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The forgotten refugees of Ghouta, Syria

by Simone Wilson

December 12, 2013 | 12:24 pm

Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, and her four children have been living in the Rabeit Na’eam camp for seven months. This will be their first winter as refugees. "I heard it's a hard winter in Jordan, especially out here in the desert," said al-Hamdan. Photo by Simone Wilson

Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, and her four children have been living in the Rabeit Na’eam camp for seven months. This will be their first winter as refugees. "I heard it's a hard winter in Jordan, especially out here in the desert," said al-Hamdan. Photo by Simone Wilson

The most infamous attack over two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria – a silent sarin gassing in the city of Ghouta that killed more than 1,500 and sent allied countries to the brink of world war – came in the middle of the night.

When I woke up, I found that everyone in my neighborhood had died,” said Syrian refugee Alia Wahban, 18, as she tried to warm the hands of her wailing 8-month-old. “Everyone was on the ground, in the street. We brought water to put on their faces, but they didn’t wake up.”

Wahban knew she had to get out of Syria. So she made her way through the Syrian desert with the help of the Free Syrian Army, praying she wouldn’t be stopped at a military checkpoint, where she feared Hezbollah operatives might rape her – or, worse, kill her son.

A few months later, safe yet starving in a makeshift camp in Jordan, Wahban spoke of the hard new reality she faces as a refugee. A single light bulb – dangling from a cord in the center of her United Nations tent, sucking electricity from a nearby Jordanian home – gave dim shape to the two dozen people huddled alongside Wahban. They were perched along a ring of thin sleeping mats that lined the tent, drinking tiny cups of tea and batting at the flies that had taken refuge there, as well.

“We expect to die this winter,” said Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, a mother of four who fled Ghouta seven months ago, just missing the chemical-weapons attack. (Many of her friends and relatives back home, however, didn’t make it.)

Outside, as if on cue, thunder growled across the late November sky, announcing the second rainfall of winter. It was an ominous reminder of the icy storms to come, which meteorologists predict will be some of the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

[Related: Israelis helping Syrian refugees]

The refugees living in this makeshift camp, all originally from Ghouta, live on a deserted plain of rock- and shrub-studded dirt a few minutes outside Mafraq, Jordan — only 10 miles south of the Syrian border. They have attempted to re-build their former community in Ghouta as a series of tents that rise from the desert floor like hunted mammoths, tethered down by ropes and sandbags and draped in canvas. On clotheslines strung between the tents hang brightly colored childrens’ jackets and long black abayas, sucking up the last rays of sun before another freezing night closes in.

Although all of Jordan’s roughly 700,000 registered Syrian refugees are suffering, there is a gradient of need: Some are clearly worse off than others. And the refugees here at Rabeit Na’eam, an unofficial camp outside Mafraq, are at rock bottom.

The camp is not recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international body that oversees all refugee activities in Jordan. Instead, the Jordan Relief Organization (JRO), a small, local non-governmental organization with offices in nearby Mafraq, claims ownership of Rabeit Na’eam.

In an interview at JRO headquarters, the organization’s director, Mohammad al-Khaldi, said he is having trouble finding international donors to keep the camp live-able.

So far, since Rabeit Na’eam was set up in April, al-Khaldi said the camp has cost a total of $350,000 to operate — money that came mostly from donors in the Persian Gulf. But donations are waning, and the camp is growing.

Fifteen-year-old Amira al-Hamed, standing, and her little sister are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mafraq. "There are no clothes, no water, no blankets," she said. "It's very cold at night. ... Please send the message to the world to send winter stuff to us." Photo by Simone Wilson

Rabeit Na’eam nearly doubled in size following the chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta: The camp’s total population now sits at about 300 families, or 1,500 people, according to al-Khaldi. “The main worry for me now is if these organizations stop giving me aid for the camp, [because then] I cannot give any aid to the refugees in the camp,” he said in his office, lined in ornate gold wallpaper and hung with portraits of the Jordanian royal family.

