Displaced Syrians cross the Rubicon (Bangkok Post)


Taking a shot
Safe haven: Over the course of four years, the Zaatari refugee camp has grown from a ramshackle huddle of tents into a permanent settlement.

Amman, Jordan – When Khaled Khashet fled Syria over four years ago, he was the first of his family to leave. He said, straightly: “It was time.” This conclusion was not yet echoed by his loved ones, but Khaled upheld it with conviction, a hunch inspired by his experience in the Syrian army, which he fortuitously left a few months before war broke.

It would not be long until the fighting reached Khaled’s hometown of Daara, forcing his family to follow in his footsteps.

Today, Khaled, his two brothers, their wives, and a gaggle of nearly a dozen children live in the Zaatari refugee camp, located an hour’s drive outside of Jordan’s capital, Amman. When they first arrived here, the camp was a ramshackle of pinned down tents that harbored no more than 5,000 Syrians. But as the war continued and intensified, so did Zaatari’s population continue to grow, maxing out at 130,000 people, but as of 2017 settling to about 79,000, making the camp more manageable for the Jordanian government and foreign aid groups, which have helped turn it into a functioning urbanized permanent settlement.

Zaatari is today the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, as well as the second largest humanitarian facility under management by the United Nations. This July, the camp enters its fifth year of operation, as the civil war that drove Khaled and his family out of Syria still rages just a few kilometers north of the border with no sign of subsiding. Khaled had recently turned 30 when we met, but from one glance of his tired eyes and sun-bleached skin, it seemed like he had lived more years on this planet than that. Yet, at last, he and his family had found safety.

A safe haven

While the specter of Islamic extremism has permeated the heart of Europe, with the UK witnessing its third terrorist attack within the span of three months, in Jordan the horrors of ISIS came long ago. In 2015, the Amman government shuttered its vast borders with Syria and Iraq. Jordan has since been attacked various times by ISIS, most recently last December in the central city of Karak, when fighting resulted in the deaths of several Jordanian policemen and a Canadian woman hit by a stray bullet.

Yet, by and large, the country has remained a safe haven for refugees in the region – a sanctuary in the center of the storm.

The 2015 closure of borders signified something else for refugees in Zaatari. Having few other choices, a stern reality dawned: there would be no hope of returning back home any time soon. They would have to steel themselves to further endure an uncertain future on Jordanian soil, passing life’s momentous milestones in limbo — from the marriage of a sibling to the birth of a child, which would add to the 5,000 that have already been born in the camp to date.

For the foreseeable future, Zaatari is life. Khaled’s wife has given birth to two children in Zaatari. Khaled spends his days working an odd job fixing cooling systems for refrigerators in the camp, but mostly idles away in the company of his family in front of a small store they manage, which sells a miscellaneous arrangement of snack food and children’s toys. Since coming to Zaatari, Khaled’s brother has taken up more religious chores. He is the imam at one of the camp’s mosques, and in charge of singing the calls to prayer. The attendants of his service are mostly from their hometown Daara, just like the majority of residents in Zaatari.

Commerce thrives in the camp, where refugees are given a monthly stipend of $28 and domestic trade with Jordanians has created an internalized economy. According to the UNHCR, about 3,000 local businesses produce $13 million a month, mostly through two long souqs, which are so boisterous with trade that they could be mistaken for a  Cambodian village instead of a refugee camp. Shops here sell everything from sharmwa, canaries (a favorite household pet for Syrians) to the latest mobile phone model from Huawei. There are wedding dress shops that teem with brides-to-be every spring, the traditional season for marriages in Syria. Then there is the hand-made furniture store, run by a portly entrepreneur that has opened up three branches in Zaatari. When we meet, he was standing next to a freshly sandpaper-scrubbed rocking crib, an item that will likely be popular with the camp’s newest brides sometime next year.

But not everyone has become so readily accepting of the new life Zaatari offers, even if there is security and, as Khaled says, “peace and quiet because there are no bombs.”

