From the Field: Reflections from Za'atari Refugee Camp

Diaconia Connections has been working in the Za'atari Refugee Camp (Jordan) for over 4 years. Our colleague Michaela Stachova recently visited the camp and sent us some dispatches. They are powerful.

“What is the worst aspect of life in the refugee Camp?”

When I asked Alad that question, she hesitated, took a breath, and said, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I convince myself that I have somewhere to go. I feel as if I have to take care of many errands. I quickly get out of bed, dress, and eat breakfast. I run outside and hurriedly make my way down the street. But I have no destination, because in reality, I have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and nowhere to work.”

Prior to this conversation, I knew that there was nothing to do in a refugee camp. I had heard about it and had written about it before. However, Alad’s story about wanting to be busy and the frustration that comes from not having an outlet to be busy affected me.

In the Za’atari Camp (and any refugee camp for that matter), there is little work. People here have no way of occupying their free time. There are no sports, no cultural activities, and no avenues for self-improvement. People in the camp receive only food, a place to sleep, and are protected in a relatively safe enclosure.

But how long can a person’s life be defined by safety?  How long can a person get up and say to themselves, “Great. I am alive and safe.” and then have no work and no goal?

As we all know, people need more than just safety. We need to work, to feel as if our talents are being utilized. We want to know that our life is heading somewhere. And we want these same opportunities for our children.

Superficially, it might seem great to have free time, to have no work-related stress weighing you down. But if you think for a second, you realize that an existence defined by boredom would be torturous (and it is).

What would it be like to take all of your ambition, plans, and dreams (and the dreams of your children) and sacrifice them for safety--the same safety that we take for granted every single day? Maybe it’s the reason why Syrian refugees don’t just stay in the first camp they come to. Instead, they keep travelling, chasing their dreams, attempting to find a place where they can be more than “safe”, but human. I know I wouldn’t stay in a camp for one more hour than I had to.

Mohanad works as a volunteer for the Lutheran World Federation (our partner in Jordan). He has volunteered in the camp since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Mohanad is the same age as me. He is trained as an engineer and when he still lived in Syria, he worked as a teacher. Early in the conflict, Mohanad realized that life was unsafe for teacher, so he fled, along with his brother, to Jordan.

He has lived in the camp for 3 years. The rest of his family is back in Syria. They are in contact with each other by telephone, but the service is poor, so they can go more than a month without talking. Even for Mohanad, the worst aspect of life in the camp is the boredom--it is why, upon arrival, he determined to find work in any way possible, even if he had to work for free.

When the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) was recruiting volunteers, Mohanad applied. Many of his life milestones have occurred in the camp: he got married and has since had two children. Mohanad is an incredibly positive and intelligent person, who works to maintain his own sense of self and dignity. When I ask him where he gets his positive outlook on life, he answered: “If I spent every day regretting and being sad, I wouldn't be living. It’s important to take every day as it comes and never stop trying to live.”  

I want to end my “reporting” from Za’atari with a bit of optimism, so I decided to write something about students:

In Jordan, high school students take a very difficult exam--it’s something like the SAT/ACT. This test is important because it actually determines the future academic track for each student and also influences their future university options.

And Guess where the highest-achieving students from this academic year came from?

Any guesses….?

If you deduced that the best scores came from the refugee camp of Za’atari, you guessed correctly!

Even amidst all the trauma, the complications, the violence, the depression, the boredom, and the bleak environment, the students in the camp beat the odds. Their motivation carried the way.

Around 100 students from the Za’atari camp will receive scholarships from UNHCR to attend university in Jordan. And what can I say to that? Dedication and hard work pay off. That is clear. The people living in this camp are just like you and me. They have the same needs and similar dreams. The question now is “What will we do?”


Jeremy Ault