The world stopped caring about refugees almost as quickly as it started to. When you walk through the dusty streets in the Za’atari village, an overspill from Za’atari refugee camp, about 13km south of the Syrian border, and you see the ramshackle lean-to houses and tents sewn together using old UNHCR blankets and pieces of tarpaulin, hopelessly designed to safely sustain families of all ages and sizes, it’s obvious. As soon as the headlines began to move away from infants washing up dead on Turkish beaches, to more pressing matters like who was beating whom in the polls and who tweeted what, the victims of the Syrian civil war were left to survive on their own in the harsh, arid middle-eastern sun.
Life moves at lots of different paces in Jordan, for both natives and refugees alike. In the busy, thriving streets of Amman, you won’t move anywhere unless you drive like a local, the driving skills of which mostly consists of leaning on the horn, closing your eyes and praying. If you look out of your window on one of these treacherous journeys you will see men sitting outside their shops, drinking hot, sweet tea or black Turkish coffee spiced with cardamom, selling huge, ripe watermelons or tomatoes, trying to cope with the searing heat of the July sun, shielding their eyes from the reflections off sun-bleached buildings.
That latter pace of life is something that the Syrian refugees at the Za’atari refugee settlement and the surrounding village have little choice but to adhere to. Whilst the Jordanian people have been welcoming and as friendly as can possibly be, given the circumstances, Syrians are still treated as second-class citizens. Doctors, teachers, scientists are rarely (if ever) allowed to find work doing anything other than labouring on farms picking tomatoes or hacking away at resilient desert weeds on the side of the roads between towns. Children are not afforded the right of attending schools unless they are set-up by other refugees with in the confines of refugee settlements. You cannot own land as a Syrian in Jordan either, which means that you can be forced to move your whole family at a moment’s notice, should the government will it. So trying to achieve any semblance of normality is met with a constant state of flux.
The Za’atari camp first came into existence as a result of the Arab Spring of 2011, when several Middle-Eastern countries erupted into protest and conflict, the most damaging of which is the Syrian civil war, with many different oppositions fighting amongst themselves and the government of Bashar Al-Assad. The camp is home to well over 80,000 refugees, a number that has actually slowly decreased, with the opening of the nearby Mafraq camp. However, Za’atari is still considered the fourth largest settlement in Jordan. The authorities guard its perimeter with armed soldiers and armored vans, and it’s unclear whether they’re stopping people from entering or leaving. The camp has become notorious for becoming a city in its own right, with shops and eateries and its own microeconomy, along with the hand-in-hand partner of crime in its various guises – although reports suggest that it has become a far less volatile place in recent years. Whilst the current NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) and humanitarian aid charities are working within the camp, it is hard to obtain clear information about just how things work inside.
I’m currently sat typing this in a 8 x 10-foot cabin in Za’atari village, which sits less than a kilometer away from the gates of the vast camp. The cabin itself is one of four (soon to be five, if our driver delivers it on time today) that has been put together to create the closest thing to a school the children here can hope for. It’s currently summer here, and they won’t be back for classes until September, so the only sounds here are the mosques intermittently calling Muslim worshippers to prayer in ethereal voices through speakers on their minarets, the wind blowing discarded plastic bags across the rocky ground, and chickens clucking as they search for shade.
