04/27/2016 12:36 EDT | Updated 04/28/2017 05:12 EDT

One Day In Jordan's Za'atari Refugee Camp

"All our family lived in the house."

Nasr showed me the picture on his phone. A lovely house in his home town in Syria. Two storeys high, a beautiful ochre colour with ornate work around the windows. He lived there with his extended family -- children and grandchildren and in-laws -- 20 people in all.

"Three years ago it was bombed. We were all inside and the walls fell in. We pulled two of the little ones out of the rubble. No one was hurt." He paused as his son-in-law said something, then added. "That's right, one of us got a bit of shrapnel in our face, but thank God we were all OK."

"No one is left in our town. There used to be 40,000 people there -- now there is nothing."

They fled Syria that night. Along with 700 other people, they made the 10-hour trek here to Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, just a few kilometres from the Syrian border. Now they live in a "caravan," a two-room prefab boxy structure. "It's a lot better than when we first got here and had to live in a tent. But no one is left in our town. There used to be 40,000 people there -- now there is nothing."

Za'atari is a refugee camp -- 80,000 people live here now -- but it is in the process of becoming a city. New people are not arriving, another camp is taking those people now. And it is hard to know how many more people Jordan can take -- this country of a little more than six million people is also home to nearly three million refugees.


Za'atari is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. Most of the people who came here are like Nasr's family: they thought they were just coming for a few weeks until they could go back home to Syria. But as people stay longer and become more settled, then the nature of UNICEF's work must change, too.

People don't talk about returning, but they don't see a clear future by staying, either.

For instance, we have been trucking water into the camp and trucking sewage out. That makes sense for a temporary solution, but this place is temporary no longer. Trucking water is extremely expensive and with all the trucks trundling up and down the roads (including the main market road called, with irony, the Champs Elysees) there was a risk that a child would get hurt.


So our teams are building a full-scale sewage system with a toilet in every house. Once this is done they will then hook up water to every caravan. Clean water and good sanitation is the very best thing that can be done to promote good health -- and building a full water system for a city the size of Peterborough in just a few months is an impressive job.

Of course we are doing our "regular" work here too. Donations mean we've been able to increase the number of spaces in school so that the average class size has dropped from 100 to 50, and we are hoping to make it even smaller. We support Infant and Young Child Feeding Centres and the Makani Centres with their informal education programs to help children get back into school.


One reason so many children missed out on school is because their parents thought they would only be in Jordan for a few weeks, and so they didn't enroll their children. Now that this is more permanent, they need to catch up with their peers.

The informal remedial education programs at the Makani Centres -- the main component in the Government of Canada's recent $34-million grant to UNICEF -- are proving successful at that. That is, even though I disrupted a class of boys today by starting to talk with them about soccer. (Soon we were laughing and debating the relative merits of Messi and Ronaldo.)


These centres also offer life skills training, a two-month program to help children cope with the trauma they have suffered, and community outreach and social service referrals. They are a key element in helping children and families heal and begin to think of the future.

But the future is hard to see. When I was in Dohuk Refugee Camp in Iraq a couple of years ago, people were still talking about returning to Syria. I didn't hear that today. People don't talk about returning, but they don't see a clear future by staying, either.

But healthy babies, good sanitation and clean water and the chance for children to go to school -- those all make the present more bearable and offer a chance at futures for these families.

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