Dispatch from Jordan: Syrian Refugees Weary of War, Conferences and Life

A young refugee from the Daraa region of Syria, sick with fever, lies down in his family’s tent at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The camp is home to more than 120,000 Syrian refugees. Frame grab from video shot by freelance journalist Ted Nieters on assignment for PBS NewsHour

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — As the United States and Russia continue to push their plan of a conference aimed at bringing representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition together to discuss a political solution to Syria’s bloody civil war, many Syrian refugees claim they have no hope that this conference or other conferences will yield results.

“There have been too many conferences but there is no actual settlement or solution,” said 25-year-old Nadia Raja who arrived at Zaatari refugee camp a few weeks ago from Daraa, Syria, with her husband and five children.

Others, who have been at the camp for several months, were much more angry in their response, claiming that Russia had no interest in easing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and that other countries weren’t doing enough.

Zaatari resident Um Hassan cursed Russia when she was asked about the Geneva conference. “(Damn) all the countries that stand with Bashar. If they didn’t side with Bashar, he will fall tomorrow.”

“Are all these countries of the world not capable of standing up and saying a word of truth against Bashar?” asked Hassan’s neighbor at the camp Um Shadi as they stood outside their tents with their children. “All these people that are dying, all this blood that is flowing, isn’t it valuable enough to interfere?”

‘Jordan’s Fifth Largest City’

Thousands of tents which house Syrian refugees line the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Photos by Justin Kenny

One-hundred-twenty-thousand victims of the Syrian conflict are packed into U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees tents or “caravan” trailer units at the Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan.

Located just a few miles from the Syrian border, residents and camp workers said they can often hear the fighting between Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army in the evening.

There are more Syrian refugees in Zaatari than any other camp in the world. The dustbowl community’s meteoric surge in population within the past year prompted King Abdullah to call the site “Jordan’s fifth largest city.”

Aid Agencies Overwhelmed

Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s representative to Jordan, said that his group and other nongovernmental organizations dealing with the refugee crisis are strained.

“I don’t think you can think it can get any worse but it does every night,” said Harper. “There’s over a half million Syrians that have come through (into Jordan) since March of last year — anywhere up to 3,000 to 4,000 per night which basically means a thousand families. This means a thousand families with women and children who come across with nothing and we have to provide everything for them — the tents, the food, the water, the health facilities and the protection.”

Nadia Raja fled Syria with her husband and five children. They remain at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan where 120,000 are currently residing while the conflict in Syria continues.

Harper said that nearly $1 million is being spent per day to run the camp and construct another site to care for the refugees. He’s worried about the future of funding for Zaatari and other camps as the war in Syria continues to rage on month after month.

“No one can give me one positive indicator from Syria that this is going to be resolved any time soon — whether it be one year, two years or beyond that,” said Harper.

“We’ve got enough resources until the end of June. The United States has been very generous, a number of Western states have been very generous but that basically the needs as they exist now, not the needs that we are probably likely to expect coming across the mountains.”

Zaatari’s Desperate Residents

Despite a constant stream of aid trucks dropping off supplies including water (nearly 500 per day, according to UNHCR), highly organized distribution centers, medical facilities and schools in the camp, residents told us that they don’t have enough to eat, clean water to drink or adequate medical care.

The only thing here in ample supply seems to be despair.

One man waiting outside the UNHCR administrative gate attempted to tell anyone and everyone who passed through about his grievances at the camp. In a sign of desperation, he offered to light himself on fire in front of our camera to protest his living conditions. We declined his offer. He was immediately escorted back to the entrance gate by a security officer where the man continued to look for anyone who would listen.

In the camp’s version of a “Main Street” many impromptu businesses have opened. Refugees who manage to have or get money can purchase meat (chickens are slaughtered in plain sight), baked goods, drinks, clothing and many other items.

Twenty-year-old Abdul Mounim Droubi works at makeshift bakery in Zaatari refugee camp.

Twenty-year-old Abdul Mounim Droubi is able earn some wages working at a makeshift bakery on the merchant strip. His life, in some ways, is much better than those of others in the camp who are not working and have no access to additional income. He told us that his existence at Zaatari is no way to live and that he will likely be going back home despite the war.

“I have no hope,” he said in front of a lit oven at the market stall. “I’d rather die in Syria.”

Life Inside a Tent

At a section of the camp for some of its newest residents, we were quickly surrounded by a group of small children who were excited by the distraction of a foreign news crew with cameras. They asked to have their pictures taken and laughed as I showed them images of themselves in my view finder.

This is where we met Nadia Raja, the mother from Daraa, and her five children. She invited us inside her new home.

The Raja family tent is sparse with just a few sleeping mats atop a floor mat with UNHCR logos that serves as the floor of their new home. With each step inside, I could feel the large stones and pebbles underneath my feet.

Children hang laundry outside their tent in the refugee camp.

There’s no electricity and the temperature in the tent is easily 10 degrees hotter than the 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The tent is amazingly pristine which seems like a minor miracle with all the dust kicking around outside.

Even though there is no food left out, the Raja’s shelter has not been spared the flies that have infested the camp.

I noticed one of the family’s five children — sick with a fever — huddled in the corner clutching a water bottle as flies hover and land on his face and body. The boy, weakened from sickness and the heat, made no attempt to swat away the persistent insects.

Nadia Raja told us she doesn’t feel in danger since coming to Jordan a few weeks ago. It was the only positive statement about her life that she uttered during our 15-minute interview.

She told us her children have been sick for 20 days.

“They have fever. They are suffering from the hot weather. They are suffering from the polluted water — because there is not clean water — and from the situation in general from the camps. It’s too hot in the camp.”

Raja said she has no idea how long she will be living in Zaatari.

“We have no electricity, there’s no television and we don’t know what’s going on,” said Raja as her youngest child cried in her lap. “We are just hoping that God has the best for us.”

After the interview, as we packed up our vehicle to go on to the next site at the camp, Raja ran over, waving her Syrian cell phone number. She made sure all of us copied it down, hoping that the world wouldn’t forget about her family among the millions of Syrians displaced.

Children at the Zaatari refugee camp.

Related Resources

Justin Kenny is the PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs senior editor. His broadcast report, narrated by senior correspondent Ray Suarez, on the Syrian civil war’s spillover in Jordan will air later this week. View more of our World coverage.