From Hull to Jordan: the intrepid Pete Pollard investigates first-hand the plight of Syrian refugees.
I had watched the situation in Syria developing for quite some time and as it rapidly culminated into a civil war, I wondered how the ongoing crisis would affect me and my family, as a British person, in view of the stance of Her Majesty’s UK governance and the Russian alliance of President Putin with Syria’s President Assad.
Would there be a new cold war? Would the ex-Soviet states feel pressurised and would a review take place regarding their policy towards NATO? Would nuclear arms and ‘new technologies’ be strategically implemented?
I watched a film documentary called ‘Syria; Ground Zero’ and although not particularly well balanced politically, it inspired me greatly and I decided, I needed to do something for the Syrian people.
I went over to Jordan to meet the SCI Jordan branch secretary Amir to exchange greetings and discuss the situation regarding the Syrian refugees in Jordan.
I spent seven days in Jordan, assessing, meeting people and familiarising myself with the culture and people. I met families who had been near to the worst of the fighting in Aleppo and Homs. I was also driven to Zaatari Refugee camp, home to 100,000 displaced Syrian people, close to the Syrian border.
In a Jordanian town, I sat with a refugee family in their temporary house. The TV, which was the only fixture in an otherwise sparse and empty room, constantly showed violent images of the conflict, whilst the family talked, argued and gestured provocatively, in a manner that suggested, the situation was no longer of their making or within their control. Another family, in a similar room, had the blanket they had taken with them from Zaatari camp neatly on display, above their TV, a memento, of their escape from Syria, via Zaatari. A family member showed me a picture of his dead brother on his mobile phone, a victim of the violence… The families kept in contact with family and friends in Syria, through a series of mobile phones.
A young man, who had fled Syria, told me he had been held by police in Jordan. They had told him he had two choices: he could go directly back to Syria or he could train to fight with the Free Syrian Army at a camp in Jordan. After training he would be then sent back to Syria, to fight the government. The young man took a third option. He is still ‘on the run’ in Jordan.
Another family, which has two young boys, a teenage brother, told me how life was normal and relatively idyllic in their home, in a village, outside of a major (troubled) city in Syria. They had a house with land and a car. The father had a good job and was well respected and established within the neighbourhood. I asked if there were any problems before the conflict. The father replied ‘No, there were small problems, like the corruption of the police and officials, but,’ he said, ‘those problems had existed for a long time and although annoying, were pushed aside and forgotten.’
I asked him also, ‘Did the Israelis or Nato allied governments cause mischief or initiate any of the problems prior to the demonstrations, as had been reported in some media?’ He replied ‘No’ and he indicated that the global recession had caused the ruling ‘Allawites’ (loyal to President Assad) to take the best positions and work and to cause the ‘Sunni’ population to work for less pay and harder working conditions. This was the sourceof the demonstrations. When I asked what had caused him to leave his home, he replied, ‘The police had set up road blocks and checkpoints and the situation was becoming increasingly tense, caused by the violence which had taken place from both sides (the government and the rebels) after the initial demonstrations.’
‘The police had stopped me many times, going back and forth to work but one day, the police had stopped me in my car, while I was with my family. They asked me to get out of my car and checked my papers. They then produced a military knife and threatened to decapitate me.’ They said to me, ‘Are you ready to die? We are going to cut off your head.”
The man pleaded and asked for them, for the sake of his family, to let him go. They allowed him to leave but, he explained, he had heard from friends that the violence was becoming worse and that a group of children who had been caught writing graffiti on walls, criticising President Assad, had their fingers cut off and later, there were also murders of children, including decapitation.
His boss had told him, certain people were under investigation and were under imminent danger of arrest and he (the father) was one of them. The family left their home with a few possessions and travelled to Jordan, fearing for their lives. They were directed to Zaatari camp when they entered Jordan. The father explained that Zaatari was like ‘Hell’. No one wanted to be there and people were leaving the camp, saying, they would rather take their chances in Syria being bombed or shot rather than be in Zaatari.
