Since 2011, we have become accustomed to reading shocking news whenever a headline involves the word 'Syria' or 'Syrians': soldiers opening fire on civilians, the rise of Isis and other terrorist groups, desperate conditions on the road out of Syria, and recently, reports of genocide in Aleppo. These reports have made it difficult to imagine Syrians as people who could live life as normal, could have simple routines, and be kept awake by minor concerns. It seems unlikely to know them or hear of them in a context that isn't one of overwhelming suffering.
Indeed, working with Syrians every day, I still struggle to make a connection between the Syrian people I live alongside and the Syrian people I read about. They can't be the same, because then life wouldn't amble along in the simple pattern that it does in the Za'atari and Azraq camps; their people couldn't have picked themselves up and carried on like that. Reading about families who have lost siblings and parents, whose children have stopped speaking because of things they've seen, whose fathers and brothers have been tortured. It takes a conscious effort to remember that I know these families, that they're people I see every day.
I used to use the adjective 'casually' to describe the way my colleagues would tell me of their relatives disappearing or being killed in Syria. But I've decided a better adjective to use would be 'matter-of-factly'. All of the deaths, disappearances and instances of violence and torture that have affected my Syrian friends' lives should be fiction, could have been fiction if things had turned out differently. But since they haven't, these facts have had to be absorbed into the fabric of people's lives, just as the realities of life on a refugee camp have had to be.
Most of the refugees I work with have been living in the camps between one and four years. While all Syrian refugees who come to Jordan initially have to register in one of the camps, many then move to host communities around the country. The ones that stay tend to be the poorer refugees, who know they must take advantage of the free services offered on camp. There they have free health care, their children can receive education and psycho-social support, and UNHCR vouchers ensure that they have enough to eat. It's not a comfortable life. Weather extremes in the desert mean that they boil during the day and freeze at night. The poorly insulated and sparsely furnished huts they live in are often not large enough for their characteristically sprawling families. Electricity and internet connection is intermittent, and there aren't showers or other washing facilities. Hours of their free time is spent cooking using gas stoves, cleaning clothes by hand, or collecting water from the basins spread across the camp. And yet it's just comfortable enough that they find themselves inevitably settling into the pattern of life there.
Many of my colleagues pay lip service to leaving. They begin asylum applications to the US or Canada, and some of them are even accepted and leave. But many of them seem reticent to really consider the future. Emigrating is another upheaval, not to mention the fact that at the end of an 18-24 month application process, the likelihood is that they will be rejected anyway. Going back to Syria is extremely dangerous, and even in a future time of peace, impossible for many of the refugees who rebelled against the government, or who ran from official duties. The options are daunting, and life in Za'atari and Azraq is just comfortable enough that they can avoid really engaging with the question of the future, a question which invariably they have no answers to.
Za'atari camp has been around since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011. Most of the approximately 85,000 refugees living there are from Dara'a where the uprising began, and have been living in the camp for four or more years. Evidence of innovation and enterprise is everywhere; in the shops that line the main streets, in the gardens that have been cultivated behind huts, in the extensions that have been built on these huts. There are Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan that have been around for more than 50 years, built up slowly from a collection of tents to cities full of small, concrete houses. It seems likely at this point that Za'atari camp will follow this example and become a city in its own right, given a few years.
(An ariel view of Za'atari camp)
(A garden in Za'atari)
Azraq is different. Built specifically as a refugee camp in 2013, its approximately 35,000 civilians cannot build shops or extensions, and all aspects of the camp's daily running are heavily controlled by the Jordanian police force stationed there. It is miles away from the nearest city and I think the people living there feel more isolated from the rest of Jordan than those living in Za'atari, who have comparative freedom to come and go to nearby towns and cities.
(An ariel view of Azraq camp)
(Hanging washing in Azraq)
Maybe it's for these reasons, or the fact that refugees in Azraq tend to have come from Syria more recently and have had less time to adjust, that cracks appear more readily in the normalcy of life in Azraq. I rarely experience crying children in Za'atari, and my colleagues there are more likely to tell me about their children or the engagement of a family member than they are to complain about the camp. But in Azraq, many more of my students visibly express upset or angst. Invariably, it is a result of tensions in the home. Few of the men in the camps can find work, and the subsequent feeling of uselessness and powerless can lead to depression or anger. In turn, mothers often crack under the strain of holding the family together and providing emotional support for husbands and children.
Yet, perhaps as those living in Za'atari have had more time to experience, life goes on regardless of how much they'd like to dig their heels in and despair. Engagements and weddings go ahead, bringing family and friends from across the camp; plays and football matches take place everywhere all the time; and routines, such as visiting neighbours for tea and mansef, continue. It's not a life that any of them dreamed of, and it's not the place that any of them wish to raise their children. But for now it's got to function as home.