TOPICS > World

With Little Hope of Going Home, Refugee Camp Takes on ‘Air of Permanence’

August 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The second largest refugee camp in the world, home to 120,000 people, is in Jordan, flocked to by Syrians displaced by the civil war. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News spends a day in the camp known as Zaatari, where residents cope with difficult conditions and feel little hope for returning home in the near future.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight to Syria.

More than 100,000 people have died in the two-year civil war, according to the United Nations. And the conflict has caused misery beyond the country’s borders. More than a million people have fled the fighting, many of them to Jordan and the world’s second largest refugee camp, known as Zaatari.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News spent 24 hours there reporting firsthand on the human cost of the war.

LINDSEY HILSUM: It’s Ramadan, and dusk is falling over the biggest refugee camp in the Middle East. A year ago, this was a dusty patch of desert. Today, it’s home to 120,000 people.

I’m with Kilian Kleinschmidt, the man who is trying to turn chaos into order.

KILIAN KLEINSCHMIDT, United Nations: Well, you’re seeing here this cable, which is pulled by somebody who has been selling it to the people in this area, because they technically don’t have electricity.

Related Video

LINDSEY HILSUM: The camp has grown more quickly than the U.N.’s capacity to connect all the tents and trailers. They have no idea what the bill’s going to be. So now he’s put in a new transformer and got the bootleg engineers to protect it.

The guys who were doing all these things illegally, you’re getting them on your side?

KILIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: We’re getting them on our side because we’re not saying stop it; we’re saying, let’s work together in improving it.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Bright lights, almost big city. They call this the Champs Elysees. The goods on sale might be a bit different, but the point is that this is a street in what increasingly looks like a town.

In the last couple of months, Zaatari has taken on an air of permanence. The Syrians here might not want to admit it, but they know they’re not going back tomorrow or next week — not next year either.

KILIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: In the winter, this will all get muddy and full with…

LINDSEY HILSUM: Yes, and horrible, yes.

Walking around, we came across a group of 16-year-old girls. They told me they hated life in Zaatari, but had no hope of going home to Daraa in Syria.

GIRL (through interpreter): What can we do? Assad is still going strong.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The boys, like boys everywhere, were playing shoot-’em-up computer games. But, for them, violence isn’t abstract. In fact, they see this as practice.

BASSEM MANSOUR, graduate from Daraa (through interpreter): These kids were bombed and saw battles and destruction, so ideas began to develop in their minds. They started dreaming of becoming part of the resistance, of fighting and defending their country.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Kilian is talking to the elders. Now it’s dark, they have broken the Ramadan fast.

KILIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: Yes, and I would like to do more. We can do more, but we need to work together more.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They complain to him about water pollution, although, on occasion, refugees have smuggled out mud-covered stolen tents inside the tankers.

It’s not always easy to build trust. Early morning, and the bread van arrives. Bread’s distributed for free, but now bakeries are springing up in the camp. It’s usually the children’s job to collect the family supply. There are 60,000 kids in the camp. Only a quarter of them go to school. They roam around chucking stones.

JANE MACPHAIL, United Nations: When you want to be happy, when you want to be happy, what do you do?

A project to help children reconnect with their emotions. War and exile have robbed them of all sense of risk, for themselves or anyone else.

JANE MACPHAIL: These children have lived for a particularly long time in levels of stress that are incredibly profound. So, when that happens, there’s a part of your brain that goes, you have experienced too much. And it’s like a SIM card in a phone. It turns itself off. You go into survivor mode.

LINDSEY HILSUM: As if to prove the point, one lobbed a stone at the aid workers’ vehicle as they left.

Water is a scarce resource in the camp, but the kids aren’t worried. Dusk is falling again. For the children, the years stretch ahead in a camp that became a town in the desert in Jordan. Soon, Syria will be just a dream.