For the past six years, Hala, a Syrian refugee, has been receiving free treatment for her diabetes and hypertension from a clinic near her home in Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. She knows she’s lucky – healthcare in Jordan is expensive and facilities are stretched, particularly post-COVID.

“It means I don’t have to leave the camp to get my medicines,” says Hala. “If this centre didn’t exist, I could be forced to purchase medicine, which I cannot afford.”

This is just one of the many, varied reasons that Hala and other refugees have decided to remain in Za’atari, years after they fled to Jordan. Over 80 per cent of refugees in Jordan live in urban areas, including many of the female-headed households supported by the Leading Women Fund. In choosing to live outside the camps, they have greater autonomy and privacy, but the flipside is that they also have to find money to cover rent, food, medicine and everything else they need for themselves and their children.

“If you live inside the camp, you receive free shelter, water, electricity and education – and it’s safe,” says Moh’d Al-Taher, Associate External Relation Officer at Mafraq Sub Office – Za’atari camp, who has been working here since 2014. “Jordan is expensive in the cities. But the camp is also crowded and there is less privacy. So every single person has their own reasons for making that choice.”

Hala, 53, suffers from diabetes, hypertension and vitamin deficiencies. She has received primary health support from the IMC centre in Za'atari Camp since 2016.
© UNHCR/YousefAlHariri

"It means I don’t have to leave the camp to get my medicines. If this centre didn’t exist, I could be forced to purchase medicine, which I cannot afford," says Hala.

Nour, 28, a Syrian refugee living in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan, has owned her own wedding dress shop and salon in the camp for the last three years. © UNHCR/Shawkat Alharfosh

How it began 

Established in July 2012, one year after the start of the Syrian conflict, Za’atari has grown from a huddle of tents to a semi-permanent city. At its peak in 2015, it housed around 125,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom came initially from Daraa in southern Syria, where the conflict started.

“Refugees who came later, often from other areas of Syria – such as Damascus, Aleppo, Hama – tended to find accommodation in urban areas as there wasn’t space in Za’atari and later Azraq camps,” says Lilly Carlisle, External Relations Officer for UNHCR Jordan. “Over time, however, many refugees who initially lived in the camps decided to leave.”

Now, Za’atari camp, the largest of its kind in the Middle East, houses 81,000 people, and remains under the joint administration of Jordan’s Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and UNHCR. 

Containing 32 schools, eight medical clinics, playgrounds, mosques and even paved streets in some of the older parts, Za’atari covers 13 square kilometres. Prefabricated houses have now replaced many tents, and a bustling thoroughfare, nicknamed “Champs-Élysées”, is the heart of the camp’s economic life. There, residents sell fruit and vegetables, homemade food, mobile phones and all sorts of other goods, as well as offering hairdressing and beauty services from small shacks.

Many refugees work incredibly hard to improve their circumstances and generate income of their own. After arriving at Za’atari in 2013, for example, Nour worked as a make-up artist before saving enough money to open her own wedding salon. Now, Nour designs wedding dresses and does hair and make-up for brides.

UNHCR provides protection and services in coordination with almost 40 other partners and organisations. Refugees receive JOD23 ($59) a month, via a Blockchain system, which can be redeemed at two supermarkets and several bread stalls inside the camp. They also receive cash assistance for a range of other items, from cooking gas to sanitary pads.

“In my eight years working at the camp, the biggest change I’ve seen is in refugees’ sense of hope,” says Mr Al-Taher

Work for refugee women

There is freedom of movement between Za’atari and the rest of Jordan, says Mr Al-Taher, but since 2016 the government has asked refugees to nominate their permanent place of residence. Those who choose to stay in Za’atari can apply for permits to leave to work or study for up to a month at a time, so they can work locally or take jobs further away from the camp. 

“Within the camp, many women choose to work in an incentive-based volunteering (IBV) program,” Mr Al-Taher explains. “This is a scheme whereby refugees can work alongside NGOs in paid various roles, such as teaching. They might work for five hours a day and we have childcare available for them. As you can imagine, these roles are in high demand, so we rotate them for a few months at a time.”

Services for women also include dedicated community spaces, clinics, and programs to encourage entrepreneurialism.

The Mask House, for example, opened in August 2020 to provide a livelihood for women through the production of face masks. So far, refugee women have produced over 150,000 masks.

“Now that demand for masks has reduced, the sewing machines at the Mask House are available for refugees to use for their own projects, or work training,” says Mr Al-Taher. 

A Syrian refugee makes non-surgical face masks at Zaatari refugee camp.  Opened in early-August 2020, The Mask House in Zaatari employs 60 refugee women to produce masks for the camp’s population and to sell to humanitarian organisations. © UNHCR/Shawkat Alharfosh

Za’atari camp, Jordan. Established in July 2012, one year after the start of the Syrian conflict, Za’atari has grown from a huddle of tents to a semi-permanent city. © UNHCR/YousefAlHariri

Despite his team’s best efforts, there are fewer work opportunities inside the camp than in the cities.

“In the vulnerability assessment survey we just launched, 25 per cent of refugees living in camps have income from work, compared to 52 per cent of refugees in urban areas,” says Lilly.  

In fact, a lack of opportunity is one of the main reasons that Syrian refugees may want to leave Za’atari. Once young people finish school, their options are limited even if they’ve excelled at school.

“In my eight years working at the camp, the biggest change I’ve seen is in refugees’ sense of hope,” says Mr Al-Taher. “At the start of the crisis, most of them hoped to return to Syria quickly, but now they ask for resettlement to another country, which is increasingly rare.

“We’re talking about a generation that is being raised inside the camp, and once they’ve finished school their options are limited. Without a scholarship, they can’t afford university, and scholarships are few.

“It’s hard for us to see this, but we are doing our best to find opportunities and hope for refugees.”

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