On Zaatari's Street of Widows, Syria refugees survive on kindness

Having fled a police state for refugee camp, Syrian refugees try to maintain order in a lawless environment

The street of widows in Zaatari refugee camp, October 6, 2013.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

ZAATARI, Jordan — They call it the Street of Widows, this dusty, gritty dirt path lined on either side by closely packed white trailer homes, some topped with satellite dishes, all covered with a fine layer of desert sand. It looks like so many other passageways in the sprawling labyrinth that is the Zaatari refugee camp for Syrians seeking sanctuary in Jordan.

“Bashar is an ass” is spray-painted on the side of one trailer, a reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It's not far from scribbled phone number advertising circumcision services for newborns. At least 17 of the 112 families on the street are headed by widows whose husbands were among the more than 120,000 Syrians killed so far in their country’s two-and-a-half-year conflict.

Every one of the 122,673 Syrians in the camp has a tale of loss and sorrow, of hopes dashed and retained, of hardships escaped and many still endured. For some, like the war widows, the difficulties of displacement are intensified by a camp environment that can be physically dangerous and predatory and as patriarchal as the society they have fled. That’s not to say that these women are helpless but simply that some — like Ibtisam, a 45-year-old mother of five — need a little more help.


Ibtisam and her youngest son.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

Ibtisam did not want to state her surname. She is soft-spoken and unassuming and cries easily. Her husband was killed by shrapnel on July 14, 2012, when government forces entered their village of Sheikh Maskeen in Daraa province. Her eldest son, Haikim, 20, defected from the army and returned to his village after hearing of his father’s death. He was snatched by regime troops from outside his home less than a month later, and his whereabouts and fate remain unknown. She took her remaining four children to Zaatari in January.

Ibtisam’s pain is still raw; it rolls down her cheeks in tears caught in the edge of her gray and white hijab. She sits cross-legged in a friend’s trailer, covering the large holes in the soles of her dark gray socks with her olive green abaya, the loose ankle-length cloak many Muslim women wear. “Do you think there is anybody here in Zaatari who isn't hurt?” she asks. “Everybody is hurt. Nobody happily left their country or did so unless compelled.”

She was a housewife in Syria who had never been employed, but she’s trying — without success — to find work in the camp as a cleaner. Her second-eldest son, 16, can’t find a job either. Unlike some refugees, she doesn’t have other family members here who can help support her household.

“Look at us. We're just sitting here. Just sitting, sitting,” Ibtisam says. “Wherever I go, I feel suffocated. I'm choking. Lately I've been thinking about going back to Syria. I think I'll go there and die and be done with it. It's easier. My heart is tired.” She continues, voice firm but tears flowing, “How am I going to look after these young ones here? How am I going to, with this wounded heart?”

She is too shy to ask for help in a place where the weak are easily trampled and just as easily ignored.


The camp can be a dangerous environment. Older parts close to the entrance, like the Street of Widows, are generally safer than the newer areas; they have streetlights and established communities, often organized around clans or villages, and offer safety in numbers and familiarity. In the newer parts, the trailers and tents are more widely spaced, people often don’t know one another, and streetlights are not always installed, making a nighttime dash to the communal toilets a heart-palpitating trip.

There are whispers of rapes and other gender-based violence in some places. Mafias are alleged to be running brothels and controlling access to the few jobs in the camp. And some of those street-level power brokers are involved in turf wars.

“We had a number of very, very hairy moments when people were really fighting, nasty behind-the-scenes activities against each other,” says  Kilian Kleinschmidt, camp manager in Zaatari for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Zaatari camp is fertile ground for criminality, not least because it lacks a law-enforcement system. Kleinschmidt says he’s in the process of training some 600 Syrians — 50 in each of the camp’s 12 districts — to police their neighborhoods, while Jordanian community police units are being trained by the United Kingdom to operate in the camp.

The policing initiative is meant to supersede the current system of street leaders (often self-appointed), who, in theory, serve as community representatives. Many have exploited their positions to procure a greater share of food parcels or jobs at the expense of others, and some have even resorted to violence to intimidate and extort or to subjugate potential rivals.

Kleinschmidt hopes to gradually isolate the “corrupt and selfish” among the current street leaders and find new interlocutors. “It's not a revolution from one day to the next,”  he says. “It’s going to take time.”

For now, some nongovernmental organizations have placed more vulnerable refugees in the older part of the camp, in streets with leaders in whom they have greater trust.

Street leader Abu Zayd and his family.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

Abu Zayd, a tanned, affable 37-year-old from Khirbet Ghazaleh in Daraa province, is the street leader in the Street of Widows. He’s been in the camp since its earliest days last summer, when he says the desert whirlwinds swirled between tents and the suspension of dust in the air was so thick, it was like fog. “Now the camp is practically six stars,” he says smiling, exposing the gap between his two front teeth. Still, he doesn’t downplay the security concerns and knows what many in the camp think of their street leaders: “They’re generally considered thieves.”

“There are some bad people here,” he continues. “When they see somebody is alone, trouble finds him. They will eat his rights.”

Abu Zayd lives in four containers arranged to create an internal courtyard paved with concrete, reminiscent of the home he left behind. It’s a common living arrangement in the camp, where most people have more than one trailer. The UNHCR provides one for every six people, and they can be bought on the camp’s thriving black market. Entrepreneurial teenagers have fashioned rigs out of spare metal and motorcycle wheels, and they will transport a trailer home anywhere in the camp for a few dinars.

