isolated and uncomfortable Azraq is. The daily inconveniences – being confined inside a temporary shelter for most of the day because of the heat, and no furniture save for mattresses and plastic sheets to cover a hard uneven floor – are the hardest, but he is relieved to find a safe abode for his family.
“We suffered in fear and horror,” said Khadri. “I thought the whole country would be destroyed. I was afraid for my life and my family’s life. The food vouchers we get here are not enough to feed my family, but we are relieved to be here.”