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Places Transformed: Syrian Refugees Overwhelm Camps, Towns


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Another 2,000 Syrian refugees fled into Jordan in the past 24 hours, mostly women and children. This happens everyday. A steady stream of humanity escaping the relentless violence of Syria's civil war. Jordanian officials say the growing number of Syrian Refugees threatens their country's stability. Jordan now swells with more than a half a million refugees and that population could grow to over a million by the end of the year. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us from a refugee camp on Jordan's northern border. Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Deb, you are at the Zaatari camp which as more than 100,000 Syrian Refugees. It's now the largest refugee camp in the Middle East. Tell us what the place is like.

AMOS: This is a camp that's in the middle of the desert. It's hot. It's flat. There is not one bit of shade. Zaatari is now almost a year old, so it's become the fifth largest city in Jordan, but mostly a tent city. Now, Scott, over time, the refugees have actually transformed this place. They've built shops. There is even a nightclub here, but there is also a lot of tension. Riots are common. There was one today. It is a very difficult place to live. Most of the people have already endured a bad winter. There was snow and rain here. Now summer is on the way with soaring temperatures. If these people could live anywhere else, they would, says Caroline Gluck with Oxfam. Just one of the aid agencies working in this camp.

CAROLINE GLUCK: They've been used to what they consider is normality; refrigerators, television sets, washing machines and they've come to a camp in the middle of the desert where there is, for most people, been no electricity. They have to go to the water tap 20-plus times a day. Food is rationed. And they don't like living like this. They don't like being refugees.

AMOS: Scott, that's Caroline Gluck with Oxfam. She says there is a small trickle of refugees going back to Syria, but every day another 2,000 arrive here. And they are people who come with nothing. The U.N. estimates it costs about $400,000 a day for the new arrivals. Tents, blankets, water, food, cooking gear, and then there is the security here, schools and hospital care. The U.N. will begin another appeal for money in June, but last year's pledges haven't been met.

SIMON: And Deb, Jordan raised the alarm more forcefully this week at the U.N. They called on the Security Council to visit the camps in Jordan. Jordanian officials are worried that the refugees are a threat to their country's stability. Has the U.N. Security Council responded?

AMOS: Scott, the majority of the members of the Security Counsel did support a visit to Jordan, but Russia and China opposed the visit. The Russian foreign minister said he wouldn't give what he called the green light because it was as he said, an attempt to prepare for foreign intervention. The refugee crisis now is a crushing weight on Jordan. I'm in Zaatari. Now this is a refugee of more than 100,000, but overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees have settled in Jordanian towns and cities. They compete for low wage jobs. They compete for healthcare and water. Prostitution is rising and there is a marriage market for young Syrian girls. Many analysts across the region warn of destabilization here. Jordanians warn of a backlash. There is such tension here, you can feel it. Andrew Harper, he's the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Jordon explained it this way.

ANDREW HARPER: Jordan has got really no natural resources. The population is struggling economically, but it still keeps its borders open. The question which I would say to the international community, do you wait for it to start failing on certain points? There's basically a flood or an avalanche or a tsunami of humanity continuing to come across the border. We will hit a million unless something happens.

AMOS: That's Andrew Harper with UNHCR. A million Syrians in Jordan? That would mean, one-fifth of the population of this country.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos from a refugee camp in Jordan. Deborah, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you very much, Scott.

SIMON: Syrian refugees are also streaming into Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, including a small town in Lebanon called Shebaa.


SIMON: Into the rolling hills where Syria, Lebanon, and Israel meet. The interviews you are about to hear were recorded by NPR's Rima Marrouch. Most of the 2,000 people in Shebaa are poor. Most rely on money sent from family members abroad. And now an estimated 3,000 or more Syrian refugees streamed into this small town. A woman named Minar(ph) - she gave us only her first name - told us how she came to Shebaa.

MINAR: (Through translator) When our neighbor's house was destroyed we decided we couldn't take it anymore, so we left.

SIMON: That was in the snow and cold of January. It took them nine hours to walk from Syria to a place that they thought was safer, Southern Lebanon.

MINAR: (Through translator) There were seven families in our group, all relatives. I have one son and I wasn't afraid he would die from the cold. But I was afraid he would die of suffocation because I was holding him so tight.

SIMON: A long cold walk over the mountains to an uncertain future in a foreign place.

