June 16, 2013
Relief International’s Emergency Response Coordinator, Mary Ana McGlasson, shares a story of a Syrian father, Abu Salaam,* who she meet on her recent visit to Jordan.
Of the more than 500,000 Syrian refugees seeking safety in Jordan, more than 70 percent are living in what we call “the host community.” This means that regular Jordanian families open their homes or rent other non-traditional shelters or land to Syrian families so they can try to survive. Sometimes Relief International teams have found six or more families sharing a small two-bedroom apartment. Sometimes the families pay high rents for unfinished buildings (2-3 cement walls and an unfinished roof without water, plumbing, or electricity. Sometimes, our teams find families who have created their own spontaneous tented villages on the outskirts of town. This is the story of one such family.
Above: Abu Salaam’s grandchildren.
Mafraq is a small town not far from the Syrian border in Jordan. Until 2012, Mafraq was a sleepy border town, conservative by Jordanian standards, and a close-knit community of five to seven extended families. Over the past year, Mafraq has become one of the epicenters of the Syrian refugee crisis internationally, with the largest camp a few miles outside town, and untold numbers of Syrian families living hidden and huddled in storefronts, unfinished buildings, or in spontaneous tented settlements on their own.
As you are driving out of Mafraq, along the desert highway, sitting just behind an old gas station, you can see a small collection of uneven, handmade tents- first there were only three, then five, and so on. A few weeks later, when Relief International’s team stopped in for a regular visit, there were more than ten tents, a homemade outhouse, electrical connections, and a small communal kitchen.
Above: Abu Salaam’s family.
As we drive slowly down the very dusty path, dozens of children come out to greet us, soon followed by the mothers and fathers, and then the patriarch- Abu Salaam.* He is friendly, confident, and gracious, inviting us in for a cup of tea, thanking us each by name for our third visit in less than two weeks. I have an odd memory of the feeling I had when visiting my own grandfather- there is always a place for me at his table- there is always room for one more.
Above: Abu Salaam (far right) and RI field staff.
Abu Salaam* previously worked as a large-scale farmer on his family’s traditional lands near Hama. When the conflict began to escalate in February of 2012, Abu Salaam decided he needed to find a safer place for his large and ever-growing extended family. Abu Salaam has four grown sons and five grown daughters, each with their own families, ranging in size from three to ten children each.
They made the long journey from Hama to Jordan (around 150 miles) through many military checkpoints and countless risks in the winter of 2012, hoping for safety and a better life. What they found when they reached Jordan is that they had two options:
Struggle to survive on their own in Jordanian towns, unable to work and without basic services
Request to live inside the Za’atari Camp, now home to more than 120,000 refugees and the second largest refugee camp in the world
Abu Salaam chose to lead his family to Jordan, and he decided that fending for oneself was more dignified than teaching his family to take handouts inside a refugee camp where they would live an easier life in many ways with food and water rations, provided tents or trailers, easier access to free healthcare, and education for the younger children. For Abu Salaam, this was not an option.
“Teaching my children to beg and to hold out their hands is not the solution. At least here, I can teach them the values that make Syrians strong- the sense of family, the safety of living in community, and the way to work for survival.”
I asked Abu Salaam how he feels about the conditions:
“In Syria, I had a good life, because for generations my family worked the land. We had become quite well known in the region and were exporting to other countries. Now look at us- we live in conditions that are worse than animals in most countries.”
“We cannot work here due to the laws. So all we can do is beg or hold our hand out for assistance. People come and they ask a lot of questions, but no one ever returns with the things we say we need.”
Relief International has a project providing essential hygiene items like soap, laundry powder, diapers, baby clothing, and water storage devices for the most vulnerable families. In a perfect world, we could also provide the refrigerator they need to store the scarce food they are able to obtain in the scorching desert. In a perfect world, we could provide them with enough water to support the large family for one month so that the older children were not forced to go work on adjacent farms instead of enrolling in school.
Abu Salaam told me repeatedly, “You provide us with what we need to survive, but we will never forget the way you sit with us and hear our stories. This is the most important thing you bring to us. You remind us that we have not been forgotten.”
Above: One of Abu Salaam’s grandchildren excited to use the toothbrush provided in the hygiene kit his family received from RI.
Above: A RI hygiene education session with Abu Salaam’s family.
By the time of my last visit in May, Abu Salaam had welcomed several more of his children, recently arrived from behind the front lines, to join his mini-camp behind the gas station.
I asked him if he felt he made the right decision. His reply moved me and I will never forget it.
“Dignity and Honesty- they are always the better choice. If I fail to teach my children this, what kind of father am I?”
*Name has been changed.
To learn more about RI’s programs assisting Syrian refugee families in Jordan and Lebanon, please click here.
March, 30 2012
Today’s photo update from Relief International volunteer and Deputy Community Service Coordinator, Bashir Mohamed, reporting from the field:
This girl is grinding Sorghum as part of routine meal preparation. Her name is Sarina and she is nine years old. The baby she is carrying is one of her twin nephews, Younis.
Sarina’s family, including her father Bell, mother Saima, and twin nephews, Younis and Julliet, arrived in Doro four months ago. They had fled from Belila, which is located in the Blue Nile State of Sudan, because of the increasing violence and conflict in the community.
Sarina is grinding Sorghum in the picture below.
March 22, 2012
Today’s update from Relief International Volunteer and Deputy Community Service Coordinator, Bashir Mohamed, reporting from the field:
This photo was taken during one of my meetings with the Sheikh of Balila (Balila is a sub-section of the Doro refugee camp) as he signed a list of approved tent recipients. Sheikhs are local elders who serve as community and/or religious leaders, much like chiefs and tribal representatives.
The photo below shows the Sheikh of Balila busy looking over assessment documents which he is signing.
My meeting with the Sheikh of Balila is part of a process that Relief International engages in along with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to collaborate with sheikhs who are representatives of refugees. One of the things we collaborate on is informing the sheikhs of tent assessments and their corresponding criteria to be conducted in the camp. The purpose of these tent assessments is to find out how many families, many of whom are newly arrived refugees, are in need of shelter.
Relief International and UNHCR look to the sheikhs to give approval and advice to conduct aid assessments in their communities. Working closely with community leaders is important so that Relief International can learn about what families in camps like Doro need most.
Once we have completed the assessment and created a list of families who need shelter, we take this list of beneficiaries back to the sheikhs for verification and signature.