A Safe Haven for Thousands Awaiting the Return Home

A Safe Haven for Thousands Awaiting the Return Home

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Martin Mylius

Azraq Camp Marks One Year 

Even though we have each been in Azraq camp for an entire year, we only met three weeks ago when I welcomed new volunteers at one of our community centers in the camp. It is not surprising that our paths haven’t crossed until now, since some 18,000 souls have sought safety in this vast desert area where Azraq camp was built.  Every day we see hundreds of Syrians seeking information, hoping to participate in literacy classes, or simply wanting their phone charged. When we first met, Samaher was looking for work opportunities that exist in the camp but are chronically insufficient for all the people willing to earn an income, learn new skills, or just put their existing skills to use. 

She had registered with the CARE community center which links refugees seeking work with organisations and service contractors looking for a helping hand. For months, she had been waiting, increasingly anxious, until she was contacted by CARE’s team with news that a potential position was available. Samaher was eager to join even though – in her previous life, as she calls it – her husband was earning the income while she stayed at home fending for their five children. But things had changed and the old life seemed swept away by years of conflict.  With their arrival at Azraq camp, a new chapter started for her and the family.

Since Azraq camp opened a year ago, the conflict in Syria has become more complicated, the land more bitterly contested, the pathway to a peaceful settlement more arduous and out of reach. Working in the camp day in and day out, in the scorching heat of summer and the cold winds of winter, the struggle to face at times frustrated, disappointed and disillusioned people, can wear heavy on the morale of our staff members. You can’t easily go home and shake off the plight of refugees that you have come to identify with, their daily struggle to overcome trauma and loss, or to live a dignified life in exile in a camp with its own rules.

Samaher beams at me when she talks about her work with the children at the community center. While the work provides her with some income and the opportunity to buy additional food and clothes, it is more than that – it gives some meaning and direction to her life and builds a barrier between her troubled past and a better future. This is one of the reasons why CARE decided to push for more such opportunities in the camp, providing skills building activities and more structured educational programs, in addition to recreational and psychosocial activities.

While many are afraid of the dark, not knowing what lurks in the shadows, for Samaher and her children, darkness was their only protection. Crouched on the floor of a dilapidated pickup truck, at the mercy of a traditionally-clad Bedouin man, Samaher hoped he would keep his promise to take them through the Syrian desert, south to the Jordanian border. The tarmac roads were no longer an option since they were littered with checkpoints. And the only ones able to navigate the desert are the Bedouins. Samaher shivers when she recalls the cold and pitch black night, the fear in the eyes of her youngest daughter, pressed against her side, sheltering from the merciless icy breeze that makes the desert so inhospitable at night. The lights of the car had been switched off as the moving yellow dots could raise unwanted attention. 

At the same time, not more than 250km away, but a world apart, the CARE team and the Jordanian volunteers were getting ready, themselves spending several sleepless nights preparing the area.  We gathered on the night of the 28th April to receive the first refugees at the camp, designed and built in the months before to provide - what we had hoped - a temporary home to tens of thousands of refugees.  

For three years the war had been raging in Samaher’s country, closing in on her family, one step at a time. When she had first seen the pictures from the mass demonstration in the southern city of Dara’a, just a stone throw away from the Jordanian border, excitement had spread like bushfire with a hope that political change might eventually be within grasp.  Looking back, Samaher struggles to comprehend her experiences of long queues for a few loaves of bread, the closed schools, the long nights spent in fear when she prayed for her brothers and husband to be reunited with her family. 

When she finally reached the camp, she and her family had nothing left but the clothes they were wearing. Everything else had been lost on the way. They had slept in tents, walked for hours, and spent days squeezed together with others sharing the same plight. She said she didn’t expect anything but safety, her thoughts and feelings numbed by the fear they had lived through. Now, almost a year later, she has regained hope, her children are back in school, and she finally has found something meaningful to do.  

The marking of the one year opening of Azraq camp is no reason to celebrate rather, to the contrary, we will only celebrate once all refugees are safe to return to their homes. In the meantime, it is our solemn obligation to provide basic services, a semblance of normality, and to share useful tools with Samaher and many others like her.  We must support Samaher in leading a dignified life with meaningful things to do that build her skills and set the ground so that she may stand proudly on her feet. 

Martin Mylius, CARE Team Leader, Azraq Camp, Jordan


Refugee children in Azraq camp. (Photo: CARE/Johanna Mitscherlich)