Alice Su
Alice Su

Ambivalence at Azraq: Syrian refugees express mixed feelings on new camp

Streamlined desert facility 60 miles east of Jordan’s capital offers improvements in security, housing and cleanliness

AZRAQ, Jordan — The Sameh Market looked like a fine place to shop. Its shelves were stocked with rows of fresh produce, canned goods, meat, spices and snacks.

Hala, 33, pushed a cart down the dairy aisle, her two daughters in tow, wondering what to buy. The pair of young girls — Fatima, 12, and Arwa, 10 — stared at the rows of milk, the cans of cream and the 2.25 Jordanian dinar ($3.18) price tag on a tub of labneh, Levantine yogurt cheese.

“Everything is here,” Hala said as she surveyed her options. Then she added in a whisper, “But we don’t want to stay.”

Aside from an allotted four pieces of bread per day, each refugee gets $28 worth in food coupons each month.
Alice Su

This Sameh Market is no ordinary shop, and Hala, Fatima and Arwa are no ordinary shoppers. The World Food Program–sponsored store is the most crowded place in Azraq, Jordan’s newest refugee camp. Opened only two weeks ago, it is already filling with people fleeing the civil war in Syria. Hala and her family are fresh arrivals, from the war-ravaged city of Homs only four days ago. They declined to use their real names for fear of reprisals.

Azraq is 60 miles east of Amman, an hour’s journey that follows signs pointing to Iraq and Saudi Arabia through miles of rock and sand and the forlorn remains of ancient castles. Twenty minutes after the last ruin, a sprawl of whitewashed Monopoly houses appears, stretching past the horizon. A blue sign reads, in boldly outlined letters, “Azraq Refugee Camp.”

As the Syrian conflict moves into its fourth year, more than 2.7 million Syrians have become refugees, seeking asylum mostly in bordering Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Almost 600,000 of these refugees are registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, where the newly opened camp stands ready to host up to 130,000 Syrians.

While Azraq is built on lessons learned from the last three years, its existence is evidence of the burden of protracted war on neighboring Jordan. The small country is staggering under fatigue on all fronts — governmental and humanitarian, urban and rural, Syrian and Jordanian, inside and outside the camps.

On the first day Azraq was open, 772 Syrians moved in. Less than two weeks later, almost 4,000 refugees are here. The UNHCR boasts of improvements in this campcompared with Zaatari, a northern camp hosting more than 100,000 Syrians, now infamous as the fourth-largest city in Jordan and second-largest refugee camp in the world.

For example, there are no tents in Azraq. Instead, every family gets a transitional shelter, dubbed a T-shelter, made of metal. The structures are organized in clusters of six according to geographical origin in Syria so refugees can be closer to their relatives and neighbors. “It’s a bottom-up approach,” said Bernadette Castel, head of the UNHCR field office at Azraq. “We’re trying to foster a sense of community so refugees feel ownership of the facilities.”

We’re trying to foster a sense of community so refugees feel ownership of the facilities.

Bernadette Castel

UNHCR Azraq field office head

Every refugee unit in Azraq receives two solar lamps, their only source of electricity in the camp. Families also use them to charge mobile phones. But at night the camp is dark.
Alice Su

Azraq is quiet. Neat rows of T-shelters sprout laundry lines sagging under worn clothes that droop like tired flags in the sun. Everything is dry. Nothing is green. The crunch of gravel is loud. At midday, the streets are empty, save for the miniature Ikea solar lamps outside each shelter, arched toward the sun like alien devices trying to suck up enough energy to phone home. These are the only electricity sources in the camp right now, a precious means of charging mobile phones to get in touch with relatives in Syria.

“We are very tired,” a 38-year-old mother from Daraa said inside her shelter. Cutting green beans on a piece of cardboard while squatting on the floor, she apologized for her hands’ smelling like garlic. “I never thought I’d be a refugee,” she said, having arrived in Jordan a week before. “But it already feels like a year.”

A 2-month-old baby girl slept next door, curled against a gray UNHCR blanket. “She hadn’t eaten for two days before this,” her 20-year-old mother said. Baby formula was not available in the camp until an NGO worker brought in powdered formula from outside because the infant had been vomiting up the regular milk they fed her.

Despite the relative creature comforts, the most common question among Azraq’s refugees is, When can we get out? Many have relatives in Zaatari, Amman and across the rest of Jordan. They want to leave and join their families but could not do so until May 15, when the Jordanian public security started taking requests. It is not guaranteed. Every refugee must have a Jordanian guarantor who vouches for his or her financial capacity to leave the camp.

