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Dispatches from Za’atari as the world moves on: part 1

After seven years,  Za’atari camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, continues to stir deep emotions. The world has stopped talking about this place and the 80,000 people who live in it today.

A landscape of tents has now been replaced by steel containers, some plain grey and some painted in bright colors. Though some roads are now being paved, the only cars in this camp are those of aid agencies. Refugees either cycle or walk everywhere. I’m told that some mothers aren’t sending their 3 year olds to the kindergartens as they live in districts that are so far from the closest center that it takes an hour and a half to walk there.

It’s my first summer in Za’atari and the sun burns my skin. I begin to wonder what it must feel like to have to walk tens of kilometers or sleep without air-conditioners in the sweltering heat. The ‘Sham-Elysees’ – a play on the words “Sham” meaning “Damascus” and the “Champs-Élysées” in France – is still the bustling shopping street that emerged informally a few years ago, as families began to look for sources of income one, and two, and three years into life in this gated camp.

At the start of the Syrian crisis, the world reacted with fervor, and millions of dollars in aid were funneled into Za’atari camp. Community centers, healthcare clinics, schools, water tanks, and mosques emerged, intended to serve the population temporarily as the refugees waited for the conflict to subside before safely returning home. Today, seven years later, the world is quieter about Za’atari. The families, the majority of whom come from Dara’a and Quneitra near the Southern border of Syria and a few of whom are from Eastern Ghouta, still have hope that they’ll return some day.

And yet, the positivity and optimism that emanates from every person you encounter in Za’atari, and the hospitality that you’re met with from these families who barely have enough to feed all of their children for the day, is remarkable. It’s emotional as we watch children who were born in the camp and know nothing other than this camp sing songs about Syria. It’s emotional as we drive through the camp to see wedding dress shops and beauty salons on every corner, a reminder that despite the atrocities that people have seen in the war and the poverty they’re living in every day, looking and feeling beautiful is still a priority. It’s emotional when you visit homes and refugees bring out plates and plates of pastries and fruits and sweet tea and urge you to eat. In all 8 square kilometres of this camp, there are no restaurants. At the end of the day, families come together to eat the food that reminds them of home.

Most of the world views these refugees objectively, as a term or a concept. Most people don’t know Ferdous. She jumped up and down until I carried her. I caught a glimpse of bald patches on her head, but assumed it was from some rough play with her siblings or friends. She took me to meet her mother, who told me she was pleased to see Ferdous smiling for the first time in a long time. When I asked why, she told me that Ferdous is battling a type of Leukaemia. She couldn’t tell me which type as she’s never heard of Leukaemia before. Even as she said this, she smiled, hopeful and grateful. She was getting the treatment she needed from one of the healthcare clinics in the camp and all would be fine.

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