Building Azraq, the newest Syrian refugee camp

Jordan, Syria

August 30, 2013

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  • Jordan Country Director Rob Maroni explains how Mercy Corps is constructing a playground at Azraq, a new camp being built for Syrian refugees. It will be able to host up to 130,000 people. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

The camp at Zataari is one of the largest and now best-known refugee camps in the world. Over the last year, as refugee flows from Syria into Jordan have accelerated, the population of Zataari Camp has swelled to an estimated 120,000 residents, making it the fourth largest "city" in Jordan.

With refugee numbers expected to keep climbing — whether a Western-led missile strike occurs in Syria or not — aid groups are working around the clock to get a second major refugee camp at Azraq up and running by early September.

"This place has four times the area of Zataari for half the population," says Mercy Corps Jordan Country Director Rob Maroni as he drives into the massive and mostly empty desert-like area. "This could accommodate up to 130,000 people at some point."

In a conversation with Maroni and Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, senior field coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I asked whether they were applying lessons of Zataari to the design of Azraq. A couple interesting things emerged:

They need more space per person than they have allocated in Zataari.

They are decentralizing services like water points, schools and medical facilities, essentially creating small "villages" within the camp so people get to know their neighbors and don't have to walk as far for everything.

They are assigning refugees to the camp's villages according to their home of origin in Syria, so they can be close to people they know.

"I'd like to find a way to plant more trees," says Castel-Hollingsworth. "So far I have counted six trees in an area that is 15 square kilometers in size. We need more shade here."

But trees and people need water, and that is in extremely short supply in Jordan.

That's where Mercy Corps comes in.

As we did in Zataari, we have drilled the first major well for Azraq Camp, with the support of UNICEF and Xylem, and that well is expected to serve at least 40,000 of Azraq's first residents.

Mercy Corps is also working hard to get playgrounds and other youth-dedicated facilities operational in early September in preparation for the arrival of additional refugees. More than half of all refugees in Jordan are children, and they have very special needs in this situation.

"Kids and adolescents really benefit from sense of normalcy when they have been through this kind of experience," Maroni says. "They need to move and play and express themselves, and we help them do that in a safe, organized way."

Q+A: How our work is helping Syrian children heal from trauma

Maroni says Mercy Corps will build at least 14 activity centers for kids and youth in Azraq Camp, offering everything from playground equipment to computer labs to art spaces, all supervised by trained Syrian adults.

"It's so important to bring some energy to this otherwise joyless situation for kids," says Maroni, who has school-aged children of his own.

How you can help

As the conflict intensifies in Syria, more families are fleeing to neighboring countries seeking safety. Your support is more crucial than ever to ensure refugees have the help they need to put their lives back together.

  • Follow the latest updates on Mercy Corps' response to the Syrian refugee crisis and share stories to raise awareness and support.

  • Donate today. You'll help us deliver clean water, distribute desperately-needed supplies and help children heal from the trauma of this crisis.