Unveiling Syrian refugee camps: A blog by Maddie Handler

Maddie and the leaders of the refugee Girls Empowerment Programs
Me with some of the team members that run refugee Girls’ Empowerment Programs

This blog post was written by Arizona State University student Maddie Handler. Read her first blog, "The economic x-ray of Jordan." Handler is the first intern for The Alchemist Lab, founded by 2018 WE Empower Challenge awardee Hadeel Anabtawi.

When I first arrived in Jordan, all I really knew was that I wanted to learn about human development and helping people effectively so that it really causes an impact. I wanted to meet real people who wake up every day knowing that their job is making someone else’s life just a little better. This is why I was thrilled for the opportunity to work with WE Empower winner Hadeel Anabtawi and her Go Girls campaign.

I had this passion to learn, first-hand, what it was like to improve education, empower women, and meet refugees. As Hadeel had taught me very early into my journey, this internship was what I was going to make it. Jordan has an astounding number of human development workers, and I was determined to learn from the best. This is how I (lovingly) inserted myself into the lives of some of the head coordinators for youth programs at the Syrian refugee camps. Not only have these people become some of my close friends, but they worked tirelessly to get me access into the refugee camps where they work.

Prior to my invitation to the camps, all of my refugee knowledge, especially Syrian refugees, came from “The Daily,” a podcast from The New York Times, as is the case with many Americans. Even though the USA is a country of “refugees,” from its very founding, we don’t understand the current refugee situation happening in the world around us, and despite what some may perceive, the world is actually very small. There are global citizens, especially in the United States, who have never even left the comfort of their homes. The crises of developing countries seem worlds away and the media outlet is the only lens in which people are able to understand other regional issues. This blog is meant to enlighten the US citizen who isn’t able to physically visit Syrian refugee camps and experience them firsthand, and these are the details that real NGO workers have requested I share with you from what I have learned from them.

If one were to Google refugee camps, they would find disheartening photos of displaced people living in tents with no running water and the occasional UN blue helmet frantically running around trying to help. These people are showcased in an uneducated, needy and hopeless light. This, however, is not the case.

The camps

The first thing I learned about Syrian refugees is that there are two main camps in Jordan where they are placed: Zaatari and Azraq, and that to get to the camps, NGO workers travel over an hour from Amman via bus or car fleet every day back and forth. Additionally, even though both are funded by the same organizations and are for the same people, they are vastly different. Zaatari was established in 2012, while Azraq opened in 2014.  Zaatari is bursting at the seams with 80,000 refugees and Azraq seems like a ghost town in comparison with 40,000 refugees in a camp that fits more than double its size. Zaatari has a bustling market and smaller, fixer-upper caravans, Azraq, in comparison, has pristine white caravans and a mall/warehouse hybrid. Why is there such a discrepancy? How can these be so different from each other?

When Syrians first escaped the crisis, there was nowhere to go, and Zaatari was established expeditiously to fit the harried masses. There were few regulations, and systems had to be built to meet the ever-increasing demands of a growing population. Today, there are children born in the camp who are Syrian citizens but have never even seen their own country or outside of the camp.

Yet, Syrians prefer Zaatari over Azraq. Why?  Because even though children cannot leave the camp, adults and youth can. There is far more freedom and opportunity in Zaatari to leave the camp and either go home or work in Amman or a neighboring city, and the paperwork is easier to complete to do so. Workers and guests can enter the “downtown” and see a colorful scene of men on bicycles, women walking with fresh produce, and children playing street games. This is because refugees in Zaatari also have the liberty to open their own stores, buy their own groceries, make their own money, etc.

Furthermore, because Zaatari requires constant maintenance, there are far more job opportunities in the form of IBVs, or Incentive-Based Volunteers. Zaatari is, indeed, poor, but it is lively and bustling. Its citizens have PhDs, master’s degrees and special skills that are used to develop and maintain this makeshift refugee city.

One of the villages in Azraq
One of Azraq’s inhabited Villages

In contrast, Azraq does offer its qualified and educated citizens IBVs, but because the population is smaller, there is less opportunity for hiring. There are little to no opportunities for citizens to leave the camp, and there is the ominous Village Five. Zaatari is segmented into filled Districts, while Azraq is separated via Villages. Only about half the villages are occupied, and Village Five is the last place any Syrian refugee wants to go. This encampment within Azraq is shrouded in mystery because the people living here cannot ever leave their own village to enter the camp and their communication is limited to select government appointees.

When we drove by Village Five, the only thing I could see was a weathered barbed wire fence and guards chain smoking cigarettes. But within, they have their own school systems, caravans, and distribution centers strictly for the families living here. These are the families of political and war criminals, passport violations, and escapees that were caught by Jordanian police.

An example of induction into Village Five, is that of a woman who was becoming a very elite IBV teacher. One of the German NGOs took notice and wanted to write a story about her success. This prompted a background check which revealed that a remote family member in Syria had negatively interacted with the Syrian government.  She and her family were subsequently placed in Village Five, she lost her job and now cannot ever leave the village. For this very reason, Syrians avoid placement into Azraq even if the facilities are newer and nicer.

The People

Maddie and a cat
Me with the well-fed refugee mascot of the Youth Program

What I learned, though, that is more important than anything is that Syrians are an amazingly resilient and kind population. As Mahatma Ghandi observed—the statue of a country could be judged by how its animals were treated. Whereas other Arabs see animals as a nuisance or a vehicle for money, Syrians treat their animals, whether it is a kitten or a horse, with kindness and respect. Their animals are well fed and some even groomed, even if their owners are not. They are also a very generous and welcoming people, and even women wearing niqabs display shining, proud eyes eager to demonstrate her work. The children, though timid at first, warmed quickly to my presence and were curious to know where I came from or why my hair was red.

Finally, Syrians are unequivocally intelligent. As previously mentioned, these are people who came from beautiful, established cities, where they were working on higher education, had their own businesses, and were very entrepreneurial in their endeavors. They are like many Arabic people in this way, but in the blink of an eye, their cities were bombed, destroyed, and their lives threatened.  With nowhere to go, they reached out to their former Ottoman countries for support. Imagine your beautiful, warm apartment destroyed in an instant and you are forced to move into a one-room caravan with your entire family. Despite this, Syrians are fighting for a normal life in their makeshift cities. The biggest fear Syrians face now is an unknown future. When will we get to go home, is the ubiquitous question?