His children told me they used to play football at home and had a computer but had to leave it behind. I asked the nine year old son could he teach me how to use mine. He said ‘yes’ but he couldn’t format it. I laughed and told him I didn’t need an IT expert just someone to teach me how to use it. Their relief, to be away from Syria, was obvious. Although the family told me they missed their home and friends terribly.
The father used to manage the children’s football team at home but now didn’t have a football, never mind a team strip to make up a team.
None of the family was in employment in Jordan, apart from the fourteen year old eldest son. He was missing school and for a twelve hour day, working as a welder’s mate, he was receiving two Jordanian dollars per day. To put the wage into perspective, I paid three JD for an average bag of nuts from the local shop.
His hands were dark grey from the oil and material he was using and he complained of being tired because of the long hours. The father lastly explained that the most uninspiring part of being a refugee was the boredom of being unemployed and the inability to provide for his family. Mother explained, the family had only left Syria with a few possessions and had very little means to even repair or sew clothes or things. I thanked the family for their hospitality and tea and said goodnight. I felt positive about the meeting but unable to see how best to help at that time. I have focused with more clarity since then and will present some thoughts during the pathfinder mission.
People are still very fearful of talking and having photographs taken because of the fear of recriminations from the police if they return to Syria. They are now unsure of their futures and feel there are problems with the Jordanian people because of their numbers. They are being extorted by bad business people. The refugees are trying to blend into the local community but have no means to do so. Apart from Amir, the branch secretary of SCI Jordan, they have few friends amongst the Jordanians. Amir is their hero, has their confidence and is treated like a brother. He sits like a chief family member in their community.
There is an oppressive mood toward the refugees in Jordan and government is aggressive toward them mainly because of the numbers and financial upkeep. Amir is sometimes reluctant to communicate electronically because of the problems he has had with the Jordanian police and their interference with his work.
I believe the intervention of volunteers from modern democratic states will change the status of the refugee and this will be embraced by the Jordanian government and the people, because it will introduce real governance and stability without further financial cost to the host people.
We decided to drive to Zaatari camp and from a distance it came into view, a great swathe of white tents spread across the landscape. As we got closer, the size of the camp (100.000 people) became very impressive. There seemed to be a mixture of simply built buildings and tents. We came into the area close to the main road into the camp. I noticed there were lots of people on the road trying to hitch a ride into town. There were also a group of children trying to steal iron from a building site. The police were nearby but didn’t intervene.
Amir pointed to a family packing items into a car and explained they were escaping from Zaatari. I asked him how did he mean escaping? He said people were climbing over the fence and escaping because they were disturbed by the poor camp conditions. Bad water, no beds, poor sanitation, prostitution and violence were not uncommon on the camp. I have to admit, the man at the car looked around as we passed by him and he looked petrified with fear.
We went to the gates and a Jordanian guard told us we could not enter. He also told us we could not take photographs. We turned around in the car and headed back to the main road. Back at the main road Amir stopped to give a ride to a family. They had just a few bags and as Amir drove he asked them questions. They had decided to leave because of the problems on camp. Stories were being told of the trafficking of young women to highest bidders in Saudi for quick marriages. Old men were paying a fee to marry women thirty, forty. fifty or even sixty years younger than themselves and claiming they were helping the family. Many marriages have been annulled because the man just wanted to take the woman’s virginity. The family in the car had a teenage daughter and were desperate to be away from the camp. Teenagers as young as fourteen were being sold.
Because the meetings in Jordan were informal I have not made any recommendations in this report. I will say however, in my opinion, the Secretary of SCI Jordan is a honest and very credible individual, who was an excellent host to me and I feel assured he will offer the same hospitality, to the pathfinders, who will subsequently submit reports during and after their mission.
Peter Pollard. Volunteer. ‘International Voluntary Services. GB’ (SCI UK)