“Sometimes we only had dry bread and water”: Volunteering Brings Life and Hope to Azraq Camp

“Sometimes we only had dry bread and water”: Volunteering Brings Life and Hope to Azraq Camp

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Mahmoud Shabeeb

Thunayya is one of some 20,000 Syrian refugees residing in Azraq camp, and one of 1,800 participating in an incentive-based volunteer program in the camp, according to a recent assessment by CARE International in Jordan.

One year ago, Thunayya fled her city of Al Qunaytra and the war that enveloped it. She has lived in the camp ever since. Today she is volunteering as a cleaner, earning about US$8.50 per day. At the age of 48, this is the first time Thunayya has ever worked, as she must now provide for herself and her 85-year old father, her only dependent.

“When we arrived, CARE staff visited us and explained that I can volunteer for an incentive if I register for an opportunity,” says Thunayya. “I registered shortly after, but had to wait over eight months before I started working at CARE’s daycare."  Most volunteer positions are for three months, but individuals may reapply.  Incentive-based volunteering is currently the only income generating mechanism in Azraq camp where more than 4,000 camp residents have applied.

“I reapplied and am volunteering as a cleaner at CARE’s community center, but I preferred working at the daycare,” explains Thunayya. “I used to make about US$12.75 per day there. I spent my time playing with children and teaching them nice things.”

The incentive-based volunteer program includes both skilled and unskilled volunteers who earn up to US$12.75 and US$8.50 US dollars per day, respectively.  People identified as vulnerable or with special skills are given priority.   

When asked how she prioritizes the purchases she makes with the incentives she earns, Thunayya immediately puts her elderly father’s needs first. “He loves fruits and vegetables, and we cannot afford these with the e-cards we receive. Sometimes he is prescribed medication that I can only buy with money. Once, he was really sick so I had to take him out of the camp to a doctor in Mafraq city – I had to pay for all of that.” Thunayya uses World Food Programme e-cards for basic grocery shopping, such as oil, rice, and canned food, but sometimes the family’s needs are greater, making them dependent on the money she earns from volunteering.

Back in Syria, many girls were forced to get married early for different reasons, Thunayya had faced the same. “I am single now but I have been married before. I was 14-years old when my father forced me into a marriage that I did not want. I was too young and I did not want to leave school. When I expressed my objection, my father refused claiming it was not my decision.  My husband and I fought too much. After eight months, we divorced. I gave him back all the gifts and dowry he had given me. I never married again, I did not want to.” Besides her father, Thunayya has a widowed sister with five children under 14 years. “She does not have any source of income,” says Thunayya of her sister. “She is the only family member I have in Azraq. My three brothers now live in Lebanon.”

Thunayya reminisces about her school days, interrupted by early marriage. “I finished grade six then I could not continue. I wish I could. I loved school and I was at the top of my class,” says Thunayya. “Still now I love writing and drawing, my handwriting is very beautiful!” When she is on visits outside Azraq Camp, she buys pens, pencils, coloring pencils, and notebooks. “When I have time at home I like to sit and write. Sometimes, I write stories, ones that I remember from childhood, fairytales, or sometimes I author my own.”

Although Thunayya’s relationship with her father has, at times, been tested, she is his sole sponsor now.  “My father is a very old man now, he is like a little child. When he demands something he has to get it. So I need to get him what he wants even if we sometimes cannot afford our daily food. There have been times when my father and I only had dry bread and water to eat and drink. Sometimes I would leave him my share.”

Earlier this year, a designated market area in Azraq camp was built for refugees, aimed at providing more options for purchasing goods and services, while allowing camp residents to work and earn an income. Thunayya is one of many Syrian refugees anticipating the market’s opening. “People’s situation here would become much better if the market opens,” elaborates Thunayya. “Groceries in the supermarket here are expensive and not everything is available. I have bought things from outside the camp, they were much cheaper. I also wish to see more vocational courses for women, such as knitting. Her personal dream is one, she says, is shared by many others: “I just wish for happiness and comfort. Isn’t that every human being’s ultimate wish?”

Mahmoud Shabeeb – Regional Communications Officer, Syria Crisis.

Thunayya, 48, from Qunaytra, is a Syrian refugee at Azraq camp who makes about 8.5 US dollars a day from volunteering at CARE's community center to support herself and her 85 year old father.