12:52pm

Tue September 25, 2012
Middle East

As Numbers Swell, Syrian Refugees Face New Woes

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 5:39 pm

Syria's refugees keep growing dramatically in number, and no country in the region has taken in more of them than Jordan — a poor, desert nation that is now hosting some 200,000 Syrians.

The conditions for the refugees are perhaps harsher in Jordan than in any other country, with many people sheltered in tents on a hot, dusty plain just inside Jordan's northern border with Syria.

At the Zaatari camp, everything is covered with a layer of sand and dirt; rows and rows of tents, once white, are now a golden color.

Volunteers on a truck are distributing aid to families at the camp: boxes of rice and sugar from Saudi Arabia.

But then the truck starts to back up. Something is happening. Police are coming, people are running.

There's trouble over a tent. Two families have claimed one tent as their own. Men from each family have ended up in a fistfight.

Late last month, refugees staged a full-fledged riot over the conditions in the camp. There was another clash Tuesday.

About 30,000 people are now living in the Zaatari camp, with their numbers growing every day. And the Jordanian government says it can't keep up.

It has appealed for hundreds of millions of dollars from the international community. The U.S. has promised aid money to U.N. agencies that work with the refugees. The Saudi donations cover much of the food at the camp. Morocco and France have built hospitals.

Stuck At The Camp

For now, conditions remain poor. In one family's tent, two young babies with bad colds can't sleep at night. The family says they left Syria because government shelling was destroying the houses all around them.

One man says his brother has joined the so-called Free Syrian Army, a loose band of rebels fighting to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. So he brought all the women and children to Jordan, for fear the regime would kill them in revenge. They have only been at the camp a few days.

"We wish to leave the camp because we have relatives outside the camp. We want to go to their houses," he says. "Especially for the babies — it's really hard to live here for the babies."

The Jordanian government used to allow Syrians to leave the refugee camps and settle inside Jordan, as long as they had a Jordanian sponsor, says a relative. But now that has stopped.

Outside the tent, a widow — with five children who have no shoes — says she has gone from one insult in Syria to another insult here in Jordan.

"It is very bad situation. We wish to go out from the camp," she says. "We have friends here, we can go to their house."

Nearly all the refugees at Zaatari make the same plea: Just let us out, into the rest of Jordan, and we'll be fine.

But if all the refugees were able to leave, Jordan wouldn't be fine.

Jordan Struggles With Its Own Problems

Outside the camp and in the comfort of a noisy, open-air cafe, Jordanian analyst Yasar Qatarneh says Jordan's government simply can't do much more for the Syrian refugees.

The country is already under stress, he says. It already hosts millions of Iraqi refugees. Its economy is tanking, and it has its own protest movement to worry about.

Jordanians, he says, cannot add too many Syrian refugees to this mix.

"They are not blaming the outsiders or the refugees," he says. "But they say we don't need the extra problems. We have enough problems and enough trouble-makers. So we have a lot in our plate, and we don't need anything more."

Back at the camp, two-dozen men sit in a tent, trying to resolve the dispute from earlier.

Further down the end of the long and dusty row of tents, people crowd around funny man Abu Mohammed and beg him to tell a joke and cheer them up.

He imitates what a rocket looks like, whizzing overhead. The crowd roars with laughter.

Then he gets serious.

"A message for world countries," he says. "Help us, to protect our children, to return to our country ... safely."

Suddenly, everyone falls silent. Two Jordanian policemen have joined the crowd. They tell everyone to go back to their tents. The show is over.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And the effects of the war in Syria have spread well beyond Syria's borders. The number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries is growing exponentially, according to relief groups working in the region. Jordan has the most refugees, about 200,000, but conditions there are perhaps the worst, with many Syrians sheltering in tents on a hot desert plane just inside the border. NPR's Kelly McEvers has that story.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: This is the Zaatari camp. We just came in and we're just staring down rows and rows and rows of what used to be white tents, but now they're just this, like, golden color. Everything is covered with a layer of sand and dirt. Just ahead is a truck with volunteers distributing aid to families in the camp, an interpreter reads the contents of the boxes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Those three are rice and sugar. This is from Saudi Arabia.

MCEVERS: But then the truck starts to back up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: There is something happening there because there is police vehicle are coming.

MCEVERS: There are lots of people are running.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Everybody's leaving, you know, the tent.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I know. The trouble, we find out later, is over a tent. Two families have claimed one tent as their own. Some guys in each family ended up in a fistfight. In recent weeks, refugees have staged full-fledged riots over conditions in the camp. Their numbers are growing every day. There are now nearly 30,000 people in the camp. That's like adding a whole new town.

The Jordanian government says it can't keep up. It has appealed for hundreds of millions of dollars from the international community. The U.S. has promised aid money to U.N. agencies who work with the refugees. The Saudi donations cover much of the food at the camp. Morocco and France have built hospitals.

But still, the two young babies inside this family's tent have bad colds and can't sleep at night. The family says they left Syria because the houses all around them were being destroyed by government shelling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: This man says his brother has joined the so-called Free Syrian Army, a loose band of rebels fighting to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So, the man says, he brought all the women and children here, for fear they would be killed by the regime as revenge. When we met them, they had only been at the camp for a few days.

What do they think's going to happen? Do they even let themselves think about what's next?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Through Translator) We wish to leave the camp because we have relatives outside the camp. We want to go to their houses, especially for the babies. It's really hard to live here.

MCEVERS: The Jordanian government used to allow Syrians to leave the refugee camps and settle inside Jordan as long as they had a Jordanian sponsor - say, a relative. But now even that has stopped.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: Outside the tent, we meet a widow with five children who have no shoes. She says she went from one insult in Syria to another insult here in Jordan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (Through Translator) It is very bad situation. We wish to go out from the camp. We have friends here, we can go to their house.

MCEVERS: It's a plea we heard from nearly all the refugees at the camp. Just let us out, into the rest of Jordan and we'll be fine. But if all the refugees were able to leave, Jordan wouldn't be fine. Outside the camp and in the comfort of a noisy open-air cafe, Jordanian analyst Yasar Qatarneh says Jordan's government simply can't do much more for the Syrian refugees.

First, it's already host to millions of Iraqi refugees. Second, its own economy is tanking, and third, it has a protest movement to worry about, too. Jordanians, he says, cannot add refugees to this mix.

YASAR QATERNEH: They're not blaming the outsiders or the refugees for Jordan's economic problems.

MCEVERS: For Jordan's malaise, no, but...

QATERNEH: But they say we don't need the extra problems. That's what they say. We have enough problems and enough troublemakers. So, you know, they have a lot on their plate, and they don't want anything more.

MCEVERS: Back at the camp, a couple dozen men sit in a tent and try to resolve the dispute from earlier. And further down the end of the long and dusty row of tents, people crowd around funny man Abu Mohammed and beg him to tell a joke and cheer them up. He ducks and falls down as if a Syrian Army rocket is whizzing directly at his head. Then, he gets serious.

ABU MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) A message for world countries, help us to protect our children, to return to our country safely.

MCEVERS: All of a sudden, the crowd gets quiet. We realize we've been joined by two Jordanian policemen. They tell everyone to go back to their tents. The show is over.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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