One difference between Azraq and Zaatari is that shelters are organized by Syrian region of origin, instead of randomly assigned, so people can live close to others from their hometowns. These children said everyone on their block was related to each other and from Homs.
Alice Su

“There’s security here, but what else? This is not life,” says 20-year-old Bushra, who arrived from Daraa and, like others interviewed for this story, was using a false name. “We escaped the war, and now we are just sitting in the dark.” The camp feels like prison, she said. “If we can’t leave ... we’ll escape.”

Half an hour away, another Syrian refugee was hoping for the opposite: She wanted to get into the camp. The woman, who also used the name Hala, arrived from Homs six months ago with her four children. Her husband is still in Syria, but she lives in the town of Azraq, paying 150 dinar ($212) per month for rent. They live on food coupons worth 24 dinar ($34) per person per month but receive no other aid, and none of the children go to school. Her younger son, 15, works in a restaurant from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, making 100 dinar ($141) per month.

“We asked how to get into Azraq camp, but it’s only for new Syrians,” Hala said. She wouldn’t return to Zaatari, where her family stayed for one night in a tent. “There’s harassment there and bad people. But we hear Azraq is good. They have shelter and services and security.”

More than 80 percent of Jordan’s Syrian refugees live in urban communities outside the camps. According to a CARE International study published in April, 90 percent of these refugees are in debt, and rents have increased by almost a third in the past year. Meanwhile, Jordanian host communities battle the same challenges — rising cost of living, lack of employment and ever-shrinking access to electricity and water.

There’s security here, but what else? This is not life. If we can’t leave ... we’ll escape.


Azraq camp resident

“People here are afraid because there will be more Syrian refugees than our own citizens,” said Nazih Mansour al-Bassar, 64, a mukhtar, or community leader, of the town of Azraq. The local population is about 15,000, he said, and approximately 6,000 Syrian refugees are already living among them. “What will happen when there are 100,000 more Syrians?”

Water is a main concern for Bassar, who studied engineering at Damascus University and worked for 25 years in saltwater processing before becoming the mukhtar. He said Azraq survives on agriculture and thus needs water, which used to be so abundant that farmers had unmonitored access. Only in the last year did water use become regulated with meters and a nationally fixed price.

“Now people are stealing water from the pipelines illegally,” Bassar said, adding that that didn’t happen before the Syrians came. But the thieves may be of either nationality, he admitted. “Some are probably Jordanians who do it out of need. Our country can’t handle all these people. They take the jobs so Jordanians can’t work, and this drives them to steal.”

Another improvement from Zaatari is that every six shelters have a bathroom unit.
Alice Su

The town also has no sewer system, despite years of government promises to construct one. Wastewater goes into underground tanks. “What will we do now if the camp waste overflows?” he asked. Meanwhile, the UNHCR is trucking tanks of water into the camp. UNICEF is drilling a borehole to sustain a water source that doesn’t affect the town, and there are plans for a wastewater treatment plant as well. But the timeline for all this is uncertain and dependent on funding, which has reached only 26 percent of the requested $1.2 billion in the UNHCR’s Syria regional response plan.

One way the Azraq camp might help the host community is through employment, Bassar said, specifically by hiring local Azraqis, not Jordanians from elsewhere. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to help distribute goods to refugees,” he said. He has a relative who was trained at Zaatari and is now working at the Azraq camp, which is 12 miles from the town.

Abdulrahman, 25, arrived in Jordan from Homs two years ago. He moved to the town of Azraq after three months in Zaatari and now works on and off in a mini-market close to the municipality office. “People inside the camp want to leave. People outside the camp want to enter,” he said, laughing. He said he doesn’t want to live in the Azraq camp. “A camp is like a prison, even if it has good services. They say it’s better than Zaatari. But I would still feel trapped,” he said.

Neither Azraq nor Zaatari — or any UNHCR camp — is supposed to be a “durable solution,” Castel said. “Nobody wants to be a refugee. Nobody dreams of being a refugee. Of course, the Syrian refugees in Jordan and Jordanians and we, as UNHCR, all hope they will be able to go back to a peaceful home.”

Everyone in Azraq — both the town and the camp, Jordanians and Syrians — agreed on wanting just that: for the war to end and the refugees to be able to go home. But as new arrivals keep flowing in, there is little sign of that happening anytime soon.

Bushra sat on a piece of Styrofoam in her T-shelter, and her younger brother swatted a fly away from their daily gallon of yellowish water.“God brought this to us,” she said. She tucked a plastic bag over a half-eaten piece of bread. “Now we look to him.”  

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