I am only a few hours back from my trip abroad working in Jordan with Syrian refugees.
I am in two minds about writing because no real words can really describe what I saw or how I felt. Words can’t do the experience justice, but fundamentally, what I have seen, heard and felt must be shared, as a duty to the voiceless. I share with you what I have witnessed, my perspectives and opinions, away from the mainstream news broadcasts, statistics and reports.
Many of you reading this have come forward and generously contributed to my mobilizing efforts to impact, in whatever modest way, the lives of the Syrian victims on the ground. I owe you this account, not only to show you how your donation(s) were spent, but who they reached and what a veritable difference you have made.
Before I go on, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart because without this collective effort, this initiative could never have been realised. I am humbled by the trust put in me, by you, to pursue this and I can only hope I have done you proud.
I travelled with my colleague Namir and while out there we intended to partner with Save the Children (STC, Jordan), not only for the collective man power in distribution but also under their umbrella as a local organisation, for access into the camp.
We arrived into Amman around 7am last Sunday and made it straight into the Save the Children offices for 9am. We were expecting our shipments later on that evening, if not the following morning, so day 1 was very much about observation, meetings with heads of the charity and strategic planning with regard to effective and responsive distribution to those most in need.
I got a good grounding on the projects STC have initiated out there and all credit to them, they do great work. For the most part it is within the realm of provision and education of healthcare (namely; nutrition, anemia, female and child health). Distribution of goods and supplies to the refugees isn’t their mission, their support with our initiative was really as an aside, which I am very grateful for.
I wandered the hallways and found a room full of Syrian refugee families following registration procedures. Anyone who knows me, knows of my shamelessly inquisitive nature so there I go firing my 101 questions at the registrar. From what I understood, they are there to register for asylum and enrol their children into local schools. Everyday, hundreds of refugees walk through these doors. Elderly, mothers bundling babies in blankets, men, children, each and every one of them waiting patiently for hours with a sheet of A4 paper detailing their personal information as their only form of identification. Papers dog eared, torn, stained but prized nevertheless as their sole form of identification.
I sat there for a good few hours, listening to them list the number of children they had, explaining how long they have taken to get there and what pushed them to leave Syria.
This was probably one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. I have worked in refugee camps in the past and listened to stories of the displaced- my family being one. What made this experience specifically difficult is the fact that these are the victims of the blasts I saw on the news or read about in the papers but a few days ago. It doesn’t matter how much you read or follow the latest developments on the ground, when you are faced with the people themselves and they detail their first hand account but a few hours old, it really brings the reality to the table. It will always be abstract until you are really faced with it and it stares back at you.
The following day we left Amman at 6am to head out to Zaatari camp. It’s about a 90minute drive north west of Jordan, smack bang in the middle of the desert. It’s only about 15km from the Syrian border. Security is very tight. The whole camp is walled and patrolled very carefully. Currently there are about 40 000 Syrian refugees in the camp (and about 200 000 (recorded) in greater Jordan).
I’ll be very honest, I expected chaos, overcrowding, barely any facilities and terrible conditions. What I was met with was a very ordered infrastructure. There was a main road that ran from one end of the camp to the other. Lining this road are all the aid agencies set up to provide their aid. There were such specialist clinics, from gynecology, to female nutrition to breast feeding to even a surgery! The Bahraini government recently funded a several million dollar state of the art school for children from 6-18 years, there are nurseries, child play areas, etc… Every refugee is assured 2500calories/day and 250g of bread.
The tents are collectively located on the other side of the strip and toward the back is the multi-million dollar donation of porta-cabins by the Saudi government. Those cabins will be allocated to ‘high priority’ families (such a disabled, elderly, sick, or those who have been there longest…).
It was interesting walking around and engaging in conversation. I often found myself sitting in the tents, listening to their stories over coffee and sweets.
What the camp is today is unrecognizable to what it was only a few months ago. The stories about the atrocious conditions were indeed true but have vastly improved, yet the positive changes never broadcast. I can completely understand that. If there is no urgent cause, why keep donating? Granted, we visited on a bright sunny day, away from the cold, dark, rain, when people were already settled and just getting on with things.)
Nevertheless I knew there was more to this. I cant judge the conditions at first sight because what im shown is only a facet. Please carry on reading, because I will detail the reality that slaps me in the chops later on.
At this moment however, I felt a great sense of warmth and hope. The men traded and haggled, the women cared about their clothes matching and the kids were so naughty and mischievous. There was life and energy. You really felt that despite all the atrocities, they adapt and fight on. What absolutely cracked me up was the graffiti tagging. On the huge rubbish heaps (big iron skips full of rubbish) is tagged ‘Bashar’ and across the stinking public toilets is ‘Beit Bashar’ (House of Bashar). I found that so hysterical and on point!
We spent a good 13 hours in Zaatari camp that day, which was very enriching to completely disassociate myself with what id previously read/heard and just start building my own opinion of it.