MINAR: (Through translator) Sometimes, I feel we're welcomed her, but not always. Often, neighbors go outside and scream when they are annoyed by our children's voices. Then I wish we never left. At home we were more comfortable and we didn't feel this humiliation.

SIMON: Minar pulls out a cell phone to show pictures of where she used to live.

MINAR: (Through translator) All of these places, they have been hit by tank shells, people have told us. I think these photos are most precious to me because sometimes you can't remember. I'm not sure when we will go back to Syria, but I know it will be different.

SIMON: Outside the house in Shebaa in which Minar and her family have taken shelter, two young girls who are members of her family draw graffiti on the wall. It reads: Your earth is priceless, Syria. And: May God protect you. This influx of Syrian refugees has begun to test the Lebanese of Shebaa.

One policeman who would not give us his name jokes that the Lebanese have become a minority in their own town, and tensions between refugees and residents are growing as there is a crunch for housing services and jobs. Mohammad Abdel Hadi(ph) is Lebanese.

MOHAMMAD ABDEL HADI: It is affecting us. The daily wage for a Lebanese worker was 50,000 Lebanese Lira, but the Syrians are willing to work for half that, so the people of Shebaa cannot find work anymore.

SIMON: Another refugee named, Nariman(ph) says that Syrians know that their life in Lebanon is stressful and tenuous, but they have been through so much by the time they get here.

NARIMAN: (Through translator) I don't feel like a welcome guest, I will not lie. We know we are unwelcome guests, but I am not fearful. I am used to howitzers, to shelling, to airplanes, to everything. Even with all of that, I would rather we had stayed in Syria than live here. I miss everything in Syria, even the air, the streets, the people.

SIMON: But as fighting intensifies, more Syrians make the long walk over the mountains looking for safety.

MOHAMAD SAAB: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: That's Mohamad Saab, who is mayor of Shebaa, who wanted to know how the town is trying to cope with so many refugees. NPR's Rima Marrouch recorded these interviews. She's the voice you hear translating the mayor's answers. Mr. Mayor, thank you for being with us.

SAAB: (Through translator) Thank you.

SIMON: Now I gather there are no refugee camps in Shebaa, right?

SAAB: (Through translator) There are no refugee camps in Shebaa. People are hosting them in schools and mosques and private homes, but there are no official camps.

SIMON: How do you feed a population that's now twice as big as your town used to be?

SAAB: (Through translator) It is difficult because we cannot reject anyone. We cannot tell them to just go away. Mostly they're women and children.

SIMON: What about medicine, doctors?

SAAB: (Through translator) Oftentimes we don't have these services ourselves, but we try to share what we do have. The town also has to deal with new demands on our electricity and on other services we try to deliver, but we are sharing what we have.

SIMON: Is water a problem?

SAAB: (Through translator) For now we have water, but the additional people are creating a big burden. But the worst situation is the summer when there are water shortages anyway, so it's going to get worse.

SIMON: Have you gotten international aid?

SAAB: (Through translator) There is not much aid coming up to the mountains. Only once has the U.N. sent any food baskets and mattresses along with blankets, but it was only once that we received their help and it wasn't enough.

SIMON: Mr. Mayor, how is your town getting by day to day?

SAAB: (Through translator) It's not like we have any other option. We are forced to get by. We are taking loans from banks to try to pay for more services and there is a lot of pressure because the area has always been a poor area. And with the increasing number of refugees it's creating a lot of pressure on the town.

SIMON: When you say pressure, help us understand what kind of pressure.

SAAB: (Through translator) It is financial pressure, it is humanitarian pressure. It's the pressure of providing people with basic services, so we are doing our best to solve it and make people feel as comfortable as possible.

SIMON: Why do you feel you have a duty to help the people who've come over from Syria?

SAAB: (Through translator) We have a responsibility to host them because Syrians are being killed in their own country and these people are looking for refuge in our own towns, so that is the least we can do. But we cannot continue like this.

SIMON: How long do you think you can go on without help?

SAAB: (Through translator) We probably are able to continue one more month, maybe two months like this. But if we don't get help, this will turn into a disaster.

SIMON: Mohammad Saab, the mayor of Shebaa in Southern Lebanon. Good luck, sir. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

SAAB: (Through translator) Thank you.


SIMON: Mohammad Sebaa is the mayor of Shebaa in Southern Lebanon.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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