When Isra’a arrived in Za’atri, a Jordanian refugee camp, she saw the words “death camp” scrawled in Arabic on a UNHCR tent — no doubt a chilling welcome for the 10-year-old Syrian girl who fled Damascus with her mother when government forces brutally killed her uncle. The graffiti is also an alarming message for Syrians risking their lives to seek a safe haven: refuge is hard to find.
Now Isra’a and her family struggle to survive in this desolate, windswept refugee camp in the middle of the Jordanian desert, far from anything she knows. †It’s been over a year, and Isra’a still has no idea when, or if, she’ll be able to return home. “I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my friends,” Isra’a said. She lives in limbo, along with the 250,000 other Syrians who have fled to camps like Za’atri since the civil war began — whether in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, or most recently, Iraq.
Every day, a thousand new refugees pour across Syria’s borders.
Given the shortage of food and water, and the lack of protection from the blinding dust and the desert’s extreme temperatures, some refugees wonder if life in Jordanian camps is worse than life in Syria. “In Syria, it’s a quick death,” explained Abu Sami, a 30-year-old refugee, as he and other Syrians gathered to protest the poor conditions. “But here in Za’atri camp, it’s a slow death for us all. We escaped shelling and bombardment of our homes and now face this torment.”
The feeling is pervasive. “My life is miserable in the tent,” said Haj Abdul-Karim, another Syrian refugee in Jordan, who crams himself into a small tent with nine of his relatives every night. “Now there are some refugees moving the other direction — from Jordan back into Syria, or farther to other places, like Turkey.”Ě
In Turkey, the accommodations are just as bad — or even worse. The tents in Turkish camps are flimsy, unable to withstand weather. The influx of migrants has strained Turkey’s access to basic resources, and led to food and water shortages, as well as poor sanitation. A few weeks ago, refugees in a Turkish camp gathered to protest against the inadequate water supply, unsanitary bathrooms and the camp’s unnecessary detention practices. The peaceful picket soon turned into a violent riot, with four Turkish police officers and ten Syrians injured.
As the number of refugees grows, UN agencies and NGOs race to improve the conditions and contain discontent.
But camp conditions aren’t the only problem. In Lebanon and Iraq, the problem is that there are no refugee camps. In some cases, Syrians are housed in school basements, and are not allowed to leave or even visit relatives in the area. Harsh policies and hostile rules restrict their movements and undermine their freedom. Refugees are treated like criminals and kept under military guard.
“We wish to go back to Syria and die there instead of living here in this prison,”Ě said Abdul Hay Majeed, a Syrian refugee forced to stay inside a schoolhouse in Iraq.
Even those refugees who could roam freely wouldn’t want to. Discriminatory violence in countries like Lebanon keeps many hiding in fear. Last week, the powerful al-Mequad claimed that it kidnapped 20 Syrians — ordinary, middle-class citizens. Hoteliers and landlords drive up their prices to exploit the Syrians’ desperation. They demand sky-high rents that the refugees must accept.
The Lebanese government has largely ignored the issue, allowing the profiteers to cash in on the crisis and abandoning its humanitarian duty to provide shelter, food and medical treatment.
ďItís not hell precisely, but itís as close as it gets,Ē said Jamal, a 26-year-old Syrian photographer.
In the midst of the fire and brimstone, a grassroots response to the humanitarian crisis is beginning to take root. One activist, Al-Shhadeh, is collecting refugees’ stories in Turkish camps. He has created a blog, Syrian Voices, to share personal accounts of the conflict. “If you want to sleep well at night,”Ě he recorded one refugee saying, “You have to help us.”Ě
Photo credit: شبكة برق B.R.Q's photostream