Back at camp, the refugees are becoming anxious. “When it rains, the tent leaks and floods,” said al-Hamdan, mother of four. Her teeth were yellowed, and some rhinestones had flaked off the geometric pattern running down her abaya. “The water also comes up from the ground.”

Al-Hamdan turned from the visiting journalist to the accompanying JRO volunteer, a Syrian refugee himself, and grilled him about when she would receive a caravan to replace her tent.

The JRO volunteer, a friendly twenty-something with a buzz cut and a puffy thermal vest, pulled up a photo on his smartphone of the typical refugee caravan — a small rectangle, five meters by three meters, with double-paneled walls for insulation. “Very nice,” he said.

“Everybody wants a caravan,” said a spokesperson for UNHCR who wished not to be identified by name. “It’s a way of having a roof — literally a roof — over your head. You can lock your door. You can stand up. It’s also raised a little bit from the ground. And it certainly provides, on a psychological level, a sense of more protection.”

JRO director Al-Khaldi said the Rabeit Na’eam camp is currently populated by 300 tents and 20 caravans; however, refugees at the camp told the Journal that none of them had yet received a caravan.

Al-Khaldi also claimed the UNHCR originally promised to help with the camp, but that “the promises ran out.” However, the UNHCR spokesperson said she had never heard of the Rabeit Na’eam camp, nor its parent organization. “There are hundreds of informal settlements, ranging from a few tents to larger numbers,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t help us when people are not in an official camp setting, as they don’t have access to water, to food and non-food items, kitchens, medical clinics, schools, and to other assistance the humanitarian community provides.

“We do make every effort to support all Syrians in need, however the needs are so enormous, that it can be incredibly challenging to identify everyone,” she said.

At the UNHCR’s massive Za’atari refugee camp, 20 minutes east — whose 80,000 residents come mainly from the Syrian city of Daraa — all but 4,000 families live in caravans, and public restrooms dot the city grid. Some enterprising refugees even steal scraps to build their own private stalls. (“Have they stolen it, or have they privatized it?” asked the UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in a YouTube documentary on the camp. “I think they privatized it.”)

Much has been written and observed about Za’atari, a 1.3-square-mile refugee haven equipped with schools, medical tents and marketplaces. Its internal issues are often less aid-related and more city-related: As the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, it sees theft, violence, contagious diseases, in-fighting between communities and other problems that would arise in any cluster of 80,000 people fenced into rows of caravans in the ruthlessly hot-and-cold desert.

“Although a camp situation is not the most desirable, at least we can support them,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

In Arabic, Rabeit Na’eam means a desert oasis — a green “paradise” where water springs from the ground, according to a young Jordanian entrepreneur who helped translate at the camp.

The irony of this did not escape him. Water is scarce at the Rabeit Na’eam refugee camp, and the terrain harsh. One small boy, around 4 years old, padded over the desert rocks in bare feet, his dark toes coated in a layer of white-orange dust.

To go to the bathroom, al-Hamdan explained, she and the other Ghouta escapees must dig holes in the wet ground — which is especially difficult, and humiliating, for the women.

“In Syria, I had a safe life. I was in school, in the sixth grade,” said Amira al-Hamed, a shy 15-year-old girl living at Rabeit Na’eam with her mother and little sister. “I was playing every day with my friends in my neighborhood. My parents owned a house.”

But after Syrian forces destroyed the family home, al-Hamed, her mother and her sister were forced to leave Ghouta and camp Bedouin-style near the Syrian-Jordanian border for a few months. (Her father stayed behind.) Then, in October, they crossed the border into Jordan, where Jordanian soldiers delivered them straight to Za’atari.

However, because members of their extended family were already living at Rabeit Na’eam, they requested to be transferred.

Now, daily life is bleak. “There is no work or school for me. I just sit in the tent and sleep,” the 15-year-old said.

Although al-Hamed said she wishes she had a caravan like the ones she saw at Za’atari, the bigger camp frightened her: “There are many problems there, and violence,” she said. “It’s a dangerous situation. Also, I have relatives here.”