The charity I’m here with, and help to run, is called RefugEase. Set up in 2015 by Valentina Osborn, a Kent-based social media account executive, and single mother; it has grown from strength to strength in collecting donations, raising funds, delivering aid and running trips to distribute the above in various locations around the world. We’ve worked in and around Hungary and Serbia during the initial mass migration from the middle east, as well as on the shores and in the camps of Greece’s Lesvos, when lifeboats and dinghies were crammed to over three-times their capacity by Turkish gangs exploiting families fleeing from the bombs and sadistic war-games of Daesh and their like. Whilst the charity has made leaps and bounds in raising awareness and helping countless victims of war, the entity is still a grassroots organization. Only in early 2016 did it move from NGO status to becoming a registered charity and it is still primarily run by Valentina, though she has a select few trusted friends helping her to run it. One such benefit of the charity operating on a relatively small scale is that we are able to show people directly where their donations are being used; Valentina’s background in social media has been a tremendous advantage in reaching out to people and gaining momentum. Carefully written, well-timed posts playing a mixture of upbeat humour and grim reality often lead to influxes of donations, and in return messages, interviews, photographs, and videos of the charity’s activities are posted, showing what has been achieved day to day, be it from sorting donations in the Tunbridge Wells-based warehouse, or being mercilessly beaten at ‘thumb-wars’ by Syrian children. More often than not, the subject of trying to adopt practically all the children we meet in these places comes up.
The current project is happening for several reasons. Our Syrian colleague in Jordan, a young refugee called Kotaiba Alabdullah, runs an NGO called Acting For Change. At the time of writing, it is the fifth anniversary to the day of when he fled Syria. He is a wanted man there; he did not support the government and as such was forced to leave or else face an inevitable death punishment. On the face of it, Kotaiba is a quiet but determined man, who uses his words reservedly but with effect. His real warmth shines when he goes to visit families around Za’atari village, when we are invited in by the fathers of families to sit around in their living space to drink rich, sweet tea and smoke cigarettes. Kotaiba is regarded with affection by the people around here, as he has worked tirelessly for years to make their lives as comfortable and as safe as possible. It has been through him that many have been able to move from living in sand-storm shredded tents to basic brick and mortar settlements with water tanks and rudimentary furnishings. To sit in these homes is to be welcomed by complete strangers; Although Kotaiba is considered by many as another son or brother, when other members of the RefugEase team members follow him in we have all always been treated with the same such warmth. The interest we have in each other is reciprocated through questions about family, jobs, background, and opinions.
A trip like this one will always have teething problems. Prior to this, Valentina had been the only member of the current team to have visited Jordan; the rest of the team has had various experience volunteering but never in a Middle-Eastern country. There are only so many contingencies you can plan for before you have to throw yourself into it and take things as they come. Whilst much was achieved from the first day of the trip, it has had its fair share of problems; from breakdowns in communications from the other side of the world, to frantically trying to find contacts in the Jordanian government who can help us bypass the usually-expected bribe at the port to release our container full of donations; a breeze it has not been.
When you’re responsible for 11 other volunteers and trying to make sure that they feel like their time has been used as effectively as possible, it’s hard to keep things running smoothly whilst trying to broker deals for land, fences, cabins and other such purchases all in the pursuit of improving the lives of others. In quieter moments, I’ve often likened it to spinning plates. To run an operation like this, large or small, you must be able to adapt and change plans at a moments’ notice and be able to stay abreast of situations as they arise. You can post as many photos of cute kids playing with your camera as you like; your audience will never know exactly what it’s like unless they’re there. The mixture of elation at seeing the smile on someone’s face when you’ve helped them makes for a bitter cocktail of emotions when you remember that there’s little else you can do to help them in the grand scheme of things.
That being said, we’ve achieved an incredible amount since we’ve been here. Progress on the school has moved at an astonishing rate; soon it won’t just teach children but will become an educational facility for women, supplying medical training and using donated laptops to streamline this. On top of that, we’ve made more contacts in Jordan so that we’re able to help in more ways; a lot of this role is about meeting and liaising with people to facilitate your operations more effectively.
No volunteer for RefugEase will tell you that it’s an easy experience. But they will certainly tell you they would do it again in a heartbeat.
The RefugEase charity is continuing its project in Jordan (our next trip will be in October 2017) as well as expanding its reach elsewhere. There are still families all over the world that need help, and we intend to do as much as we can be there for them.
You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates on what we do; just search for RefugEase. If you are interested in volunteering or donating, feel free to message us; we always reply.
Thank you for reading.