Photo Story: Two camps side by side, on differences and shared experience

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Azraq Camp, in the northeastern region of Jordan, opened to Syrian refugee intake in April 2014. Its absorption capacity sits at 60,000, with land allocated in 2013 to take in up to 130,000 Syrian refugees. And yet, the population of the camp is nowhere near capacity—at the start of December, the population was just shy of 11,000 residents in 4,000 of the 10,000 available shelters. The number of incoming Syrians has been dropping off in the past several months, both to the camps and the host communities. Three years into the conflict, many say those who are going to flee to Jordan have already done so. Others look to the border’s buffer zone—largely an unknown itself in terms of whether Jordan has closed it to incoming refugees or not—as potential reason for a decrease of arrivals. In speaking with refugees, wait time in the buffer zone, which is monitored by the Jordanian government, lasted anywhere from two days to six weeks, depending on when one arrived in relation to the next “emptying” of the buffer zone. Several refugees said the fact of simply getting to the border was a challenge and deterrent in and of itself. One man explained the process of paying smuggler drivers to take him and his wife to the border in a multi-day trip, which also involved that driver paying off the checkpoint guards to allow the men through. Once the man and his wife reached the buffer zone, they waited three days before being loaded into Jordanian buses to be taken across the final borderline and into processing at Za’atari camp. It’s expensive, it’s unpredictable, and prospects are not good—notably for men—for getting past regime-controlled checkpoints. Syrian women often flee without their husbands—who are either fighting or have too low a chance of making it past checkpoint guards who would either arrest them or enact the draft law—and must leave without any luggage or belongings, so as to not tip off the checkpoint guards that they are fleeing the country rather than simply visiting the town next door. In Azraq camp, an aid worker with the United Nations explained that refugees in Azraq are just now leaving Syria, many having been internally displaced for up to three years. Not only has their access to services and aid been severely limited since the conflict’s beginning, but they have also been taking on the psychological toll of war for the three years of fighting. The psychological services now needed in Azraq outnumber those being provided in Za’atari, given the fact many of Za’atari’s residents have been in the camp since closer to the start of the Syrian revolution. The feeling at Azraq is clear—it is one of exhaustion. The situation is difficult on all fronts, but Za’atari has over two years of development, adjustment and a search for familiarity that Azraq does not. Azraq has one main shopping center. All shelters are containers—no family lives in a tent, as many do in Za’atari, a significant problem itself—but there is no market street selling TVs next to bakeries with fresh bread, as there is in the camp’s cousin further west. The tumult of the war travels with the refugees, but there is an absence of normalcy in Azraq that Za’atari has worked hard to overcome. The situation is nothing near normal in either case, but the adaptations Za’atari has accomplished thus far allow it to largely rise above the base-level provisions in a refugee camp and take advantage of services and potentials available. Azraq is run differently, with more time for planning and executing organization allotted in being the second camp rather than the first, but the day-to-day lifestyles of refugees in the newer camp remain nearer to the basics of such a situation.

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