Our first day at a refugee camp in Jordan

The sign you see when you come to the camp -by John Wormdal
The sign you see when you come to the camp – by John Wormdal

Zaatari is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. When we visited the camp, it had 81,000 registered refugees. But they are expecting more during the winter, because of the heating problems in the urban places.

Of the refugees, 56% are children. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) built the refugee camp in 10 days. One of the reasons we got the chance to go on this IWitness trip is because of the IKEA Foundation’s campaign to support refugees called Brighter Lives for Refugees. The electricity costs 1 million dollars each month. If UNHCR can replace the electricity system in Zaatari with a solar-cell system, like there is in Azraq, they will have a million dollars to use on other issues in the camp.

A million dollars seems to be a lot of money, but with all these refugees it’s only a drop in the ocean.

The ‘Zaatari Welcome committee’ - by Gustav Svensson}
The ‘Zaatari Welcome committee’ – by Gustav Svensson}

When we arrived at the camp and got out of the car, three boys came running down the street. They were smiling, waiving and saying hello. And we felt welcomed.

The market in the main street - Gustav Svensson
The market in the main street – by Gustav Svensson

The market in the main street is called Shams Elysees because of the French hospital at the end of the street. When the hospital was closed, the Syrians renamed it to Shams Elysees. Shams means Damascus from back in the days.

In the main street, the Syrian refugees have built up their own businesses. Here the refugees can buy almost everything they need, like food, clothes, cell phones and wedding dresses. We stopped at a bakery and bought some delicious bread. The owner of the bakery told us he used to have a bakery in Syria. But now it’s gone.

Miniature of Zaatari refugee camp - by Lindsay Blake
Miniature of Zaatari refugee camp – by Lindsay Blake

We visited one of 12 children’s education centres, where children all over the camp can come and play safely. The playing is a form of psychological support. They have four different programmes: arts and crafts, playing, English, and reading and spelling. Girls and boys are separated into two groups. In the morning the girls can come to the centre and in the afternoon the boys can come.

There are two buildings, one for children under 12 and one for children between the ages 12 and 18. In the building where the girls between 12 and 18 were, they were making a miniature of the refugee camp. We got to talk to one of the girls called Noor. Noor means brighter light. She told us that she liked working with the miniature because she could use her hands and mind. She also liked to make things from recycled materials. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up, and she told me that she wanted to be a doctor so she could help others.

Former IKEA co-worker from Syria - by Gustav Svensson
Former IKEA co-worker from Syria – by Gustav Svensson

We visited a school for adult refugees, where they learned how to write and speak English. The class was right in the middle of a reading when we came in. They stopped reading and we were introduced to the class. We told the class where we came from and what the purpose of our visit was.

They asked us questions, and we found out that one of the men was a former IKEA co-worker. He worked at the check-out in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia from 2009 to 2011. In a couple of years, he has gone from a fulltime job to be a refugee in Jordan. This was a wake-up call in our IKEA hearts that one of us is stuck in the camp.

Queen of Zaatari refugee camp - by Gustav Svensson
Queen of Zaatari refugee camp – by Gustav Svensson

Rania* was five days old when she came to the camp. She was one of the first refugees in Zaatari. The only world she knows is the life in the camp, and she is called by the UNHCR workers the Queen of Zaatari. She is called that because she is always smiling, laughing and dressed in colourful clothes. We had the chance to meet Rania and we saw and felt her bright, full energy.

Our day at Zaatari refugee camp was filled with different feelings. It seemed like the children were thrilled to meet us, and we noticed that when they came up to us and shook our hand they said, “Hello how are you?” This was not what we were expecting at all. We did not expect that the refugees would be so open and joyful. They have almost nothing but still they wanted us to come in their houses and drink coffee.

*name changed for protection purposes

    Lindsay Blake