WHEN Mohammed Shawar arrived at Azraq camp, Jordan, he slept for
five consecutive days.
"I just felt comfortable here," he says. "My mind is restful
Sitting cross-legged in the tent he shares with his wife and
three children, he smiles while talking, cigarette in hand, ready
to be lit. The walls are lined with shelves of neatly stacked food
and carefully hung clothes.
In Syria, Mr Shawar had been a carpenter. After the outbreak of
the conflict in 2011, demand for his services slowed. One day, the
regime's army entered the area and set fire to his shop. He
estimates his losses at £4000.
Arrested in 2013 "for no reason", he found himself sharing a
single room underground with 400 other men: "We would sleep, and
when we woke the next day, four or five people would be dead from
He endured beatings - he pulls up a trouser leg to showing a
lingering injury - but "only cared for my family - just to know
that they were safe and sound".
Then one day the guards hit his head against a wall. "I lost my
mind for 27 days."
The memory of his ordeal still fresh, he declares himself
satisfied with his surroundings today.
"My aim was to go to a secure place," he says. "Here is fine. I
can survive here. Thanks to God, we are living in peace here. We do
not need anything - apart from lighting and a charger for the
Even the cold doesn't bother him too much: "Thanks to the
blanket and heater, it is fine. We can just huddle and cuddle the
The youngest of the children, Safa (her name means "innocent" or
"pure"), comes to sit in his lap, and quickly falls asleep in the
warmth of the sunshine streaming through the tent door.
Now two-and-a-half, she was just a few months old when her
father went into prison. He was released after 17 months and, after
being stopped by guards once again, decided it was time to follow
his family out of the country. He bribed a "regime person" to drive
him to Da'ara, and then made the journey to the border, selling
jewellery to fund it. Others were not so lucky. His brother was
The Shawar family are among 14,000 Syrian refugees living at
Azraq. The 152-km site could eventually house up to 130,000.
Compared with Zaatari camp - set up in just nine days in 2012 to
house the thousands fleeing the conflict, and now the second
largest refugee camp in the world - Azraq feels as if it has been
lifted from the pages of a textbook in town-planning.
It was opened in April last year in a remote desert location 100
km east of Amman, where "nobody else wanted to live", explains
Steffen Horstmeier, World Vision's response manager in Jordan. The
charity has been involved in Azraq from the start, setting up the
water and sanitation infrastructure.
Azraq has risen from the desert quickly and in an orderly
fashion. There are five "villages", composed of units made of zinc
and steel, designed to withstand blazing heat by day and freezing
cold by night. From a distance the neat rows of white look like
New arrivals are allocated to villages according to the Syrian
region they have left, in an attempt to recreate community and
reduce tensions. More than half are children.
We pass a sign for a "child-friendly space" advertised by the
UNICEF logo and a picture of a Smurf, and a child pulling a
yellowing plastic box on a string. The eldest two Shawar children
are enrolled in school and nursery, and are busy colouring pictures
of caterpillars and princesses when we visit.
"I only care for their education," their father says. "Maysan
always gets the highest grades, and encourages her sister." He is
doubtful about the return to Syria: "It is going to take a long
time. Only God knows how long."
ON SUNDAY the world will mark the fourth anniversary of the start
of the Syrian crisis. Syria is now the biggest source of refugees
in the world. Since 2011, the number of has risen to 3.8 million.
The UN forecasts that this is likely to rise to 4.27 million by the
end of this year.
The crisis is, it states, "the largest political, humanitarian
and development challenge of our time". In December, the UN
launched the largest ever humanitarian appeal, for $8.4 billion.
Currently, the refugee fund is facing a 39 per cent shortfall.
Its regional response plan for the year is based on the
assumptions "that armed conflict and insecurity will continue
inside Syria; that an effective overall peace agreement will not
yet be achieved and implemented; and that refugees will continue to
flee Syria and seek international protection".
The latest report of the UN commission of inquiry on Syria,
published last month, and based on more than 3550 interviews with
victims and eyewitnesses, documented daily "unthinkable
At the government's door it laid "increased arbitrary arrests,
disappearances and torture", and "increasingly indiscriminate and
highly lethal attacks on civilian areas perceived to be affiliated
with the Opposition". Armed groups were characterised by "brutality
towards civilians and attacks on minorities".
The distinctive aspect of this crisis, Mr Horstmeier says, is
that the Syrians wait until the conflict is at their door before
leaving: "There are not many that left their home without a serious
incident, without being bombed, or their life threatened."