The third day saw a team of us work tirelessly through the 2000kg cargo of goods and supplies. The strategy for distribution was to do it overnight, between the hours of 9pm-8am, as most of the refugees cross the border in the dark and quiet of the night.
Nobody can predict the exact numbers so you must be prepared for anything. The danger is running short of supplies and causing conflict between those who received and those who didn’t. This must be avoided at all cost, not just for the harmony within the camp but also for our safety.
The refugees make their way to the border, where they are collected in trucks and driven the 15-20km to Zaatari Camp. There they will make their way to a ‘welcome tent’ where they get the chance to warm up, receive their ration cards, a blanket and a bag of food. After this point, is where we intervene. Each and every one of them will pass through us to get their individual bag containing an assortment of warm clothes, jacket, thermals, shoes, socks, underwear, blanket, toiletries. Each bag is sorted according to gender, age and size.
After they receive our bag, they settle in a huge porta-cabin for the night, and in the morning go through a long process of questioning and registration before being allocated a tent.
I am so proud of our team. When faced with a huge crowd of people, each one more desperate, tired and needy than the other, we managed to work together and really deliver efficiently and effectively.
The reason why we decided to do this overnight is because the new arrivals are always in critical condition. They are classed as higher priority than those already settled in the camp. Not only that, but they are those that really haven’t had the chance to acquire anything yet. We were in the middle of the desert, the temperatures have dropped to around 1-2C and the majority of them have made it with the t-shirts on their back and the sandals on their feet. I was absolutely frozen under my 7 layers, 2 wool hats, gloves and tights. Complaining wasn’t even an option when you simply look at a 6 year old with nothing more than a pair of shorts and tank top.
The overnight distribution was my huge slap in the face. I would like to share just a few of the stories recounted to me and the impressions this left within me.
I spoke to this 8.5month pregnant mother with all 4 of her children under the age of 6 with her. She was obviously very heavily pregnant, forced to leave her husband behind, carrying one baby in one arm, while the other little ones gripped her legs. Every person gets a bag of donated goods. In her case, one large one for her and for each and every one of her children. Even her unborn child gets a ‘newborn baby’ bag. I personally struggled carrying that load, but this woman did so with one baby under one arm, a huge bump and the bag under the other. I made it a point to help her with her bag and settle her into her spot in the porta-cabin. She pulls me to the side and bashfully asks me for a sanitary towel. I look down and she has blood gushing down her legs, absolutely soaking her shoes. Very concerned as she was pregnant, we insisted she goes directly to the clinic- if not for her wellbeing, for the wellbeing of her unborn child.
Every adult had an average of about 6-8 children, all very close in age. Very small, tired, weak. There were reports of drugged babies to keep them quiet as they crossed the border to avoid danger of being caught.
The kids were incredible though. 5 year olds helping the elderly carry the bags, or helping guide their grandparents through the dark.
The number of disabled people entering the camp was alarming. Many blinded, scarred and wounded. This lady came in limping, but once you looked down at her feet, her ankles were lacerated and beaten. God knows what she endured.
I was walking through the yard where we were parked and saw this very old lady around 102 years old. She was very frail, cold, weak, accompanied by her daughter in law (after having to leave her sons back in Syria) and her 9 grandchildren. They came with meager belongings, walking very slowly. The youngest child was around 4 months old and the oldest around 10 years. The old lady walked at snails pace with her cane and the mother, a tower of strength, supporting the clan. Children is one thing, but I have a deep weakness for the elderly. I think its because of my personally deep attachment to my own grandmother, that my sensitivity to the elderly is that much stronger. Also, they are our only link to the past, an invaluable treasure. This old lady looked exhausted and so frail. I ran up to her and grabbed her by the arm to support her as she walked on. She told me that she has lost her bag of medication and if id help her find it. I took her inside the ‘welcome tent’ and sat her beside the heater. I grabbed a couple of blankets and covered her head and knees with it. she told me she felt so weak and hadn’t eaten in 40 hours. I got hold of a tin of tuna and spoonfed it to her. You could feel the effort in her chewing but the relief in the food-energy taken on. She sipped some apple juice from a straw and just rested on the pile of blankets I sat her on. I stayed with her for over 45 minutes, listening to her stories, where she has come from, what she hopes for, her fears… she told me she was lying in her bed, fearing every rocket flying over her could bring an end to her days. The pain she is enduring with every step makes her wish shed died then and there. The sad thing is that she is not unique in this. Thousands live this every single day and I felt so helpless at that moment. I sad beside her and had my arms around her to keep her warm. She hugged me and kept kissing my hands saying that me being by her side was God reminding her that he is with her. When she said this, I crumbled deep inside, but smiled and told her she will be fine. I comforted her and settled her into the best spot I could find in the porta-cabin for the night. Everyone has to sleep on the ground as there are no beds or chairs. She told me she couldn’t bend her knees to sit on the ground and if I could get her a chair? I told her I would be right back and ran into the main tent to get her a chair. As I grabbed a chair to make my way back to her, another aid worker from another (unnamed) organization stopped me and forbade me to take it out of the tent. I explained that a 102 year old frail, sick woman cannot sit on the floor and needs it! the woman, following regulation, refused. I would never live with myself if id given into that, so I called over the highest ranking officer and said straight up that I would be ready to make the biggest scene if he didn’t grant me permission to take the chair. I need that chair and I am taking it. so I took it and brought it over to her. The look on her face was that of such relief and gratitude. I didn’t want to leave her side but I knew there were hundreds more outside that I needed to see to. She still marks me.
