Middle East
1:59 pm
Thu May 2, 2013

Sea Of Syrian Refugees Threatens To Overload Jordan

Originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 7:23 pm

Jordan's fastest-growing city lies in the middle of the desert, where the sand is so white that from a distance it looks like snow. There's little running water and not much electricity.

The name of this place? The Zaatari refugee camp, home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

"This is a city — not one that anybody would want to create if they had a choice," says Caroline Gluck of Oxfam, one of the aid agencies working in the Zaatari camp. "It's certainly not urban planning at its best."

The relentless flood of Syrian refugees into the kingdom is now a threat to its security and stability, Jordanian officials say. More than half a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Jordan, and the number is expected to rise to 1 million by the end of the year.

'Flood That Never Ends'

On Zaatari's main street, refugees have set up makeshift shops selling everything from wedding dresses to ice cream. There are grocery shops, and a tailor who produces curtains to keep out the dust.

Most refugees live in tents provided by the U.N. refugee agency. A few more-fortunate residents live in caravans — prefab houses with a floor and a door that locks.

Liqaa, 26, lives inside one of these caravans. (Her family is still in Damascus, and she only gives one name.) It's spotless, and she has a small library of books from her university studies. Five months pregnant, she lives with her husband. The Zaatari camp is now home, and where her baby most likely will be born.

She shows us her small kitchen. For many Syrians, cooking restores some dignity amid all the loss. When her husband's family had to flee Syria, she called and asked them to pack Syrian olive oil. When she cooks, Liqaa says, she can forget that she is a refugee.

Liqaa arrived in January and suffered through the snow and rains. Now, summer is fast on the way. The temperatures are already rising, along with the dust and flies.

"I don't like coming here," Liqaa says. "And I don't like the camp. I don't like Jordan."

Aid workers at Zaatari say they are overwhelmed by the job of providing services for a population that grows by more than a thousand every day, says Oxfam's Gluck.

"It's just a feeling that it's a flood that never ends. It's a deluge that you are trying to push back, and you're doing what you can," she says. "We are only providing the very basics here. They are getting the bare minimum."

More Hardship Expected This Summer

The bare minimum is never enough. Fights and protests are common. Jordanian security forces are stationed at the camp's entrance and struggle to maintain order.

Jordanian officials also struggle to keep up with the numbers. Anmar Al Hmoud heads the steering committee for Syrians in Jordan.

In April alone, nearly 50,000 refugees flowed into Jordan from Syria, and that number rises every month. With its grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and schools, Zaatari is "definitely much bigger than many cities in Jordan," Hmoud says.

Jordan's cities are bearing an even larger burden because the majority of refugees live in urban areas outside the refugee camps. Many of them are competing for low-wage jobs.

Now that summer is approaching, life for Syrian refugees and the Jordanians who host them is about to get worse. Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. This rapid influx of refugees has already strained the water system to the breaking point, says journalist Jawad Al Anani.

Can you imagine, he says, how this influx is going to affect plans for health, education, social services and housing?

"I think the situation is becoming very difficult in Jordan," Anani says. "I call it a real threat."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Officials in Jordan say the flood of Syrian refugees into the kingdom is now a threat to both its security and stability. That grim assessment was delivered by Jordan's King Abdullah at the White House last week and repeated yesterday at the UN Security Council.

More than half a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Jordon, and as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, that number is expected to hit one million by the end of the year.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm standing in Jordan's fastest growing city. There's little running water, not much electricity. This is the Zaatari refugee camp and it's home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

CAROLINE GLUCK: This is a city, not one that anybody would want to create if they had a choice. It's certainly not urban planning at its best.

AMOS: That's Caroline Gluck with Oxfam, one of the aid agencies working here in Zaatari. She takes us down the camp's main street where refugees have set up makeshift shops, selling everything from wedding dresses to ice cream. Vanilla and chocolate?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes. Chocolate over milk.

AMOS: There are grocery shops, a tailor produces curtains to keep out the dust. Most refugees live in tents provided by the U.N. refugee agency. A more fortunate few live in caravans, a prefab house with a floor and a door that locks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: Here we meet 26-year-old Liqaa, the only name she gives. Her family is still in Damascus. The caravan is spotless. She has a small library of books from her university studies. Five months pregnant, she lives here with her husband. Zaatari camp is now home, the place where her baby will be born.

LIQAA: This is our kitchen. Not the flies. And this is our table.

AMOS: For many Syrians, cooking restores some dignity amid all the loss. When her husband's family had to flee Syria, she called and asked them to pack some Syrian olive oil.

LIQAA: It is so, so, so important.

AMOS: When you cook Syrian food, you can forget for a minute that you're a refugee?

LIQAA: Of course. Not for minute, for hours.

AMOS: She arrived in January, suffered through the snow and the rain. Now summer is fast on the way. The temperatures are already rising, along with the dust and the flies.

LIQAA: I don't like coming here and I don't like the camp. I don't like Jordan.

AMOS: Aid workers in Jordan say they are overwhelmed by the job of providing services for a population that grows by more than a thousand every single day, says Gluck.

GLUCK: It's just a feeling that it's a flood that never ends. We are only providing the very basics here. They're getting the bare minimum.

AMOS: The bare minimum is never enough. Fights and protests are common. Jordanian security forces are stationed at the entrance to the camp and struggle to maintain order here. Jordanian officials also struggle to keep up with the numbers. Anmar Al Hmoud heads the steering committee for Syrians in Jordan.

In his office, he shows me his latest statistics.

ANMAR AL HMOUD: April, 48,260.

AMOS: And do you expect that number again in May?

HMOUD: Of course we will expect more.

AMOS: So it rises a little every month.

HMOUD: It's just rising every month, definitely.

AMOS: Jordan's cities are bearing an even larger burden because the majority of refugees live in urban areas outside the refugee camps. Many of them are competing for low-wage jobs. Now that summer is approaching, life for the refugees and the Jordanians who host them is about to get worse. Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

This rapid influx of refugees has already strained the water system to the breaking point, says journalist Jawad Al Anani.

JAWAD AL ANANI: Can you imagine, for instance, just as a simple exercise, how this is going to impact our plans for health, education, social services, demographic of housing? I think that situation is becoming very difficult in Jordan. I call it a real threat.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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