The second family we meet in Azraq left their home in Da'ara
after the area around it was destroyed by bombs.
"Every day, we woke up and heard the noise from bombings,"
Mohammed, the father, says. "People were being arrested. There was
a sniper 100 metres from our home so we had to remain inside.
Windows and glass were being shattered and broken. Doors exploded.
Anyone who left their house would be shot."
It was, nevertheless, not an easy decision to leave, he says.
"It was very difficult to leave our house in the middle of the
night. I was thinking I might be killed. We saw people killed in
the street. Everyone got separated, because we did not want the
sniper to have a chance to shoot us."
They are cold, here in Azraq. Even the blankets feel "like a
fridge" in the middle of the night. If the bombing and snipers
ceased, "we would even go back by foot. Because it is our
Several of their children are still in Syria, where he was once
a farmer selling and buying cows and goats. Two are guarding the
A recurring theme in interviews with Syrian refugees is the
extent to which they have left a life behind: houses, businesses,
and family. There is a sense of shock that all this has had to be
In the city of Zarqa, Ahmad Mohammed Jabbareen, 66, describes
how he was mayor of a municipality. His suit, encased in a
protective plastic cover, hangs on the wall of the apartment he
shares with his wife, their children, and grandchildren. He served
in the police force for 33 years, but was arrested and imprisoned
for 110 days.
"I was the oldest there," he recalls. "The others showed me
respect by providing me with space to sleep. I was with young men
from university, doctors."
He explains, almost baffled: "We used to live in an 11-bedroom
house. We had a farm with 700 olive trees."
One response to exile is to recreate the sights, smells and
sounds of home. Bisecting Zaatari camp is the Champs-Élysées, a
strip of 4000 shops, selling everything from Crocs to hair dye to
shisha pipes, bicycles, and, perhaps the ultimate hallmark of the
residents' resilience and optimism, a wedding dress.
"Syrians traditionally lived on the Silk Road," explains
Mohammed Bataineh al-Tawell, an engineer carrying out road
construction for World Vision. "You can get any kind of goods you
The Champs-Élysées is not the only demonstration of the
refugees' ingenuity. He points out a group of men who have
fashioned an alternative to a pallet truck from two tyres attached
to a steel post, enabling them to transport a prefab unit to a
Zaatari was first opened in July 2012, more than a year after
the first uprising in Da'ara, the Syrian governate from which most
of its inhabitants have fled. It was set up to house just 100
families in tents.Today it is home to more than 83,000. At its peak
two years ago, more than 140,000 refugees inhabited what remains
Jordan's fourth biggest population centre.
In January, the Sunday Times journalist A. A. Gill
described the camp as "an unpoliced city of gangs, anger, despair,
violence and insurgency". Last year, a refugee was shot dead and
dozens were injured in a riot in which refugees threw stones at the
police and set fire to tents and vehicles.
Steffen Horstmeier admits that the camp is "a bit of a security
risk", although there has been an improvement over the past year.
"You put 90,000 people together and it's like a pressure
The camp is just eight miles from the Syrian border, and there
are tight security checks at the entrance. The road in passes walls
with peeling, pock-marked murals of refugees' faces, topped with
Many families have created compounds by covering small groups of
prefabs with sheeting, in search of privacy and security. A high
proportion of women and children do not feel safe using the
lavatories at the camp, and the Jordanian government has plans for
"significant improvements" in lighting and privacy.
A priority for World Vision is the construction of roads to
ensure better access for emergency services. Last year two children
died after a tent caught fire and the ambulance could not reach the
scene. Mr al-Tawell reports with satisfaction that more than half
of the camp now has roads.
On the road out of the camp - visitors are advised to leave
before nightfall - an elderly man is making slow, limping progress
on crutches. It is estimated that one in 15 Syrian refugees in
Jordan has been injured as a result of the war.
In a speech anticipating Sunday's anniversary, the head of the
UN refugee agency, António Guterres, warned that the nature of the
"staggering" refugee crisis was changing: "As the level of despair
rises, and the available protection space shrinks, we are
approaching a dangerous turning point. . . With humanitarian
appeals systematically underfunded, there just isn't enough
assistance to provide for Syrian refugees."
Among the statistics he cited were the 100,000 children born in
exile and facing statelessness, and the 370 people who have died
trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety.
"There are no winners in this war; everyone is losing," he said.
"But the highest price is paid by the refugees and the other
innocent victims inside the country."
Madeleine Davies travelled to Jordan with the assistance of
World Vision. For details of the Syria appeal,
www.worldvision.org.uk/Syria or phone 01908 84 10
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