MAFRAQ, Jordan — Residents call it the “Champs Elysees,” the main street where refugees do their groceries, drink coffee and cut their hair. However, it does not look like the luxurious street in the French capital at all. Everything in the Zaatari refugee camp is makeshift for Syrians seeking sanctuary in Jordan. Old tents and pieces of steel are being used for making small stores, and people mostly sell secondhand electronic devices such as refrigerators and cell phones. They even built a store for bridal gowns, as weddings take place in Zaatari every day. And there are more than 10 medical clinics.
Although the camp is starting to look more like a town every day, living standards are not good at all. In front of her trailer, a few minutes’ walk from the “boulevard,” Merwa carries a small baby in her arms. She said she is 30 years old, but she looks 40. Every one of the 112,229 Syrians in the camp has a tale about the war in Syria — of hopes and dreams destroyed and the hardships of living here. Merwa is not any different from the other refugees, although her worries about the displacement are mostly related to her newborn baby.
“Sometimes, I don’t want to live anymore, not like this,” she told Al-Monitor. “My baby is almost a year old, but weights only six pounds more than when she was born.”
Merwa has a soft and friendly voice. Her eyes look tired, as if she has not slept properly for a week. She told me that the baby cries a lot, especially at night, because she is not able to produce enough breast milk for her. In Zaatari, manufactured milk for babies is scarce, too, just like diapers, which can only be bought every few months and are very expensive.
With her three other children and husband she lives in a small trailer, which is hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. Her husband, Mahmoud, tried to get a permission to work in Jordan outside Zaatari, to start a normal life, but failed. Now he wants to return to Syria to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Every day, a few men come to their trailer to ask him whether he has changed his mind about staying, or leaving.
Merwa added, “Everyone in this camp wants to go back to Syria. Me too, but not like this. We are hopeless over there and hopeless over here. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Until now, her husband always said no to the mediators, because Merwa would not allow him to go back to Syria. But now she is afraid that he cannot take the pressure of living in a refugee camp much longer. About 65% of Zaatari residents earn an income doing work inside the camp. However, Mahmoud does not work at all. Their family lives on food stamps, aid packages and the generosity of fellow camp residents.
A tear rolled down Merwa’s cheek. The baby started crying. She gently cradled the girl in her arms for a few minutes. Every day she dreams about going back to her village in Syria and the country she knew before the war started.
“Born in a refugee camp,” she whispered to her baby. “I wanted to give her so much more.’’
Merwa is not the only mother who gave birth in Zaatari. Every month, around 200 children are born in one of the foreign-run hospitals in the camp. They are led by aid agencies from countries such as Morocco and France. According to the mothers, the conditions in the camp hospitals are quite good.
Um Abdallah made a home out of several trailers and some tents. Her family consists of 100 people. They have all been living in Zaatari for more than a year, after they fled from Daraa, a province in Syria where more than 90% of the refugees in Zaatari lived before the war started. Since they arrived, a lot of women in the family have given birth in the camp. Um Abdallah also gave birth, in the French hospital a few weeks ago.
“Life goes on, including marriage and having children. We do not expect to leave anytime soon, so we are just trying to make the best of it,’’ she told Al-Monitor. “I only feel sad that my youngest child will not have the same happy childhood as the others.’’
Dressed in a black niqab that covers her face and hair except for her dark brown eyes, she held her newborn baby in her arms while drinking sweet tea. Her mother, who only wears a headscarf, sat next to her, as did her younger sister, who is pregnant with her second child. They all fear the cold winter months. Dozens of children in the camp developed pneumonia last winter.
“Lately, lots of girls in this family got married,” Um Abdallah said. This is because it is better to have the protection of a husband inside the camp, especially when the girl does not have male family members around her all the time. Zaatari can be a dangerous environment. Refugees whisper of rapes and other gender-based violence in some places.
Indeed, Um Abdallah’s 15-year-old niece got married last week. “She didn’t have any protection from her father, as he’s fighting in Syria. So that’s why we decided it was time for her to get married,” the girl’s grandmother Miriam explained.
Back in Daraa, it is normal to get married at an early age. However, some Syrian families are marrying their daughters off earlier than they used to in order to provide personal and financial safety for them. Miriam was 14 and Um Abdallah 15 when they got married. Now, Miriam has nine children. They have given Miriam 65 grandchildren and great-children — six born in Zaatari.
Around the corner, Ibrahim, 27, and Khanse, 21, live with their 10-month-old boy in a UNHCR container. They created a little porch and a separate bedroom. Before they came to Jordan, Ibrahim was captured by the Syrian regime. Khanse, who was almost eight months pregnant at that time, fled to Jordan without her husband, convinced that she would be arrested, too. When she arrived at the border, she went into labor.
Khanse added, “It was hard having a baby at the border knowing that my husband was in danger. Thank God, some doctors helped me with giving birth.’’
She named her little boy Nader, an Arabic name which means “rare.” With a smile on his face, Nader crawled around the living room, from one parent to another, giving them hugs.
“I gave him that name because I knew he would be special,’’ she proudly said.
Mother and child went to Zaatari all by themselves. Fourteen days later, her husband was released from prison. When Ibrahim arrived at the camp, he had torture burn marks all over his body and was in extreme pain.
“I completely forgot everything, when I saw my wife and newborn child,” he concluded.
When being asked what they think about raising a child in a refugee camp, their faces showed signs of sorrow. Khanse stared at her little boy and then looked at her husband. For a moment, they were both quiet.
“It will be better one day, God willing.”
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