While many Australians were spending downtime with their families on the beach between Christmas and New Year, our family were together on the Syrian-Jordanian border learning first-hand about the Syrian refugee situation.

As a business person with a deep concern about humanitarian issues I had sought consent from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, for us to visit Zaatari refugee camp, and our son Angus was asked to take photos for UNHCR's advocacy and fundraising work in Australia.

On our first evening in the Jordanian capital Amman, with a population of more than 4 million, we were briefed over dinner by Australian Ambassador Miles Armitage, Nida Yassin, UNHCR's assistant external relations officer in Jordan, and Elizabeth Grady, who had joined us from UNHCR in Sydney.

Following the Syrian uprising in 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled into Jordan, creating a humanitarian emergency.

We were given a sense of the scale of the issue –Jordan is a country with 10 million of its own residents. Nearly eight years into the crisis, more than 5.6 million Syrians have become refugees, having fled into Jordan or other neighbouring countries. Jordan is not a wealthy country, with no oil and scarce water and agricultural resources, so the pressure on the community is significant.

On the ground in Zaatari refugee camp

On the ground in Zaatari refugee camp. Supplied

The following morning we set out on the 90-minute drive to the Syrian border. Along the way we passed road signs to the Iraqi border. We were certainly in the middle of a hot spot.

Our destination was Zaatari refugee camp a few kilometres from the Syrian border. Established in 2012, it's the largest camp for Syrian refugees in the Middle East with more than 80,000 refugees – larger than the population of Wagga Wagga. The camp is spread over five square kilometres, with more than 24,000 people per square kilometre.

State of emergency
We were briefed by camp manager Irene Omondi and Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate chief Colonel Al-Saoudi.

When the camp was established it was a state of emergency, and this then tent camp had little in the way of infrastructure. Now it is a bustling community with 12 school complexes, two hospitals, 12 primary health clinics and a separate delivery unit handling 80 births a week, and a very recently opened 12.9-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant funded by the German Government Development Bank (KFW).

We were there in close to zero-degree temperatures, and life at the camp has settled from the early days of its establishment. The tents are gone, replaced with 24,000 prefabricated homes each providing individual families with their own sanitation, dramatically improving hygiene. The solar power plant supplies electricity for up to 12 hours a day enabling the homes to have power and light, and with that the ability for children to complete their homework and adults to charge their mobile phones.

Zaatari refugee camp. Supplied

Twenty per cent of the camp's population are aged under five and a further 30 per cent are between six and 18. Most children are enrolled in schools in the camp and are provided a free education. All residents have access to free healthcare and support. There are informal shopping areas and a small economy is thriving.

The positive energy and hope we experienced from the people we met was a sharp contrast to stories we had read before we arrived. It showed how this camp has progressed over the six and a half years since it was established. We also witnessed the incredible use of technology developed by UNHCR to deal with this enormous humanitarian effort.

On arrival in Jordan refugees are screened using biometric scanning technology – this enables UNHCR to target the most needy with services and support. Individuals receive a monthly text when their welfare has been uploaded and they can spend it without using cash through the biometric scanners. This is an incredibly secure system that respects the independence and dignity of refugees by ensuring they can make their own decisions about what to buy and how to prioritise the needs of their families.

The main shopping street, which has a dirt road and informal shops on either side, was bustling with activity – fruit and vegetable vendors, barber shops, clothes shops, the best falafel we ate in Jordan was presented to us as a gift by some young men, and there was even a small art gallery where we bought a painting. An enterprising refugee had established a bridal-wear rental shop.

Very recently the nearby Syrian border crossing reopened and camp residents who wish to return to Syria can do so on a voluntary basis. At this point very few have made this choice. Often it was the men who fled in fear for their lives, only to bring their families months and years later to be reunited with them in the camp. UNHCR is not promoting refugee returns to Syria at this stage since circumstances are not yet conducive to return.

Zaatari is now a bustling community with 12 school complexes, two hospitals, 12 primary health clinics and a number of shopping areas.

Zaatari is now a bustling community with 12 school complexes, two hospitals, 12 primary health clinics and a number of shopping areas. Supplied

Lack of work
In Zaatari we visited one of the prefabricated homes and met with Sami, his wife Aida and their 13-year-old daughter Tasneem. Despite the dirt roads that are dust in summer and mud in winter, their home was spotless. Through an interpreter Sami told us how he fled Syria during the uprising, leaving his job and family behind, and fearful for his life and the livelihood of his wife and young family. He talked about the stability he had in the camp and the education his children were receiving. He told us his daughter dreams of becoming a doctor.

His wife spoke of the lack of work for the adult men, and how the advent of electricity has enabled their children to study at night but has also brought access to the internet. She was concerned about how much time her husband spends playing games on his phone. Scholarships are now available for students to progress to university, with nearly 700 refugees Jordan-wide beneficiaries of this.

Outside, young children waved enthusiastically. Clearly, visitors are not common.

Later in the day we visited Nuzha Community Centre in Amman, one of 25 community centres in Jordan. Established by UNHCR in partnership with local NGO Johud, these centres are key places for the 83 per cent of refugees who are not resident in the camps. Here local Jordanians work with refugees from multiple countries including Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan.

We sat with the team and discussed the level of local support which enables respect and understanding to be developed between the Jordanian community and the refugee communities. It also enables UNHCR to provide direct support. Here dialogue and trust is established, with participants teaching each other about their culture, history and foods, and providing recreational activities and technical and training support. These centres enable Jordanian and refugee children to join in activities together, the elderly to tell stories to each other and skills training to be provided.

One refugee from Yemen talked about how his computer-fixing skills were being used by Jordanians and other refugees, and a Jordanian woman spoke about how she was helping a Sudanese refugee find ingredients for their own foods. We were approached by a Syrian man who told us how his entire family had been resettled in Melbourne and how he had applied only to learn three years later that he was unsuccessful as he was in a safe country – Jordan.


What was a tent city now has a small, thriving economy. Most children are enrolled in schools and are provided with a free education.

What was a tent city now has a small, thriving economy. Most children are enrolled in schools and are provided with a free education. Supplied

While the international media had prepared us to expect a harrowing experience, we came away with much hope after our short visit and in particular observing the positivity of the refugees and how Jordanians had once again accepted an enormous refugee influx – with the consequent pressure on their society – with respect and little tension.

I came away thinking that there are still significant challenges – the lack of work opportunities for the refugees and the high level of Jordanian unemployment means there is likely to be a generation left behind. The camp is providing extraordinary support for people who have fled for their lives, but it's not clear whether they will ever resettle or whether this will be their home for life. The numbers being resettled internationally are very low, with 5000 Syrian refugees resettled globally last year. There is a real risk that the world will forget the plight of these people.

To support UNHCR initiatives in Jordan, call 02 9276 6866 or go to www.unrefugees.org.au/syria

Simon Mordant AM is executive co-chair of investment bank Luminis Partners and a philanthropist.

This piece was first published in the Financial Review on 22 February 2019.

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