The No. 1 priority for the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam is to live alongside familiar faces from their old neighborhood, according to JRO Director al-Khaldi. “You can see that everyone knows everyone, and the kids play with each other, and everything is OK,” he said. “All of them come from the same family, so no problems will happen.”

The UNHCR spokesperson said another reason for avoiding Za’atari is that refugees aren’t allowed to leave or find work. Despite the Jordanian government’s ban on hiring Syrian refugees, “we do often find that those outside the camp are working informally, on farms for example,” she said. (A hotel manager in nearby Irbid, Jordan, confirmed this, saying he regularly hired Syrian men to work on his house in the cover of night, before inspectors came around at dawn.)

But the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam pay a price for their freedom. “There are no bathrooms here, and no water,” said al-Hamdan. “There are not enough blankets and clothes for the winter. There are no heaters, and no wood to make a fire. There is nowhere to buy bread. There is no money.”

Like most refugees in Jordan, the Ghouta natives at Rabeit Na’eam receive a limited ration of food coupons from the World Food Programme (WFP). But their remote location makes it more difficult for them to use the credit.

Most days, the refugees said, they eat only rice.

Asked what he does for fun, a 12-year-old boy named Hamed said he plays football all day on the desert flats. “But in the winter,” he said, “I’ll just sleep.”

The shelters at Rabeit Na’eam, which sleep around 12 to a room, are made from a patchwork of UNHCR tents and other assorted tarps and canvases. Donated rugs line the inside. Photo by Simone Wilson

As the sun set at Rabeit Na’eam, leaving behind a chill that cut to the bone, the lights of a Syrian border town blinked in the distance, beyond the tents.

“When Obama made the decision to go to Syria, I was very happy,” said al-Hamdan. “But now I think Obama supports Bashar [al-Assad].” A 70-year-old woman with dark, leathery skin who appeared to be the tent’s communal grandmother chimed in. “I thought America would help the Syrian people, but they didn’t,” she said, raising her voice to a shout. “If Obama wanted, he could help us. He doesn’t want to help us.”

The Ghouta survivors stressed that August’s infamous chemical-weapons attack, which they all blamed on Assad, was only one of thousands of assaults that have devastated their homeland. “The helicopters shot my house and my house broke down,” said Mohammad al-Ahmed, 35, a second cousin of al-Hamdan whose red-and-white keffiyeh was secured to his head with a circle of black rope. He crunched a string of yellow beads compulsively in his hand as he described hearing the helicopters overhead, running out of his house and watching as it was bombed to nothing. The same blast killed 13 of his neighbors, including a two-day-old infant.

On his flip phone, Al-Ahmed looked through photos of two happy memories at Rabeit Na’eam: The first, when the camp was gifted an entire sheep to kill and eat at Ramadan, and the second, when Patch Adams came to visit, dancing around in a red clown nose and stuffing kids into his signature pair of giant underwear. Cracks of laughter broke the musty hush in the tent as the refugees told stories about Adams’ visit.

But they can never forget the biting realities unfolding in their hometown, and their new temporary home, for long. Al-Ahmed said his brother recently told him over the phone that the Syrian government is surrounding Ghouta, blocking civilians from leaving the city and barring any food from entering.

A young girl named Noor said her father and her brother, too, are still trapped in Ghouta. “She cries every day and asks when her dad will come,” al-Ahmed said, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. As he said it, tears welled up again in Noor’s eyes. A pickup truck full of whooping Jordanian teenagers roared by on a road that cuts through the camp.

“I hope my father will be able to come here soon,” Noor said, hugging herself from the cold.

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To support the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam and help keep them warm through the winter, monetary donations can be made to the Jordan Relief Organization through the following bank account: Arab Islamic Bank, account number 1060-11065-505, swift code iibajoam200. The most-needed items are currently blankets ($18 each), heaters plus bottles of gas ($141 each) and caravans ($2,260).

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