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In Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, returning home remains a distant dream

The flow of goods in and out of al-Zaatari is constant. The 80,000 or so residents of the refugee camp have built a veritable city in the middle of Jordan’s desert. And like any other city, its needs are immense.

For all the incoming goods, the one thing you will never see coming into al-Zaatari is cement.

Al-Zaatari is meant to be a temporary solution. And its structures reflect that. The Syrian refugees who populate the camp live in metal caravans, designed to last no longer than six years. Its roads remain unpaved.

It is with some reluctance then, that the residents of al-Zaatari will mark the camp’s tenth anniversary on Friday.

“I thought I would stay for a day, maybe two, then go back,” Abou Mamoun, a 67-year-old resident of the camp from Daraa, told The New Arab.

Abou Mamoun left his hometown in the spring of 2013 after Syria’s civil war had made life too dangerous for his family. He had only meant to escort his wife and children to Jordan before heading back to his crops. But once in Jordan, he could not find his way back across the border.

"The brutality of the regime's response to the country's popular 2011 uprising pushed over a million Syrians to seek shelter in neighbouring Jordan"
More than nine years later, About Mamoun still cannot find his way back to Syria. He knows the route – the border crossing has re-opened – but conditions in Syria are still too dangerous for him to return.

Human rights monitors regularly issue reports of alarming human rights abuses in Syria and warn governments that the country is not safe for refugee returns.

A 2022 UNHCR survey found that 94 percent of Syrian refugees living in Jordan are not planning to return to Syria in the next year, up from 73 percent in 2018.

“We want to go back, but we have no idea when we can,” Abou Mamoun.
Only meant to be a 'temporary solution'

When Zaatari was first founded in 2012, it was little more than a few tents and blankets laid down in the rough dirt of Jordan’s northeastern district of Mafraq.

The brutality of the regime’s response to the country’s popular 2011 uprising pushed over a million Syrians to seek shelter in neighbouring Jordan. The country welcomed them with open arms in the early years of Syria’s civil war, and in total, hosts some 1.3 million Syrian refugees.

The Jordanian government, the UN, and other NGOs organised a response to the growing influx of Syrian refugees, setting up camps across Jordan. Al-Zaatari soon became the largest Syrian refugee camp in the country – and the world.

The camp attracted praise for the market economy it managed to foster, and the media wrote glowingly about the bustling liveliness of the settlement.

As time dragged on, however, the initial sense of optimism around the camp faded.

Hopes of return fade in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp
Children pictured playing in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, 5 February 2014. [Getty]
“Refugee camps should be emergency solutions … but ten years later it’s still there,” Hannah Patchett, Oxfam’s Policy, Influencing, and Media Manager for Jordan, told The New Arab.

“There’s this very temporary state where [residents] can’t see any future for themselves. People can’t keep living in survival mode and things have gotten worse in the last few years,” Patchett said.

She pointed to a series of economic shocks, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic and recent global inflation following the war in Ukraine.

The price of food in al-Zaatari rose by 22 percent between February and May 2022. Nine out of ten Syrian refugees in Jordan report that they use negative coping mechanisms to survive, such as skipping meals, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Refugees living in the camp receive a monthly voucher of $32 to buy basic goods – but this does not nearly cover their needs.

"Refugee camps should be emergency solutions … but ten years later it's still there"
And after ten years of living in a refugee camp, most Syrians have burned through whatever savings or assets they once had. Many report high levels of debt – 69 percent of families in al-Zaatari - with most borrowing money to buy food.

Jordan, unlike other refugee-hosting countries, allows Syrian refugees to work in several economic sectors. However, these are mostly low-wage, labour-intensive industries such as construction and agriculture, relegating Syrians to insecure day-labourer roles.

Oxfam employs refugees to run various projects in the camp, such as recycling and waste programs. Just about 10 percent of working-age refugees are employed through such cash-for-work schemes in the camp.

But these employment programs are “not sustainable solutions,” Patchett warned. “What’s needed at this point is long-term solutions.”
The prospect of integrating more Syrian refugees into Jordan’s labour market seems far off. The country’s economy has been on a steady downslide since the pandemic. Almost a quarter of the labour force is unemployed – with over 50 percent youth unemployment.

International attention to the issue has also waned over the years, and UNHCR’s funding goals for the Syria response consistently go unmet.

In the meantime, the camp’s living facilities degrade. A 2022 UNHCR report said that over 70 percent of al-Zaatari’s caravan have “sub-standard” outer structures.

Hopes of return fade in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp
A general view of the Zaatari refugee camp on 30 January 2013. [Getty]
A generation without hope

Ahed, Abu Mamoun’s son, was born in al-Zaatari. He knows “nothing” of Syria, and feels more Jordanian than anything else, he said.

The nine-and-a-half-year-old dreams of being an astronaut. He does not know exactly how one becomes an astronaut but knows that he has to work hard in school. Ahed says he always does his homework and his father says he constantly earns the praise of his teachers for his work ethic.

He dreams of going to the moon, though he has never left al-Zaatari. He has a vague idea that in order to get there and fulfil his dreams, he will have to leave the camp, but is not sure how he will do that.

"I thought I would stay for a day, maybe two, then go back"
After ten years, the future for many of al-Zaatari’s children looks dim. Though K-12 education is freely available for Syrian refugees in Jordan, economic realities force some children to abandon their studies and begin to work.

Early marriages are on the rise in Syrian refugee camps as well. In 2020, 60 percent of all marriages in al-Zaatari camp were child marriages.

Still, for those children who stay in school, options after graduating are severely limited.

Abu Mamoun’s daughter has just finished her final exams, the tawjihi. She wants to go to university to study engineering or medicine, but the cost of her studies is daunting.

Syrian refugees have to pay international fees for Jordanian universities and most simply cannot afford the cost of tuition.

Abu Mamoun says that unless the family can find a scholarship for his daughter, it’s likely she will not be able to go to university. Instead, she will have to find whatever job she can get, until she gets married, Abu Mamoun said.

“Only god knows how long we will be here. We will stay until the water runs out,” Abu Mamoun said.


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