Rebuilding a community miles from home

Published: 12 March 2014 16:46 CET

Penny Sims/British Red Cross

On a patch of scrubland next to a factory in Jordan, Syrian refugees from two neighbouring villages in Hama have built a crude copy of their old homes. The settlement’s hand-dug drains, ramshackle tents and DIY school are a monument to this community’s strength and ingenuity. But life is hard and the future uncertain, even with vital support from the Red Cross Red Crescent.

The settlement in Jawa is similar to many in Jordan. It is an informal camp, set up by refugees themselves rather than the government or a humanitarian organization. There are many such settlements scattered around the country, ranging from a few tents in the middle of a city-centre roundabout to larger rural camps. However, they are illegal if they are set up without the landowner’s permission. As the constant flow of refugees pushes rents higher, these informal camps have become an important way for Syrians to survive. Almost all of this camp’s 775 residents – including many extended families – are from the rural outskirts of Hama.

People here live in tents pieced together from advertising banners, food sacks, wood, cloth, and anything else they can find. They shelter under colourful messages promoting the World Cup, soft drinks, and IT businesses. Most families have dug their own latrines, and there are shallow drainage channels scraped into the earth. People are working hard to keep the camp clean and safe, but it’s clear that in heavy rain or snow this must be a difficult place to live.

The families are creating a school tent for the youngest children. Its steel frame is up and they have employed a teacher, but the community is still looking for material to build walls and a roof, as well as chairs, books and everything else the school needs. The last school cost parents 10 JD (£8.50) a month per child, which is beyond the means of many. The community aims to support the new school together, and make it free for everyone. Up to 80 children may attend every day.

Today the Jordan National Red Crescent Society is giving out blankets and hygiene kits from the Spanish Red Cross. Each kit has a month’s supply of basic sanitary items for a family of five – everyday things such as toilet roll, soap, laundry powder and sanitary towels – which give people a basic level of health and dignity. The arrival of blankets is especially timely as the weather is due to take a turn for the worse within days, with more snow predicted.

Fearing for the future

The owner of the factory next door allows the refugees to stay here and gives them electricity and water. In return, the Syrians work in the factory for a wage, although one that is 10 per cent lower than that given to Jordanians. In some ways this is a reasonable arrangement for refugees and the factory owner – but it leaves many fearing for their future.

Hamid* was shot in the leg before fleeing to Jordan. He says he was injured taking part in a protest, that his family back in Syria are suffering harassment, and that his wife’s parents were killed by a bomb on their way to hospital.

Hamid says: “Most families work in the factory but not everyone. It is a worry what will happen to those families who cannot work, like the elderly people, or young women with children and no husbands. I have an injury in my leg from the conflict – what would happen if I had to leave? Where would I go?”

Some families have been living in this settlement for over a year, and more people arrive all the time. There is clearly a need for more facilities, and better sanitation. There is a need for more of almost everything. Resourceful as this community are, their temporary settlement is no kind of home.

*name changed.