Civil war refugees stuck in limbo

By Kate Shuttleworth

Former APNZ reporter Kate Shuttleworth spoke to Syrian evacuees in Jordan about their daily dilemma.

Children flock around visitors in Zaatari camp, Jordan's fourth largest city. Photo / Kate Shuttleworth
Children flock around visitors in Zaatari camp, Jordan's fourth largest city. Photo / Kate Shuttleworth

Dody, 33, has a warm personality and a smile that lights up his whole face, putting customers at ease, but for the first time in a week he seems unsettled.

While at work in a cafe attached to a hotel in downtown Amman, near the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, Dody hears on Al Jazeera in Arabic that 17 countries have agreed to take quotas of refugees fleeing the bloody civil war that has killed an estimated 100,000 Syrians.

Interspersed in the Arabic newsfeed are the English names of countries which have reportedly agreed with the UN refugee agency UNHCR to take Syrians - among them Australia, which will take 500.

New Zealand is mentioned although it has yet to make a commitment to increasing its 750 a year quota of refugees and taking Syrians.

"What is New Zealand like, how much does it cost to live there?" Dody asks.

His calm demeanour changes after the news, he makes a few frenzied phone calls in Arabic, saying he wants to go somewhere outside of Jordan and said returning to his home, Syria's largest city Aleppo, is not an option.

He has been in Jordan for one year on his own without any of his family and says he has been blacklisted in Syria for writing negative things on Facebook about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

"I live here, but really I don't like living here - it's very expensive.

"I can't go back to Syria, it's not safe, and the problems like in Iraq will probably go on for 10 years."

He is grateful to have a job and a place to live but said his options were limited with his current salary and said Syrians in Jordan were being underpaid.

"I have four cousins who were killed in Syria - it's been over 40 years of struggle for Syrians under Assad and his father."

With tears in his eyes, he said, "I think it's crazy what's happening - I am very sad that every day more than 100 people are killed in Syria."

Another man, Omar, who has been working in Amman for only four months, lost his three brothers in Syria.

Unlike Dody, many Syrians are adamant they will return to Syria.

Every day Omayma, a refugee living at Zaatari camp, talks her husband Zuheir, sister Sawsan and brother-in-law Khaleed out of returning to their former home in Dar'a, Syria.

In the baking afternoon desert heat Zuheir said he would like to return by December this year if he could.

"Every day my family and I discuss whether we should return or not; none of us work here in the camp so we're reliant 100 per cent on the assistance that we receive. We are contemplating whether we should go back and make do with the situation that we have there," Zuheir said.

"But I convince them to stay," said Omayma.

The mother of three and qualified physical education teacher arrived at Zaatari after six hours of walking barefoot to the border in July last year.

Zuheir and Omayma with their daughter Salaam in the doorway of their container home. Photo / Kate Shuttleworth
Zuheir and Omayma with their daughter Salaam in the doorway of their container home. Photo / Kate Shuttleworth

They fled Dar'a after their newly built home was destroyed and Omayma had surgery after shell debris penetrated her arm and leg. Not all of it could be removed.

"It doesn't hurt now, but sometimes I can feel it moving."

Omayma and Zuheir and their children Salaam, 3, Raghad, 5, and Mohammed, 7, live in two adjoining containers with Sawson and Khaleed and their children Ebrahim, 3, and Rama, 1.

The camp has nearly tripled in size and Omayma remembers when they lived in a tent in the camp and the bottom of their sleeping mattresses would be wet.

In just over a year the camp now shows off the resilience and resourcefulness of the Syrians. In the camp you can buy washing machines, microwaves, cellphones, electric toy cars for children, rotisserie chickens, falafel, dyed pet chickens, candy-floss and popcorn on the main shopping street nicknamed the Champs-Elysees.

The camp has swelled in size since it opened last year to 108,000 Syrian refugees. Accurate counting stopped earlier this year so the number could be as high as 120,000 to 140,000 Syrian refugees.

Zaatari camp is now Jordan's fourth largest city and according to the World Food Programme's emergencies co-ordinator Jonathan Campbell there's still room for 30,000 more refugees. Last Monday night 299 Syrians fled across the border into the camp, followed by 313 and 335 the following two nights. More arrive during the day.

Another 400,000 Syrian refugees, like Dody, live outside the camp in Jordan's towns and cities.

Zaatari camp:

*108,000 - 140,000 Syrian refugees, with up to 2000 arrivals a day.
*Space for 30,000 more refugees.
*Half a million pieces of pita bread a day (28 tonnes) by WFP - four dedicated bakeries.
*$36m a week to feed Syrian refugees.
*$41 worth of food vouchers given per person in the camp per month by WFP.
*4.2 million litres of water distributed daily.
*Three schools, both primary and secondary teaching the Jordanian curriculum.
*Two supermarkets being built in the camp.
*17,000 container houses have replaced tents, another 25,000 by winter.
*Electricity bill for the camp $600,000 per month paid by UNHCR.
*$11m a month put through the supermarkets, WFP Ten medical facilities.

- NZ Herald

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