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The grey ghost town and the camp in search of a soul

04 March 2016

Madeleine Davies reports from Jordan and Lebanon


Home for now: a cluster of huts, with lavatories at the refugee camp near Al Azraq City

Home for now: a cluster of huts, with lavatories at the refugee camp near Al Azraq City

THERE is a saying about Azraq refugee camp: the only risk is that you will die from boredom.

Its orderliness is evident from satellite images: tidy rows of white blocks gradually filling a grid of squares, like numbers in a Sudoku puzzle. The grid has been carved into a lunar landscape, an isolated corner in the north-west of the third-driest country on earth.

When Azraq was opened in April 2014, it was expected to become one of the world’s most heavily populated refugee camps. It had capacity for 130,000. Today, despite the concerted efforts of the Jordanian government and its international partners — a UN fact-sheet lists schools, health centres, and plans to roll out electricity — it is home to just 28,000.

Syrian refugees would rather take their chances in the country’s cities and towns, where they eke out a hand-to-mouth existence, sustained by handouts from the UN and NGOs, and casual work in the underground economy. Many are living in destitution, resorting to begging, child labour, and survival sex. Recent estimates are that nine in ten live below the Jordanian poverty-line.

“You ticked all the boxes,” an aid worker well-versed in camp-construction said during a tour of Azraq. “But it doesn’t have a soul, does it?”

A football pitch, constructed last year by World Vision, is one step towards building a community here. World Vision’s response manager in Jordan, Steffen Horstmeier, was struck by the reaction of the men permitted access after the children’s allotted hours. “They were desperate — so grateful,” he recalls.

Most households in Azraq are headed by men of working age. Although some work for “pocket money” with NGOs, they are largely unoccupied — the “worst affected” in some senses, he suggests. “They were meant to go out and work and be the breadwinner. If you are an able-bodied person, you want to be in charge of your family.”

When we arrive at the pitch, a match is in full swing: young men fly about in fluorescent vests, a small gaggle of spectators looks on from the stands.

“They are always at the peak of happiness when they are playing,” Akhram says. He is captain of one of the sides, and formerly played in defence for Al-Karamah SC, a Homs club in the Syrian Premier League.

“Let’s hope for the best — it is in God’s hands,” he tells us when we ask him what his plans are. Days earlier, drone footage of Homs was broadcast by a cameraman for Russian state television. It showed a city, once home to 650,000 people, laid to waste. A ghost town of grey rubble.


WHEN I visited Jordan a year ago, the refugees I interviewed spoke of returning to their beloved Syria. Today, they wonder what there is to go back to. Among host governments and NGOs, thoughts are turning from meeting basic needs — food, shelter, heating — to a viable future for the 4.4 million people who have fled their homeland, and now spend their days sitting around gas stoves, waiting, wondering, and sliding into depression and despair.

Two of the Syrian women I spoke to made the same gesture when asked about home: washing their hands, in the air.

“It has been mamsouha [smashed]”, Elham, a 61-year-old mother from Tal al-Daman, says. She is now living under tarpaulin in the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon. A television is one of the few possessions in her shelter, alongside the stove she leans on as she chats, and a framed picture of the Kaaba — the building at the centre of Islam’s most sacred mosque.

Satellite television is cheap in Lebanon, and almost every tent in the settlement has a dish, bringing news from home, which lies just 35km away, across the snow-capped mountains. Elham follows the news assiduously, commenting on the Opposition talks in the Gulf (“disastrous”), the siege of Madaya, and the betrayal of the Syrian population by its leaders. As we speak, Russian jets are pounding Aleppo, from which streams of people are fleeing.

“Have you seen what is happening to children on borders of Turkey?” she asks. “I started crying about what is happening. . . For three days, waiting at the border with children, no blankets, no food, in the rain.”

Her husband, Hassan, sits beside her, disconsolate, chin on hand, playing with misbahah, a string of prayer beads. In Syria, he was a shepherd, living in a house that he helped to construct on land that the family cultivated.

“We are not sons of the city, but the sons of rural areas,” he says. “We were happy, and it was our home, and we were having a life.”

At 75, he thinks it is unlikely that anyone will hire him for work. He recently underwent surgery, and cannot lift heavy items.

On leaving the settlement, we see his ten-year-old son, Bilal, selling chewing gum on the road. He works from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., although sometimes he will stay later, until he reaches his target ($5-6). Smiling in his red hoodie, he is part of a small contingent of Syrian children lining the highway between Bar Elias and Chtaura, beneath huge billboards advertising coloured contact lenses and liposuction.

