The Brutal Reality For Syrians Inside Jordanian Refugee Camp

Zaatari camp, a “town” of transit for 1,500 to 2,000 refugees
Zaatari camp, a “town” of transit for 1,500 to 2,000 refugees

ZAATARI – The Khamsin is what they call the desert wind that blows in gusts, blocking your sight with an opaque fog, burning your eyes and lungs at the same time. Scruffy-looking kids are pushing makeshift carts through the mini windstorm, piles of clothes and kitchen tools almost falling off them, as ghost-like figures of men and women emerge from the swirl of dust, heading towards unknown places.

The Jordanian town of Zaatari depicts a weak, swarming mass of humanity that has crossed the border from Syria, putting to the test this nation’s legendary hospitality.

“Considering this country is home to just six million people, it’s a considerable effort for them to harbor 500,000 refugees," says Patrice Dumont Saint-Priest, the French head of a medical aid group Tamour. "Could you imagine France with 5.4 million refugees?”

The Hashemite kingdom’s attitude towards the recurrent flux of refugees throughout the years –from Palestine then Iraq- has always been generous, but it’s not the only thing that strikes us in Zaatari.

Back in Amman, Ayman Arabeyat, from the Jordanian interior ministry, had warned us: “Stay alert, it’s become a dangerous place. Last time I went there, my car windows were all smashed by people throwing rocks!”

It didn't take long to confirm his preoccupation: as we arrived at the camp entrance, we noticed that every window of the checkpoint were broken. Even the people in charge of humanitarian organizations and the security forces agree on this point. Zaatari camp for the Syrian refugees is home to 110,000 people. It has largely become a lawless place where local mafias are enforcing their own justice, and violent demonstrations have become more and more common.

But this situation won’t last, at least that is the plan. Colonel Zaher Abu Shehab heads a unit of about 500 policemen in charge of border security and, in theory, the camp itself. He has sworn to “enforce Jordanian law,” in what used to be a 12-square-kilometer no man’s land.

Shehab says that since 90% of the refugees were from the same place – Deraa, a Syrian city a few kilometers north of the border - they wanted to create neighborhood committees. "So we let them do just that, but then people started complaining more and more,” he said. The complaints? The emergence of gang leaders and illicit trafficking.

After nightfall

The Colonel acknowledged the fact that “they received humanitarian aid, and were not distributing it back equally between the people.” That was an understatement. The UN organizations provided tents, bags of rice, sugar and flour which were then sold back to the highest bidder, sometimes a few yards away from the distribution centers. Kilian Tobias Kleinschmidt, coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the gangs were also reselling water and electricity, organizing prostitution, perpetrating sexual harassment and even rape after nightfall.

Kleinschmidt strides through the camp with confidence, but says he stays careful too. He's given himself four months to bring order back into this camp. “There is not even a hint of hierarchy, the clan leaders tend to believe they are still in Syria!”

“It has some of the characteristics of a Brazilian favela shantytown,” observed the UNHCR coordinator. You have to take this camp as if it was a city, with a dozen different districts, Jordanian state employees and “police stations,” streets and addresses.

“I’m the mayor of Zaatari now,” he quips. On the “Champs-Elysées,” the main street, series of shops and stalls have been installed. The owners pay a tax to the gang leaders who may extort up to 1000 euros. Grilled chicken shop owner Hassan has no complaints. He buys his poultry at two Jordanian dinars (a little over 2 euros) a piece and sells them back at 4.50 dinars. At the end of the months, he’s 6000 euros richer!

“We are currently teaching lessons to the bad guys: we will step on your turf and cut ourselves a slice of what you make,” says Kleinschmidt.

The local mafiosi have names: Abu Ghassem, Abu Hawad, Abu Khalil, Abu Salim. The punishment remains to be delivered. Colonel Abu Shehab assures us that sanctions will be taken and that a prosecutor and 200 policemen will settle within the camp and that violence will be punished, though rather carefully. “We won’t use brute force, these are still refugees.”

They are indeed refugees, but they are hard to keep an eye on. Zaatari is a “town” of transit. For the 1,500 to 2,000 refugees flowing in everyday at the border, three or four buses of them -- about 300 people -- are going back to Syria. The ones returning are families who were told by neighbors that their region was safe again; peasants eager to look after their crops or cattle. There are also the fighters, some of whom have had injuries patched up, heading back to the frontline.

The buses stop at the border and those going back to their homes have to continue by foot from there, helped by the silent coordination of the Jordanian army and the Syrian state army or, depending on the areas and the moments, the Free Syrian Army rebels.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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