I am in Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan near the Syrian border that shelters more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.
As fighting in southern Syria has intensified in the last month, several thousand people now flee over the border each night under the cover of darkness. The Syrian army ambushes the fleeing refugees; civilians lay in wait during the day and travel at night on foot to the border area.
Last night alone, more than 3,000 refugees arrived. Hundreds of new tents must be put up daily. Looking across the sea of tents, it is hard to believe that last July, only eight months ago, this was an empty, arid expanse of land.
Complex efforts to host refugees
Although Zaatari is a tough place to live — with families living in tents on a dirt and dust wasteland in close quarters — the Jordanian government and UN agencies continue to manage the incredible logistical feat of mounting this camp in real time while refugees arrive here with only the clothes on their backs.
Jordan has been impressively welcoming and organized in light of the fact that there are now 420,000 refugees in this country of six million. The Jordanian army picks up the refugees in buses at the border during the night and takes them to large registration tents at the camp entrance.
Long lines in the sun are everywhere as the International Organization of Migration and UN High Commissioner for Refugees struggle to keep up with the ballooning numbers. They feed and register the new arrivals, erect tents, distribute blankets, mats, soap, food vouchers, and a few essential cooking items.
Organizations, like Mercy Corps, are taking on the challenge of providing water and child services to what is now a large city of refugees.
A family’s harrowing journey to escape
I sit down in one tent with Um Hiba, a 43-year-old mother who just arrived the night before with her four children. Her 20-year-old son, Eyad, sits quietly beside her.
I learn that they had been living in Damascus until several months ago when their neighborhood was shelled by the Syrian army. Their house was destroyed. Many of their neighbors were killed. The family quickly gathered up what possessions they could recover, hired a taxi and headed south to Dara’a where their relatives lived.
They were stopped at a checkpoint by the Syrian army. The soldiers asked Eyad why he had not enlisted in the army. He responded that he was still at university. The soldiers took Eyad from his family, beat him, handcuffed him, and put him in a car. His parents cried and pleaded with the soldiers, “Why, why are you taking him? He has done nothing. He is just a student.” The soldiers taunted them, “If you don’t keep your mouth shut, we’ll take his father too.”
Um Hiba and her husband desperately tried to find out where Eyad had been taken. It took them three months to learn that Eyad was at the Ghariz detainment center.
The stories of his internment were gruesome. He was in a 25-square-meter room with 100 other prisoners. The prisoners were stuffed in so tightly, they slept standing or alternated curled on the floor. They were allowed out once a day to relieve themselves. The room reeked of excrement and urine. Eyad and the others were regularly tortured. He was stripped, burned with cigarettes, doused in ice, given electric shocks, and sexually abused. He received a half-piece of bread with tomato sauce and a half glass of water daily. He said he was grateful he didn’t lose his mind or body parts; others were not so lucky.
Once Eyad’s parents located him, they were able to pay to get him out of detention through a judge they knew. The judge said, “Take him, but get out of the country immediately or they will kill him.” Eyad looked like a skeleton. Um Hiba and her children left that night for the border. Her husband stayed behind to keep his job.
“My husband is a teacher,” Um Hiba tells me. “He has one year left before he gets his pension. He will stay in Syria until then.” I am surprised at her optimism that her husband will ever see his pension.
Eyad sits and speaks softly but admits, “When I first got out, I had a lust to kill someone. I wanted revenge.”
The family is sharing a tent with their cousins until they secure a tent of their own. Eyad waits in the lines to pick up their emergency distributions. Um Hiba says, “Now what is our future? We have lost everything. What about the children? Eyad had only two more years of university. Our young people were starting out in their lives. Now they have no future but being a day laborer in the camp. We had a home, jobs, and education. Now we have no life.”
Facing an uncertain future
No one I talk to in the camp has any optimism about the situation of Syria in any near term. The country is being destroyed. More than a million people have fled the country and at least two million are displaced inside. Many now do not believe that Assad will fall anytime soon; his army is fierce, ruthless, and unrestrained about killing its own people. They continue to be supplied by Iran and Russia. The opposition is tenacious and also fierce but the factions are fighting among themselves. The most fierce rebel fighters are the Islamist militant groups, such as the Al-Nusra Front, who do not have broad support of the population.
“How will we be a country?” Um Hiba says. “We have nothing, nothing to go back to.”
As I walk among the tents I hear many versions of Um Hiba’s tragic story, but her son especially stays with me. I also have a 21-year-old son in university. I continue to ask myself the same question Um Hiba asked: “What will become of these young people?”
Today, Mercy Corps response is focused on Syrians’ most basic needs. But already we are looking to how we can help young people like Eyad — whether through economic opportunities or civic participation in a post-conflict Syria — when the time comes. The support we can offer them will make all the difference for the future of this country and this critical region of the world.