He shares his space with his wife and five children, his feisty mother (clearly the head of the family), his quiet father and other family members, including two sisters — a total of 18 people.

Having heard of Ibtisam’s plight, he sought her out and moved her here, across the way from his friend Abu Adel, whose family keeps an eye out for her and her children. Ibtisam’s household survives on food distributed by aid organizations and the kindness of neighbors like Abu Adel’s family, who provide cooked meals and share some of the little clothing they have with her children. “This man, these men are looking out for me and my daughters, my family,” Ibtisam says. “They are dearer to me than my own brothers.”

Hayat Hariri with her twins, Ismael, left, and Hiba.
Dalia Khamissy for Al Jazeera America

Other widows in the street, like Hayat Hariri, 33, have large family support networks in the camp, but she still faces difficulties. Her troubles are less about food and shelter than about dealing with the loss of her husband — Mohammad al-Masry, a 40-year-old former livestock trader turned Free Syrian Army commander who was killed in battle in their province of Daraa on May 5.

Masry took his wife and their young twins to Zaatari camp about a year ago, when the children — a boy, Ismael, and a girl, Hiba — were just a year old. “The children were very dear to him. He feared for them. He wanted to make sure they were safe,” Hariri says.

Dressed in a black abaya and a black niqab that conceals her hair and all of her face except her honey-colored eyes, Hariri twists a tissue around in her fingers, crying, as she recalls how it took her and her husband 11 years to conceive the twins. “They look like their father,” she says.

Rather than stay with their precious children, Masry returned to Syria to fight with a rebel battalion. He visited his family only once, spending December 2012 in Zaatari.  “He used to say that he had many sins and that martyrdom would clear them,” Hariri says. “He would say, ‘If I sit and everybody sits and does nothing, nothing will happen. Nothing will change. We will not sit.’”

Hariri lives in a trailer with her mother, Em Ziad, an older woman with Bedouin tribal tattoos inked on her chin, forehead and hands. A bunch of soft toys lie scattered in a corner, including a Wellington bear and a monkey wearing a white T-shirt that reads ‘Against animal testing.’ A TV in the background is tuned to an Arabic children’s channel.

Em Ziad listens intently and dry eyed, puffing incessantly on Jordanian cigarettes as her daughter cries and shreds tissues between her shaking hands. Em Ziad tries to calm her by interjecting with the occasional “God is merciful”  or “This is God’s will.”

“He was supposed to come here. He said he would after five days,” Hariri says quietly. “Instead, he was martyred.” Her voice cracks. “He wasn’t even buried. They took his body,” she says, referring to Syrian government soldiers.

Her children, who are still breastfeeding, are too young to leave for hours, she says, but she’d like to “learn something — a trade, a skill.” She doesn’t have any photos of her husband in the trailer, just on her Nokia phone. Ismael says he wants to see pictures of his father. She flicks open the phone. “Yes, this is baba,” she says, until the picture fades from the screen.

Back home in Syria, Abu Zayd was a farmer who had a side business making floral arrangements for weddings. Now, as a street leader in the camp, he feels responsible for the well-being of hundreds of people. He’s especially concerned for anyone deemed vulnerable, such as those who, unlike 90% of the camp’s residents, come from areas other than Daraa.

He doesn’t allow single men to live on his street unless they’re part of a household with parents or other relatives because he fears they might cause trouble or harass the women. “A single man shouldn’t be alone among families,” he says. “They should be in a separate section.”

The most common request he faces, he says, is for help finding employment. The most common complaint: poor hygiene in the camp. Communal toilets were removed by an NGO three months ago after complaints about their condition, but the promised replacement facilities have not yet been installed. Many of the families on his street have installed toilets in their homes, at their own cost, with underground sewage pits that are routinely emptied into trucks. “What are women supposed to do?” Abu Zayd says, lamenting the missing new communal toilets. “It’s the most basic thing.”

He taps his cigarette in a homemade wooden ashtray crudely carved by his younger brother. His eldest daughter, Dhikra, 13, sits by his side. The women of his family — his mother, several sisters, some sisters-in-law and his wife — move in and out of the trailers, one of which they’ve converted into a kitchen, where they’re frying frozen fish purchased in the camp’s market.

He proudly introduces his sister Amana, who teaches English in the camp and has a degree from Damascus University. “We are farmers from a small village,” Abu Zayd says. “People said my sister shouldn’t go to Damascus to study, but I said I would not forgive myself if I didn’t help her go. Now she has a skill that helps pay the bills. Her degree is like a weapon, to protect her.”

At one point, his wife makes a comment about politics. Abu Zayd playfully chides her, telling her she shouldn’t discuss such things, but it’s clear that he’s joking. Almost as a point, his mother and sisters seamlessly continue the political talk. He contributes to the conversation rather than telling them to talk about other things.

He says he thought about joining the Free Syrian Army, but then thought about his children and his wife. He didn’t want to make her a widow, a woman who might one day rely on a man like him, somebody she is not related to, in a foreign land, to help her. “Who would look after them if I am martyred?” Abu Zayd says. “They need me here.”

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