Life as a refugee: Spend the day with Nour

Jordan, Syria, March 14, 2014

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    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    6:00 a.m. Nour emerges from her tent in Zaatari refugee camp. She gets up before the rest of her family to go buy bread for the day. The 15-minute walk and 20-minute wait in line are a must: Bread is a staple of the Syrian diet and is served at every meal. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    7:00 a.m. Nour and her mother, Manal, put away the mattresses and blankets so they have space in the tent during the day. Her little brother, Basheer, tries to stay out of the way. Seven people live in a tent that measures 15 x 12 feet. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    7:15 a.m. Nour opens the tent flaps for the day, while her sisters Duha (left) and A’laa (right) wash-up with a bucket of water. They can only shower twice a week in the communal camp bathroom. “We have to walk a long way and stand in line to take a cold bucket bath,” Nour explains. “We have to be really fast or people waiting will yell at us.” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    7:30 a.m. Manal brushes her children’s and niece’s hair every morning. “It is a ritual we have and even being a refugee will not stop this,” she says. “It is one of the few times during the day when we get to sit together and talk.” For Nour, this is one of the best times of her day. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    8:00 a.m. Nour feeds her little brother, Basheer, his breakfast before taking her own. “Feeding Basheer is one of my many full-time jobs,” says Nour. “He is always hungry!” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    8:40 a.m. Nour fetches water from the communal water tap in the camp. She makes this trip an average of six times a day, carrying heavy buckets that leave her sore. “My father was a mechanic at the Damascus water company before we came here. I never would have imagined I’d be walking and standing in line to fill a bucket with water just to survive.” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    9:00 a.m. Nour does the breakfast dishes with her mother and little sister A’laa. They wash the dishes behind their tent in plastic buckets, as there are no sinks. “It is really hard to get things clean here without hot water,” says Nour. “Even if you manage to get all the grease off, you end up with sand on the plates.” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    10:00 a.m. Finished with her morning chores, Nour goes to the playground with her siblings. As the eldest, she must look after her younger siblings, but she still enjoys the short break from housework. The family lives just a couple minutes walk from one of Mercy Corps’ Child Friendly Spaces equipped with slides, merry-go-rounds, swings and climbing bars. A Mercy Corps staff member on duty monitors the kids. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    11:00 a.m. Nour and her mother walk 30 minutes to buy food. The family receives twice-monthly food vouchers for 18 Jordanian Dinars (about $25 USD) that they have to use at an UNHCR approved market in the camp. They buy beans, rice, ghee (similar to butter) and canned goods, because they don’t have any refrigeration to keep fresh food from spoiling. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    12:30 p.m. Nour helps her mother cook lunch, the largest meal of the Syrian diet. They have to use the communal camp kitchen that serves 40 families. One of Nour’s sisters usually goes ahead to wait in line — there are only 16 gas stoves to share — while Nour and her mother assemble the food in the tent and then carry it all to the communal kitchen for cooking. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    2:30 pm. Lunch is served. Nour sits with her mother and grandmother. Friday is the one day the family can serve meat, as it is too expensive to eat regularly. Nour helped her mother cook a typical Syrian dish made with chicken, raisins, rice, bulgar wheat and yoghurt. “In Syria, we ate this almost everyday,” she says. “I never thought I would miss it, but now I wait all week for Friday.” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    3:30 p.m. Nour prepares tea for her family and other relatives who live in the camp and have come by to visit. “They always talk about the war and friends who have been killed or disappeared," says Nour. "It makes me sad to listen and think about how my country is being destroyed.” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    5:30 p.m. Nour joins her family and neighbors outside as dusk approaches. She enjoys a rare moment of quiet in the camp that is usually teeming with people and water trucks. “On Friday evening it’s always peaceful. Sometimes I almost forget I am a refugee,” she pauses. “But it doesn’t last long, and then I have to go get more water.” Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

“When we left Damascus, my father told us we would only be gone for a month. But after we were here for 6 months, I knew we were not going to be going home soon. I was devastated. I thought I had lost my life, my future. I just wanted to die.”

Thirteen-year-old Nour has been living in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp for the last year, along with her parents, four siblings, grandmother and cousins. The family fled Syria when bombs started falling in their neighborhood; their house was destroyed just days after they left.

I spent a Friday last week with Nour and her family to see how a typical day in a camp is for a young refugee. It was the weekend in Jordan, so Nour, an aspiring nurse, was not in her classes at the Zaatari school. But her school days are similar — living as a refugee in a tent takes a lot more work than her comfortable life in Damascus, and her many chores make it a challenge to keep up with the top scores she earns in her studies.

Scroll through the photos above to see how Nour spends her day.

What I learned is that it is a very hard life, but also one with occasional joys and moments of tenderness. I also learned that Nour is a very special girl, as are so many of the Syrian children who are struggling to maintain hope in the face of this terrible crisis.

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