Home from home: Edinburgh charity worker on working inside a Syrian refugee camp

Leena and her young son
Leena and her young son
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MERCY Corps is helping the thousands who have fled civil war to a makeshift desert city.

Making his way across the desolate land, a sea of small white dots slowly starts to become visible.

For the last few miles, Andras Beszterczey has been confronted with nothing but flat, open desert as far as the eye can see.

As he moves closer to Za’atari – the large Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, near the city of Mafraq – he realises that the tiny white dots he spotted in the distance were in fact endless rows of tents, which have been erected in preparation for the thousands of distraught Syrian families whose lives have been turned upside down by the country’s civil war.

“It’s completely desolate in one way because all you have are these tents, which at the time had been there for a week or even less but were already falling down and looked like they had been there for a year,” said the 25-year-old Middle East programme officer with Mercy Corps, as he recalls his first trip to the camp with the 
Edinburgh-based charity earlier this year.

Fast forward three months and Andras, who lives in Bruntsfield, has just returned from his second trip to Jordan, where Mercy Corps has been working with Unicef to build wells and bring clean water to the thousands of families forced to leave everything behind, and creating playgrounds in an attempt to help the children regain a sense of normality after the brutal violence witnessed and trauma endured while fleeing Syria.

Conditions have improved massively since his first visit to the camp in July, with prefabs now replacing some of the tents and several tents now used as a makeshift school for the children.

Concrete shower blocks and toilets have been created, Mercy Corps has built a large well near the camp, and there’s even a warehouse supplying food. Several of the camp’s residents are attempting to make a living by selling cigarettes and food, and many people from the border cities are now choosing to come to live in the camp.

But conditions are far from perfect, with the surroundings still harsh and bleak, and families of five still squeezed into some tents.

Among the camp’s residents is nine-year-old Amani, who arrived at the Za’atari refugee camp around a month ago with her mother and four brothers and sisters. The 47-mile journey from her home in Dara’a was treacherous, but it was a better option than staying in a place of unimaginable violence.

“Before we fled our town, I saw people’s throats being cut by knife in the streets,” Amani told a Mercy Corps worker as she recounted the horrors she witnessed. “There was blood everywhere. Bombs were falling on our village and security forces raided our home.”

Amani and her four siblings followed their mother on the long walk through valleys and mountains in the middle of the night to avoid detection. But her grandparents were too old and weak to make the difficult journey, so her father stayed behind to try to protect them. Amani’s mother, Safa, said it had been hard living in the camp and caring for her five children without her husband to help them.

“My children have nightmares and wake up crying for their father in the middle of the night,” she said.

Amani, like most kids in the camp, wants to go home as soon as she can.

“We had a happy home with four bedrooms and a nice living room and a garden,” she said. “I had toys and clothes and there were parks nearby to play in. Now we have nothing.”

In Jordan, Mercy Corps is working in the northern areas most impacted by the increased population to provide access to water for nearly 400,000 people.

Additional funding has been secured to develop the water infrastructure at Za’atari, which already hosts around 30,000 Syrian refugees.

Two playgrounds have been constructed in the camp and Mercy Corps has also provided text books and supplies to assist Syrian children with an education.

Mr Beszterczey, who was born in Hungary, said the refugee camp will eventually be around one fifth of the size of Edinburgh with around 100,000 to 120,000 residents.

“When the refugee camp opened, the conditions were horrible,” he recalled. “It was just rows and rows of tents in the middle of nowhere.

“The Syrian refugees didn’t want to live in those conditions – Syria was a very developed country, everyone had cars and air conditioning in their houses.

“But the camp did develop quite quickly. The best and worst parts of the trip were seeing how far the camp had come but seeing that it was still there. Seeing how far it had come had the negative side that Mercy Corps is prepared to be there for a very long time.”

Among the other residents in the camp is Leena who has an 18-month-old son, Raed, and is seven months pregnant.

Leena fled her home three weeks ago with her husband and child after it was destroyed by an aerial attack on their town in Dara’a province, Syria.

A global reach

MERCY Corps saves and improves lives in some of the world’s toughest places.

From its European headquarters in Edinburgh and offices around the world, the team helps families survive natural disasters, chronic poverty and war.

The charity has 4,500 staff around the world, 95 per cent of whom are locals of the country they work in.

It works in some of the world’s toughest places – more than 40 countries, from headline-hitters like Somalia, Iraq and Haiti to less well-known ones like the Central African Republic and Timor-Leste.

Mercy Corps was set up in 1979 and helps more than 19 million people each year. More than 5,000 people across the Capital support the charity. The teams focus on giving those who need help the support and skills they require to work their way out of poverty and strife, for example, by helping them grow more food or to start businesses.

Mercy Corps helped more than 1.1 million people recover from the earthquake in Haiti, and more than 1.5 million survive the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa last year. The charity is also working with refugees from the conflict in Syria who are living in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

For more information, visit www.mercycorps.org.uk, www.facebook.com/mercycorpsuk or @mercycorps_uk.

Flood of refugees leave the country

THE uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011. Anti-government protesters took to the streets calling for political reform and an end to four decades of Assad family rule.

The government responded with a violent clampdown, spawning an armed conflict that has spiralled into a civil war.

Activists claim more than 29,000 people have died since it began.

Refugees fleeing the violence are flooding into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Many people are arriving injured, and the children are highly traumatised.

There are now 327,944 refugees in the region according to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees’ Syria Regional Response Update earlier this month, with the Jordan government estimating that there are another 200,000 in the country who are not registered. Around 75 per cent of refugees are women and children.

Mercy Corps is helping with water, supplies and emotional support for children.