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Syrians in Jordan: A community of refugees flowers in the desert

News Stories, 13 March 2013

© UNHCR/G.Beals
Syrian refugee Noordin Ibrahim with some of the scented wares in his small stall in Jordan's Za'atri Refugee Camp.

ZA'ATRI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan, March 13 (UNHCR) In one of the world's fastest growing refugee camps, Syrian trader Noordin Ibrahim sells the essence of romance. His makeshift stall, made from scraps of material, tin and wood, contains more than 300 perfumes, dozens of bottles of nail varnish and other items meant to make his customers a little more alluring. There are the items like "CK One" and "Kiss over the Moon." And then there are other home-made fragrances meant for tenderness and enticement contained in little glass bottles.

Ibrahim's journey to this camp in the middle of the windswept desert began on August 26, when he fled his small village near the southern Syrian city of Dara'a after his home was flattened by prolonged artillery shelling. The refugee left Syria with his wife and four daughters in the middle of the night, walking through olive groves and eventually crossing the border with Jordan at one in the morning, before being taken to the sprawling Za'atri Camp.

He has since invested all his money in the business of sweet Za'atri fragrances selling perfume was his brief occupation several years ago. Refugees from his village as well as members of his extended clan the Ghabeet family frequent his stall. "I needed to live and I need to work," he says with a smile. "I also needed to change the smell of this place."

Ibrahim's perfume stall represents more than a business. It is also a small step towards building a community rooted in hope. Each bottle of perfume sold combats the misery of lives displaced. And the stall is just one of many examples of how the camp has evolved over the last six months.

As entire communities have moved from Syria across the borders with countries like Jordan, they have taken their families and their social fabric with them. Part of the society that once lived in one nation is now beginning to take root in another. Za'atri is no longer just a collection of unconnected individuals and families but a society of its own.

These communities are pursuing the need to recreate a sense of home. As insecurity in Syria prevails, up to 4,000 people flee Jordan daily through official and unofficial crossing points. The majority of the exodus is dispersed across the kingdom in both urban and rural communities. As many as 100,000 refugees now reside in Za'atri camp.

There UNHCR and its partners provide the necessities: shelter, food, water, access to education and health care, and protection for the vulnerable. In addition to this, refugee families and communities have begun to organize themselves along the lines of family and villages of origin. People have literally moved their tents to be closer to friends and relatives.

And communication networks are forming among refugee communities within Jordan as well as between refugees and their relatives in Syria. Although a new society is forming, keeping in touch with the folk in the old one is important.

Ahmed (who asked for his name to be changed) is just one of those in Za'atri who keeps in close touch with his family in Dara'a, which lies just across the border. Standing on a mound of dirt and stones on the edge of the camp, Ahmed holds his cellphone in the air to try and catch a signal from the main phone operator in Syria. The phone is on loudspeaker so he can talk. As bulldozers work on expanding the site nearby, about a dozen other Za'atri residents are doing the same.

This is the way refugees stay in touch with their friends and family back home in Syria. They call their little hill "SyriaTel," after the name of a mobile phone operator across the border. It is here that Ahmed calls his extended family in Dara'a to find out when they will cross the border. He tells them that he is safe and that they too should make the crossing as soon as possible. "Everyone comes here," he says. "This is where we get the news from our homes and our villages."

Orders are made from SyriaTel hill from refugees to their friends and family who are about to cross the border. "Last night a 75-year-old woman brought in two bags loaded with olive oil from her village," notes Andrew Harper, UNHCR's representative in Jordan. "Her relatives in Za'atri told her that she would need it because they didn't know when she would be able to return."

News from home is the topic of discussion in the refugee camp's barber shop, numerous coffee houses and shisha bars. Along the camp's main street, people talk about home while buying sunflower seeds, fruits and vegetables or cotton candy. It is in these locations that the seeds of hope for a return to Syria and a new life when the conflict is over are spread.

Abdel arrived in Jordan five months ago. After working briefly at a barber's shop in Amman, he returned to Za'atri camp to set up his own business. Here the men and boys arrive to have a trim or a shave for the equivalent of US$2 dollars. Members of his family, the Mifalanis, frequent his establishment, providing him money and hope.

And while Abdel still has a piece of shrapnel in the base of his foot, he now has a dream to combat the misery of the past. "I'm 21 years old and I am a businessman," he says proudly. "When this is over and I go home, I'll start a real barber shop."

By Greg Beals in Za'atri Refugee Camp, Jordan




UNHCR country pages

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

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Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

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The UN refugee agency has launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its work helping hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The new appeal concludes that unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region. The appeal notes that the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR has warned that the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

The US$60 million will cover UNHCR's protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non-Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

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There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

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