“My heart is burning — I am always anxious until he is back,” Elham tells us. “Every time he comes back, I feel like he has been born again.”

Several of the refugee men we talked to in Lebanon and Jordan said that they were unable to work owing to injury or illness. Mr Horstmeier speculates that it is easier for children to work undetected in countries where work permits are so hard to come by.


NATALIE, a mother of five children, living in Amman, tells us that her husband, Mustafa, would not have left for Germany had he been able to work as a driver. He “lost hope”, she says.

“I refused to go, because I wouldn’t be able to stand having one of my kids die,” she says. “I couldn’t risk one of the kids dying in the sea.”

Mass migration to Europe is the biggest shift in the refugee crisis since my last visit to Jordan. It is estimated that more than 440,000 Syrians arrived in Europe by sea last year. They have been cheered at Munich rail station, met with tear gas in Macedonia, and buried on Lesbos.

“Unfortunately, only when the poor enter the halls of the rich do the rich notice that the poor exist,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in September. 

King Abdullah II of Jordan has warned that the country — home to 630,000 Syrian refugees — is “at boiling point”. The graphs are all going the wrong way. Rents have risen, wages have dropped, and resentment is growing. In Lebanon, one in three of the population is displaced from Syria, or a Palestinian refugee from earlier conflicts.

The number of Syrians living below the poverty line has soared from 48 to 78 per cent in a year. A third lack access to safe water in a country where a quarter of the population has never received piped water from public networks. Bold and generous plans drafted by the two countries, pledging to expand education opportunities, upgrade shelters, and build social cohesion have been only half-funded.

Refugees we spoke to expressed frustration with the delivery of assistance, and indignation at apparent injustices. Faisal, a father of six, is living in a damp apartment in Jordan. He had to sell a gas cylinder after his wife gave birth, and has just exchanged his World Food Programme (WFP) coupon to pay the rent. The fact that his eldest son, Mahmoud, has missed too many years of schools to be enrolled now pains him: “I would rather die of hunger than see my kids not be able to read a sign on the street.”

He falters when we ask him if he would consider resettlement abroad. Initially, he tells us he has no regrets about turning down an offer to move to Canada (“I would be going to a place where I don’t not know anyone or anything”), but later he revises this to regret of "20 per cent", before telling us, before we leave, that he hopes that they call back, so that he can take up the offer. 

For families such as this, World Vision is delivering cash assistance (for up to six months), and a “winterisation” project that provides a gas cylinder, clothes, and money for refuelling. In Lebanon, it provides cash transfers and food vouchers, besides WFP e-cards.

Host governments, and NGOs, agree that something has to change. The average time that a person spends as a refugee is 17 years. Vouchers will not be enough. A recent report published by the World Bank/UNHCR noted that current assistance programmes were effective: if administered together universally, the UNHCR cash-assistance programme and WFP vouchers could reduce poverty to just 6.7 per cent. But they are not regarded as sustainable, or able to cannot foster a transition from dependence to self-reliance. Already, there have been drastic cuts in WFP assistance in Jordan.


THERE are no simple solutions. The World Bank report describes an environment in which “returns to education and skills are almost nil.” The legal framework, the mismatch between labour demand and skills, and low levels of education among refugees mean that work is “precarious, informal, and low-income”. There is a warning that “educating people with no obvious use for education can become socially explosive.”

Mr Horstmeier, the World Vision response manager, rejects a counsel of despair. Childhood is the best opportunity to gain an education, he points out. It is where we acquire lifeskills, including how to interact with others. It’s also the unshakeable priority for Syrian parents. World Vision is funding child-friendly spaces, and remedial classes where Syrian and Jordanian children learn alongside each other.

With regard to work, there are plans to construct a recycling plant at Azraq that will employ refugees. Jordan still has to find its “niches” to attract foreign direct investment, he says, and employers currently benefit from Syrians undertaking blue collar work illegally, at low wages. But he describes as “real progress” a donor conference in London in January, where the governments of Jordan and Lebanon set out measures that could provide up to 400,000 job opportunities for Syrian refugees, dependent on the support of the international community. The World Bank, with partners, has promised to provide the two countries with $20 billion dollars in the next five years.

The agreement is evidence both of the ongoing generosity of host countries and an indictment of the world’s failure to build peace in Syria.

“We are not terrorists,” Faisal says, before we leave his home. “That is what everyone thinks. We just care about our children’s future. That is all.”

Madeleine Davies travelled to Jordan and Lebanon with World Vision. For details of the aid agency’s response to the Syrian crisis, visit www.worldvision.org.uk/Syria or phone 01908 841010.


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