For Syrian Refugees, Life at Home May Be Hell, But Camps Are No Haven

Ed note. This is a special guest post by  Marcy Hersh of Refugees International

(Al-Dlail, Jordan) ― Hannan, four years old, squirms on her pink hospital bed, covering her face with her hands as if I cannot see her that way. When she thinks I’m not looking, she peeks up at me between her fingers and I give her a quick smile. She smiles back, and then immediately rolls over, hiding from me and my colleague.

The nurse then steps in and examines her ear. It’s doing much better today; the surgery that reattached it has gone well, and it seems like it will heal nicely. The same is true for her fractured leg, the cast peeking out from the leg of her pink sweatsuit.

Hannan is the one of six sisters, all between the ages of 13 and two months. Her family lived with five others back home in Syria, in a house located just three kilometers from the Jordanian border. One week ago, while everyone was sleeping peacefully, a tank fired at the house, causing the roof and walls to cave in. In the chaos following the explosion, Hannan’s parents scrambled to find all six girls, grab their identification, and get them out of the rubble to safety. Hannan, along with her nine- and ten-year-old sisters, needed urgent medical attention, so her parents (thankfully, uninjured) picked up their daughters and carried them to a government hospital nearby. Finding the hospital itself surrounded by tanks, they decided to cross the nearby border into Jordan.

The journey to the border was perilous, and the family’s progress was hampered by the girls’ broken limbs. Somewhere along the way, as they struggled to carry their daughters, the parents dropped and lost their identification documents. Without their IDs, Hannan’s family had no choice but to enter Jordan illegally, at which point they were taken by Jordanian soldiers to the Zaatari refugee camp.

Life in Zaatari, where more than 20,000 Syrians are now housed, is harsh for anyone – and it’s especially tough for a family with three injured children. For one thing, the security situation in the camp is not stable, with refugees rioting against camp conditions on a number of occasions and Jordanian police responding with tear gas. The specific needs of women and girls a have also been overlooked: for example, the showers and latrines lack doors, depriving women of their privacy and putting them at risk of harassment and attacks. And all the while, winter is coming. The vast majority of Zaatari’s residents live in tents not designed for cold weather and lack winter clothing or blankets. The situation is so bad that numerous refugees are voluntarily returning to Syria, choosing to take their chances in a war zone rather than live in Zaatari.

After a short time in the camp, Hannan’s family was referred to Al Dlail Hospital for further treatment, where I met them this week. The hospital, which is run by the Jordanian Health Aid Society, had just 30 beds when our team from Refugees International visited last in June. Today, there are more than 60 beds and 160 staff members fully equipped to treat Syrian refugees suffering from gunshot wounds, shrapnel or crushed limbs, and injuries sustained during torture.

As we sat by Hannan’s bed, her family expressed concern about their future. Once the children recover, they will have no choice but to return to Zaatari, where a long, hard winter lies ahead. Hannan’s parents will not be permitted to apply for work visas, so they have no hope of supporting their family. The girls may be able to attend classes at schools built within the camp, but the classrooms will be overcrowded and lacking supplies. And unless Jordan and its foreign donors step up, the other hardships and indignities of camp life will only increase as the months roll on.

When I ask Hannan’s parents when they will return to Syria, they make the same pledge that I have heard repeated countless times this month, as I have met with Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq: “We will go,” they say, “on the very next day after the war ends.” I hope that, for Hannan’s sake, that day comes soon.

Marcy Hersh is a senior advocate with Refugees International