At Home in Zaatari: Life in a Syrian Refugee Camp

Kristen Gillespie reports on life in the Zaatari refugee camp, located about 10 miles across the border from Syria in northern Jordan. The camp opened just last year, but as the civil war in Syria has escalated, Zaatari's population has swelled to more than 120,000.

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    It's been months now since Dallal Al-Absi last saw her husband.

    In January, she says government forces attacked their village in a rebel-controlled area in southwestern Syria and several of their relatives – including children — were killed.

    A short time later, she fled the country with her own kids. Her husband stayed behind.


    (in Arabic, translated) I came to Jordan in spite of myself. I did not want to come, but my husband made me for the sake of our children, so that they can stay safe. He saw his brothers' children getting killed, and he told me to run.


    This is where she came – to the Zaatari refugee camp, about 10 miles across the border from Syria in northern Jordan. The camp opened only a year ago but, as the civil war back home has escalated, its population has swelled.

    The camp has grown so large – to more than 120,000 people –that it actually feels like a city.

    Zaatari camp is today the fourth most populous place in Jordan. All along this road, shops have opened on a street where the French government opened a hospital. It's known as the Champs Elysees , or, people here call it the Cham d'Elysees. Cham — meaning Syria — in Arabic.

    It is now the second largest refugee camp in the world – and that has put a strain on nearby communities in Jordan, where water is often scarce.

    The surge in the refugee population has also severely taxed humanitarian efforts, says Aoife McDonnell of the United Nations.

    AOIFE MCDONNELL, United Nations High Commission for Refugees: If we want to continue to support these people we have got to be well funded. The delivery of water, the delivery of food everyday, the provision of, of shelters, not just tents but a pre-fab, something that a family can call a temporary home. A shelter that they can stand up straight in. Every single aspect of service delivery in this kind of environment is incredibly difficult.


    Life is certainly difficult for those they are trying to help. Dallal and nine others live in an unfurnished 200-square foot tin shed. They sleep on mattresses on the floor, use communal bathrooms several hundred feet away, and rely on a gas cylinder to cook. They get free rations of oil, sugar, tea and rice. When we visited she was cooking something called mashi, zucchini stuffed with rice. She can purchase vegetables and other items at shops in the camp.


    (in Arabic, translated) Our life here is hard-really hard. We have so little. I need to work to support my daughters. I have to feed six girls.


    We asked her 13-year-old daughter about her life in the camp.


    (in Arabic) How is life in the camp?


    (in Arabic, translated) It is not good. Our country is better than here. There, we go to school, we go to other places, we go out and play with our friends. Here, we don't have friends.///We used to go to school but it is too far from here in the camp. We cannot go there.


    (in Arabic, translated) I am afraid for my daughters and the school is far. All we do is sit at home all day.

    AOIFE MCDONNELL, United Nations High Commission for Refugees: These are ordinary families. Families that had homes, that had washing machines, that had a pick up truck, and their own kitchen and bathroom, and now they're facing a who knows how long, um, living with their families in a tent.


    The challenges facing aid workers might actually grow if there is a military attack against Syria. UN officials say they are making contingency plans to house an additional 150,000 Syrians who might flee into Jordan.

    That could mean more divided families… just like Dallal's. For now, her only connection to her husband is the phone.


    (on phone, in Arabic, translated) Hello, peace to you – how are you? How is the village today? The bombing is still going on? God help us, sweetheart.