Skip to main content

Opinion: Syria fighting sparks refugee crisis in Jordan

By Cassandra Nelson, special to CNN
August 29, 2012 -- Updated 1219 GMT (2019 HKT)
Za'atari Refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border, currently hosts over 20,000 Syrian refugees. UNICEF predicts 70,000 people will be living there by the end of the year. Za'atari Refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border, currently hosts over 20,000 Syrian refugees. UNICEF predicts 70,000 people will be living there by the end of the year.
HIDE CAPTION
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
Life inside a Syrian refugee camp
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan is home to more than 20,000 Syrian refugees
  • Hundreds more arrive every day, on foot, with just the clothes they are wearing
  • The refugees are putting pressure on already scarce water resources in the region
  • As the situation in Syria escalates, many fear they will be in the camp for some time

Editor's note: Cassandra Nelson has been an aid worker with the international humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps since 2002. She has been a first-responder to almost every major humanitarian crisis over the past decade including the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the Iraq war, the Haiti earthquake and the 2011 famine in Mogadishu.

Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan (CNN) -- I've spent the past week working in the Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border. The camp was opened less than a month ago to receive Syrians fleeing the violence in their country.

Built on a barren desert plain without a tree or shrub in sight, it can seem an unwelcoming place to arrive, even for a refugee.

Dust storms and scorching heat have taken their toll on refugees and aid workers here. But given that less than 4% of Jordanian land is arable the terrain is not a surprise.

Over 20,000 Syrian refugees have moved into Za'atari camp already, and the pace of new arrivals to the camp has more than doubled, with more than 14,000 arriving in the past week alone. Yesterday, we received over 3,000 new arrivals overnight, up from an average of 600 per day just last week.

Cassandra Nelson has been an aid worker with humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps since 2002.
Cassandra Nelson has been an aid worker with humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps since 2002.

The refugee flow to Jordan has a direct correlation with the situation inside Syria. As fighting has escalated around Syria's southern city of Dara'a, where the uprising began almost 18 months ago, the number of refugees here is increasing dramatically. We are all bracing for a potentially massive influx in the coming days.

Yesterday, I met many newly-arrived refugees, some just children, who told me how had they witnessed family members and neighbors being killed in Syria. One 7-year old girl told me she saw her neighbor's throat cut in front of her. Her family fled in the dark of night, walking several hours before they could cross into Jordan. Like every refugee I have met here, they weren't able to bring any belongings -- they came with only the clothes on their backs.

UNICEF: Jordan refugee camp overwhelmed
Child fighter with AK-47 on Syria border
Damascus activists struggle to survive

Humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies have been working around the clock to accommodate the sudden increase in new arrivals of refugees, while also working to improve the conditions. But the camp is growing exponentially and it is hard to keep up.

I met with camp manager Mahmoud Amoush of the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization yesterday -- he told me, "We need more of everything."

More tents, improved water systems, more safe spaces and playgrounds for children and psycho-social counseling for children who have been traumatized are all top priorities.

I have spoken with many mothers here, and most report that their children have terrible nightmares and are not behaving normally -- either they are being very aggressive and misbehaving, or they are silent and afraid, running and hiding at any loud noise.

Wasfeyah, a refugee mother of five children, told me that when her family was trying to escape to Jordan, they were shot at and her eldest son, Ali, was hit in the head by a bullet. The blood from his wound sprayed on his younger brother who is just 6-years old.

Ali survived and they made it across the border, but his little brother often wakes up screaming "there is blood on my shirt." Wasfeyah doesn't have any money to buy new clothes, so the little boy still wears the blood-stained shirt from that night.

Nearly half of the camps' residents are children, and there is next to nothing for children to do here. Providing an outlet for kids who have been through unimaginable, violent events and left everything they know behind is critical to helping them recover and just be kids.

We have built one playground and another is almost completed. There are also child-friendly spaces that offer activities to kids. They are hard to miss in the camp -- just follow the unexpected sound of laughter and you will find swarms of kids singing, swinging, sliding and occasionally arguing over who's turn it is. More playgrounds and child-friendly spaces are being planned as the camp population grows.

Improvements to the camp continue despite the massive amount of work going into accommodating new arrivals.

The quality of the food has been a major complaint from many refugees in the camps. Currently, they receive hot, pre-cooked meals that are distributed throughout the camp, but now communal kitchens are being built so families can cook for themselves.

Electricity is now installed in 40 per cent of the camp, making life a bit easier. Charging mobile phones seems to be the primary use so far, based on what I have seen in the tents I visit.

Shelling follows brief rebuild in Daraya
Bloody crackdown: Who's telling truth?
Syrian rebel convoy under attack

Dust and sand storms are one of the greatest challenges of living in the camps. It is not just a discomfort, but it has become a health issue and camp doctors report that they are seeing many cases of respiratory problems, especially in infants and small children, due to the dust.

Many days it is hard to see more than a few meters in front of you in the camp, as the air is thick with sand and debris that is carried by the strong winds that blow through the barren camp. One mother told me, "not even a camel could live in this place, it is so hot and dusty."

The camp has been bringing in tons of gravel that is being spread on the ground to help alleviate the problem.

Water is one of the most pressing long-term issue that faces the refugees, as well as the local Jordanian communities. Jordan has inadequate fresh water supplies for its own population, and the refugee community is putting increased demands on an already short supply.

Water is currently being trucked into the camps from local wells in the community, but Mercy Corps will be drilling a new well and developing a water system with other organizations that will serve the camp, and alleviate the need to take scarce water from the host community.

The work ahead, to provide all the desperately needed services for the refugees is daunting, but it is under way. Each day I am in the camp I see progress being made, even as we struggle to meet the pressing needs of all the new arrivals.

No one knows how long the camp will be here and when the Syrian refugees will be able to go home. Many anticipate it will be a long haul, but all of us, especially the Syrians here, are hopeful they can return soon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cassandra Nelson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1616 GMT (0016 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT