The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Syrian refugees want to go home, but making a life at Za’atari

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People working with Oxfam at the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Gawain Kripke/Oxfam America.

A dispatch from Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan

I visited Za’atari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, near the border with Syria, last weekend. I wanted to see what Oxfam is doing there and learn about the situation of 3 million Syrian refugees and hear their stories.

Here’s what I saw:

Oxfam administers programs in certain sectors with other ngos and UN agencies dividing the work. It's complex. Money is always an issue. More than 80,000 refugees are staying in Za'atari refugee camp.

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Oxfam water engineers are weirdly proud of this monster, the T-95. "Do you want to see it? ". Za'atari refugee camp.

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95 cubic meters of water can support a water system. Oxfam in Za'atari refugee camp.

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Za'atari refugee camp from atop one of Oxfam's water tanks.

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Shelter is a mixed affair, with many people living in UNHCR tents, but slowly building up around them. New pre-fab "caravans" are being brought in. No one knows how long this conflict will go on, or how long refugees will be here. Za'atari refugee camp.

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Water is scarce, still people want to have a little green, a little garden. Za'atari refugee camp.

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The signs show this household has been vaccinated and received other services. Za'atari refugee camp.

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Promoting hand-washing at the Oxfam community center in Za'atari refugee camp.

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A central corridor is nicknamed "champs elysees" and had become a market street. Electrical wiring is creative. Za'atari refugee camp.

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There I met with some Za’atari camp residents who work with Oxfam to help implement projects. They are community mobilizers and project monitors, people who keep track of delivery of services and ensure benefits – like water and paid work – are distributed fairly.

To start the conversation off, I asked them a standard question I ask groups in situations like this: If you could say something to President Obama, what would it be?

The most striking answer was, Why don’t Syrian lives matter as much as other people’s to you?

Whatever US citizens may think, these refugees felt the United States plays a big role in their conflict and they don’t understand why the US isn’t doing more. They recounted atrocities and wondered how the international community could stand by. They also mourned the fact that their children had lost four years of education due to the conflict, a gap that will affect future generations.

I also wanted to ask about two key policy issues that Oxfam has been working on in Washington and other international centers:

Oxfam has been calling for increased resettlement of Syrian refugees to other countries, like the United States. What do you think?

The response from the refugees was mostly negative. They said the most important thing is to solve the conflict in Syria. But a few – mostly women – quietly said that it would be good for the US and other countries to accept more refugees.

I asked if they agreed with Oxfam that all actors should work to prevent any more arms and weapons transfers into Syria, regardless which side.

To this idea, there was unanimous agreement. “Only the citizens lose.”

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