Half a Year on Azraq Camp
The wind had really picked up and I started to shiver. The desert seemed to be hell-bent on showing its inhospitable face. “Already past 4:30, I don’t get it,” mumbled the old man into his steaming coffee. His neat uniform holds the emblem of a private security company. In the moonlight I could see the rolling hills with their bare, small patches of grass and bush in a sea of stones and dust. No houses, street lamps, or mosques in sight. Not even a moving car. At least nowhere near the perimeter that marks the boundaries of what could turn into one of the biggest refugee camps in the world.
“It is probably just the registration in Rabah Sarhan that is taking them longer” surmised one of my senior team members, whom I had gathered for this night. The sense of anticipation kept us on our toes. Even though we had already spent more than four hours walking through the area which was designed to receive refugees, accommodate them for a few hours in the warmth of the common tents. To eventually hand them all the items they would need in order to live in the camp before they would be shuttled in the morning hours down into the camp. My team members seemed to radiate the confidence that the systems and partners would jump into action, turning this place into a lively, safe and dignified environment.
This is not the first time for us to work in a refugee camp. And many of my team members had already been involved into another big camp in Jordan; Za’atari. However, it is from there where media stories originated, casting a shadow over the soon to be opened Azraq camp. They also kept lingering in my mind: will we face angry crowds, ready to hurl rocks at us at the smallest provocation? Do we need to worry about the team that has been trained so extensively over the past months and that is so eager to assist “our brothers and sisters from Syria”? My gloomy thoughts have been swept aside. Now I realize how contagious my team’s optimism is. It is not blind. If we refused to think about worst case scenarios and just close our eyes to the possibilities that things might go wrong. It is the optimism of those who are familiar with the split-seconds that can release the tension that exists under the surface without much noticing. I realized what gives them comfort and this positive outlook. It is the nature of our program in the camp and the mutual reassurances that everything will be different in Azraq.
It might not be fair at all to compare Za’atari and Azraq camps. The former was established in the midst of a formidable humanitarian emergency. Thousands flocked day after day to Jordan seeking safety and help. Within the shortest time span, the camp had 100,000 inhabitants. So all the energy went into making the basic necessities available as fast as possible. It was a tremendous logistical achievement. However, it came at a price. People need more than water, food and a place to dwell. They need something meaningful to do and a seat at the table where decisions are being made.
Zaatari’s capacity wasn’t endless. The conflict in Syria did not show any sign of abating. To the contrary, millions continued to find themselves displaced within Syria. The longer the conflict lasts, the more their coping mechanism gets eroded and the harder it became to survive on their own accounts; leading to more pressure on the neighboring countries to host even more refugees. That is when Azraq camp came in. We had the luxury to study the experience from the establishing of Zaatari camp and see what needs to and can be done differently.
One of the results of this process can be found when walking into Azraq camp: you would not find a huge mass of shelters, but a neighborhood of various villages. In the middle of each village you would find community centers that CARE has built with the support of UNHCR. In and around an active community life that was hoped to develop, supported by our team members, combating idleness, lack of information and misinformation.
I still remember vividly the event of the opening of the camp in late April, when we all stood shivering in the cold. There was already a sense of achievement, even though we had not received any refugees yet. That sense of achievement was not at all misplaced. More than 12 months of work had already gone into the preparation of this place. Thousands of shelters had been erected orderly in rows and blocks. Water tanks on the tops of the hills were connected to pipes that run down to tab stands, and more than 100km of tarmac roads had emerged in the Northeastern Jordanian desert. Even the supermarket had come up at an impressive pace during the last four weeks. Now its red signboard is towering in the distance.
When the buses finally brought the first refugees in the morning hours of the 28th April 2014 to the reception area of Azraq camp, the sun was already about to rise. What was striking and has not changed ever since is that the number of children and particularly very young children is extremely high. Now six months after the camp has opened, more than half of the 14,000 refugees living in the camp are children. They are almost completely deprived of any belongings. Many of them just carry the clothes they are wearing.
This would warrant CARE to undertake the distribution of clothes, even though this was not planned. So far, the community centers have been quite successful in fulfilling this mandate and addressing most problems, involving the other twenty agencies that work in Azraq camp, or at least engaging the refugees into the development of options and solutions. We are not complimenting ourselves too much when we state that we have to a good degree contributed to a successful first 6 months in Azraq camp.
Written by Marten Mylius, CARE Jordan's Team Leader in Azraq Camp