I was recounted the story of a 107 year old man who lost all 5 of his sons, each and every one of them killed, yet he survived and made it across the border. What a miracle.
These are just a few stories that I wanted to share. They were not uncommon, and not the worst either. We expected around 200 refugees that night but got 1300. Luckily we brought all the goods we had, so managed to provide to the majority.
During the night, I was caught taking a picture and was taken to the police cabin and questioned for nearly an hour. The security is so tight there and one is very limited with what they can report. After found our every last bit of information about me, searched my bag and through every picture on my camera, I was free to go. I was angry at first and felt rather violated, but I understood their reasoning. Although I wasn’t taking any pictures of Syrians themselves, there is this impending fear that I may be a spy documenting the ‘deserters of the regime’. Out of understanding and respect to them, I cooperated as best I could. One small battle I couldn’t hold back is the police general smoking in my face in the questioning room. I told him I couldn’t answer any questions until he put it out because I was suffocating. So he went outside to finish his cigarette. Its all in the small victories J
That night really taught me a great lesson and feel like my eyes were opened. before taking on this initiative, I was very worried that what id witness would mark me and send me into a downward spiral. The truth is, going down that route is not an option. As a result of this experience, I feel so incredibly empowered and proud. When faced with possibly the hardest of situations- physical exertion, separation, fear and loss, those I have met have maintained their faith, support for eachother, resilience and most importantly pride. It was incredible seeing these mothers giving every ounce of themselves for the survival of their children and themselves. Young children taking responsibility of caring for their elders. men working together to help their fellow brothers and sisters. There is a very big difference between pity and compassion. Showing the former never even enters the equation, because they have so much pride and rightfully so. One must never forget that Syria is a middle income country. Many of the refugees I’ve had the chance to meet are doctors, lawyers, teachers. They had a very stable and comfortable standard of living and from one day to the next forced into this situation. It’s a hard pill to swallow but they adapt and show resilience and strength. Its one of the most inspiring examples to me. To wallow in self pity would be an insult to the endurance and courage they have shown.
We worked through the night and finished as the sun came up.
There are nearly 4 times more refugees outside of the camps residing in ‘host families’. These are considered the ‘forgotten many’. Those met at Zaatari camp are considered the fortunate ones. Yes, the conditions are not optimal, but at least there is a good provision of facilities, services and receive a healthy daily calorific intake. For those outside the camp, many of them assuming the atmosphere in the camp is far worse than the reality, find themselves with no means of earning a living, no constant source of food, no provision of clothes or healthcare. They are trapped and many are now trying to move into the camps as a better option.
Targeting the ‘forgotten many’ was a priority.
From your generous monetary donations, as promised, we spent the morning buying brand new clothes and goods for them. We had a choice to go somewhere very cheap and buy a few more items than somewhere of better quality. I chose the latter, because they deserve that better quality for durability. I intend to provide like I would if it were my own children. The money stretched very far. We bought dozens and dozens of blankets, warm winter coats, thermals, polo necks, underwear, socks and toys.
Its very difficult to locate the families and distribute individually because many are in hiding. Instead, we located a school exclusive for Syrian refugee children. We spoke to the headmaster of the school and congregated the parents, to whom we distributed to. We distributed not only to the kids within the school but to their siblings and families outside. This was very successful and the main target were the children. Our estimations with regard to sizes and ages was relatively accurate and you could see how chuffed they were.
The sheer number of refugees is far beyond what I had anticipated. The queues of people was relentless. No matter how much you distributed, you never feel its enough.
The following day we spent the day playing with 4 year olds in a pre-school. Totally letting loose, colouring, building blocks, cooking, reading stories…
It was a really lovely way to end because it really asserted that these people aren’t defined by their current situation. There is hope and courage and resilience…they will not let this taint everything they have worked for and grown to know. Their spirit is still as strong.
Certainly, the fight is not over and I endeavor to carry on, however modest my mission is comparatively to others, but as they say, ‘The Journey Of a Thousand Miles Begins With A Single Step’.
I want to thank you all for paving the way of that Journey. Without your generosity and support, none of this would have been possible.
I wish you health, togetherness and peace always x