For some, there is another option, if they can stomach the consequences. Fed up with the frustration of waiting for a resolution to Syria’s increasingly complex war, some refugees in Zaatari are making an unenviable choice: go back into Syria to find and reunite with loved ones, knowing full well that once they cross the border, they will be unable to return to Jordan.

Helene Daubelcour, senior external relations officer for the UNHCR in Jordan, says that family reunification is among the reasons why the camp’s population has shrunk, considering that it remains rare for refugees to be granted a Jordanian identification number, which is needed to legally enter the local workforce. The UN and Jordanian government administer the registry of people looking to return and actively dissuade this choice because of the imminent danger it posses to these vulnerable people, as well as because the border back into Jordan via Syria will likely remain closed for the foreseeable future. Yet, the authorities still allow refugees to return to Syria if they can present a convincing itinerary of action and commit that they genuinely will not rejoin fighting once they get home.

This means that women are usually granted admission to return while men are regularly denied travel. A man, once over the border, is more likely to be abducted and recruited into any of the warring factions operating in Syria compared to a woman.

When I meet Abu Asem, 52, who was a real estate agent before fleeing to Zaatari, he is sitting on the floor of his caravan with a stern slouch. He has a daughter in Damascus that is in uncertain peril. His wife, who declined to be named or photographed for fear of reprisal in Syria, has made the choice to return to live with their daughter.

When the family fled Syria three years ago, their only daughter chose to stay behind with her husband. However, the recent disappearance of her spouse delivered her into a precarious position, instigating Abu Asem to send a portion of his monthly pittance of $400, which he earns recycling waste under an Oxfam program. Today his wife is compelled to cross the Rubicon, re-entering war-torn Syria to find her daughter.

Abu Asem was a fervent supporter of the uprising against the Assad regime during the war’s initial years, but today derides international intervention for soiling the true meaning of the rebels’ cause. “At the beginning there was a revolution, but with the involvement of Western powers, Russia and Iran, they [foreign powers] have ruined it.”

Today, Syria’s civil war has mutated into a four-way proxy war of superpowers and insurgents, divided by Russia and Iran’s support for Assad’s regime in Damasus; the US, the EU, much of the Arab world and Turkey throwing their support behind the rebels; the apocalyptic judgements of ISIS; and a coaltion of opportunistic Kurds that see regional chaos as an opportunity to fight for their national sovereignty.

While the fighting persists, Abu Asem says that if he or his son returned back to Syria, they could be approached on the border and quickly conscripted by the Free Syrian Army – or even ISIS. An elderly woman would have a much higher chance of making it to Damascus unobstructed.

This impasse hasn’t stopped Abu Asem from brooding. “She is going to her death,” Abu Asem grunts. “I don’t want her to go, but there is nothing I can do about it because my daughter is in danger.”

Over six years of war in Syria has heavily damaged telecommunication networks, making stable signal service spotty at best. “Our daughter calls us whenever her phone gets service, which is maybe once every week or two,” Abu Asem continues. “We dream of returning to Syria one day, but I know that is not possible now.”

As I left Abu Asem’s caravan, he perched himself outside on a plastic chair in the sun and watched a truck fill up a tank on wooden stilts with water for his family. He stood there with the frozen look of a daydreamer that doesn’t know anyone is watching. We drove off and a cloud of dust fogged our view of him, still locked in some deep reverie.

While Abu Asem’s family may continue to harbor the hope of one day returning to Syria, there are many who have dashed such dreams to the rocks. Khaled’s point of view draws a clear distinction between the two different ideals that Zaatari’s residents now hold on to.

“Syria is not coming back anytime soon,” Khaled hissed. “It’ll be another 50 years or more before it is rebuilt.” He drew a crossed line over the palm of his hand.

“I put an ‘X’ on it. We’ll stay here, or, if God is willing, move on, but I am not going back.”

Read the original article at The Bangkok Post. 

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