Zaatari refugee camp of Jordan - a nightmare for Syrian women

Zaatari is a desert town in Jordan along its border with Syria.  In July 2012, a refugee camp for Syrians fleeing the brutal war in their country was set up known as the Zaatari refugee camp.  Today, more than 150,000 Syrian refugees reside here.  Population-wise, Zaatari has become the fourth largest "city" of Jordan.  Approximately 2,000 Syrians arrive at Zaatari every day.  Due to the large number of refugees coupled with Jordan's lack of arrangements and inhospitable attitude, these refugees find no proper accommodation within the camps, no healthcare, scant food, not even enough warm clothes and blankets to keep warm in winter.  However, medics in the makeshift canvas clad clinics are said to be doing their best, often delivering up to 20 babies a day!  There are more than 65,000 children, many of whom have arrived without their parents, and only two schools.  Obviously most children don't have access to education either. After witnessing the violence of war and no schools to attend as refugees, many kids at Zaatari have already turned into vandals.  One organizer of Zaatari camp who is a German national, reported being attacked by angry children wielding tent poles and stones.  Jordanian law doesn't allow refugees to work.  Just as adult Iraqi refugees were unemployed in Jordanian refugee camps during the invasion of Iraq, Syrians in Zaatari camp are unemployed too.

Worst of all, rape and its constant fear keep lurking for Syrian women at Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp.  The local mafia has been quick to start its commerce of trafficking young girls.  These girls lived in fear of the foreign invaders in Syria.  They now live in fear at Zaatari.  Their honor and well-being are in jeopardy.  That's how little it takes for the strong to exert pressure over the weak and helpless.

Rape being an unspeakable stigma in a conservative community, most women who have been raped will not admit it.  At most, they may say they've seen it happen to others.  A few NGO funded clinics set up in the region have reported receiving up to 300 rape victims per day who may speak only if the female doctor succeeds in winning their trust and confidence after long periods of counseling.  

Daytime portrays a picture of much hustle 'n' bustle with people trying to get on with their daily businesses .. as much as they can in a makeshift refugee camp.  Sometimes it may even feel a bit cheerful.  The nights are sullen and intimidating with sounds of gunfire from the borders and perpetual fear of local marauders vandalizing the camps.

The widespread feeling is that of fear, insecurity and despair.  Middle-aged mothers have no  choice but to marry off their very young daughters with the hope that they may escape the insecurity and have someone to take care of them.  They have no time to think of the emotions or feelings of the bride.  Choosing between marrying their daughters to strangers whom they neither love nor know OR staying unmarried with the constant threat of rape -- they obviously consider the former as the better of the two evils.

Also, marrying off young Syrian girls to well-to-do Arab men (mainly from the gulf region) serves as fulfilling the financial needs of the parents.  Several social workers around the camp have observed an influx of gulf Arab men visiting these camps, eagerly in search of young Syrian brides.   Taking 'war brides' as wives belonging to far away lands from desperate families is a sort of sexual fantasy in the wired minds of Saudi and Kuwaiti men.   One observer commented:  "Yesterday I heard a man I know accepted 9,000 dinars [£8,420] from a Saudi guy for his 15-year-old daughter. He will take his ‘wife’ to a flat and stay with her for a few months then go home without her. It’s illegal to marry women under 18 in Jordan and Saudi men cannot marry non-Saudis without permission. She is not a wife but for sex only.

Hurried marriages with the purpose of providing security to young girls and money to the parents have become so commonplace all over Zaatari refugee camp that a bridal boutique of sorts has sprung up in the midst of the premises with colorful glittering bridal gowns being given out to rent.  

Many families choose to walk away from Zaatari camp and settle down in the nearby Jordanian towns. But that doesn't resolve their problems.  It doesn't take long to face a new set of stress and misery arising from lack of finances and mounting debts of unpaid rents.  Being beyond the reach of community workers who visit the camps, their helplessness only deepens.  Yet, a lot of them consider such a plight preferable to staying in the camps.  According to one of many reports, a woman with her 16-year-old daughter slipped out of Zaatari camp in the Jordanian town of Mafraq and rented a small house (or probably a portion of a house).  After a few months she exhausted the cash she brought with her from Syria.  She was unable to pay the rent and was laden with debt.  The landlord suggested he would waive the debts if she married her 16-year-old daughter to his 28-year-old son.  She refused, and now the landlord is threatening to evict her.  One may assume they would be better off at Zaatari for at least they wouldn't have to worry about a chunk of money as rent every month.  But I guess those who have suffered the agony of staying in such camps would know better.

That's as far as the lives of Syrian refugees go in Jordan's refugee camp, women undoubtedly being the worst hit of all.

Some images from Zaatari camp.  Nothing happy nor amusing but definitely informative.

Zaatari's bridal boutique ..