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From an olive farm to a metal shed

13 March 2015

Madeleine Davies travelled to Jordan to talk to families who have fled from Syria


Slow progress: work on roads and drainage have helped to make the Zaatari refugee camp more habitable

Slow progress: work on roads and drainage have helped to make the Zaatari refugee camp more habitable

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 now."

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 suffocation."

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 phone."

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 kids."

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 executed.

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 Monopoly houses.

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 crimes".

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 country."

Several of their children are still in Syria, where he was once a farmer selling and buying cows and goats. Two are guarding the house.

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 abandoned.

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 can imagine."

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 desired location.

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 cooker."

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 barbed wire.

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, visit  www.worldvision.org.uk/Syria or phone 01908 84 10 10.

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