Building a desert city

One of the happiest — and saddest — places in Jordan right now has to be a small demountable building perched on desert sand, 10km from the Syrian border.

Three beds are pushed up against the wall. Next to each is a plastic crib with three infants who have been born just moments earlier.

In an adjoining room, two more women are in labour.

The newborns will only be here a few hours before they are taken by their mothers to one of the hundreds of tents and caravans that litter the grim desert landscape, making way for the next round of births.

Two years ago, Zaatari didn’t even exist. But already this refugee camp is the second biggest in the world and - astonishingly- the fifth largest population centre in Jordan.

The Syrian babies being born in exile here — an average of 12 births a day — are destined to spend the first years of their childhood in this dusty, dangerous limbo, and in all likelihood, much longer.

“It is sad to think of what is ahead for them,” a nurse says as she walks out of the demountable into the blazing hot surrounds.

As refugee camps go, Zaatari is its infancy but it’s rapid expansion has already seen it overtake more well-established refugee camps which have been operating for decades.

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And as the Syrian crisis escalates, even this bloated patchwork of tents and tension is not enough to cope.

The quasi-city of 107,000 people has only just had its second birthday but the UNHCR has been scrambling to construct a second refugee camp in Jordan to ease the pressure on Zaatari, which has grown at a rate no-one expected.

As the civil war in neighbouring Syria continues and its citizens continue to stream across the border, aid groups which previously hoped Zaatari only had to fulfill a temporary need know that they are in for the long haul. Tents have made way for caravans and electricity lines are snaking their way between them.

“We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people here and we have just got to prepare ourselves for hundreds of thousands more,” says Andrew Harper, the UNHCR’s representative in Jordan as he walks a barren landscape an hour away which opened a few weeks ago, eclipsing Zaatari as the biggest planned refugee camp in history.

Harper picks up a UNHCR tent which lies crumpled on the ground. Accommodation that would normally hold up in any other refugee environment is no match for the desert winds and dust storms here. So aid groups are having to adapt fast.

Six huts sit empty near the top of a hill — sample homes for a post-apocalyptic setting which have been erected to see how they hold up in the rugged conditions.

Aid workers always like to talk in positives but even the most optimistic here can’t see a light at the end of this tunnel.

“It’s not going to come any time soon,” Harper says, when asked about the likelihood of an end to Syria’s bloody civil war, which has sparked the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis in decades and a global appeal for help.

“If you talk to anyone who is involved in Syria, it going to become a protracted situation. It is a nightmare scenario now.

“What we’re seeing is both sides consolidating their positions… and more weapons.”

On bad days, 4000 Syrians are currently fleeing into Jordan, taking advantage of Syrian border posts left weak as the country’s president Bashar al-Assad redeploys troops to areas rocked by heavy fighting.

One in five of them are under four years old and almost one in 10 has been wounded in the conflict.

They’re flooding into Jordanian neighbourhoods but it is Zaatari that has had to adapt the fastest.

In the camp’s UN compound, Kilian Kleinschmidt looms over a desk map of the camp and moves around toys marking locations and services like Churchill mapping troop movements.

Zaatari has had to grow up fast and, in a testament to the resilience of the desperate, has morphed into a mini-city in a matter of months.

“This is the CBD,” Kleinschmidt says, pointing to the area on the map with the tightest congestion of huts and tents. It was where the camp had its genesis and is closest to the services and the electricity lines.

Later, as he walks outside along the bustling dirt road that workers jokingly dub the Champs Elysees - a collection of makeshift shops and business that refugees have set up for trade - he is forced to mediate between locals over a land deal.

One man has tried to move his caravan to a prime spot in the main strip, which coincidentally sits right in the driveway of one of the World Food Program’s main distribution centres.

“I paid $150 for this land,” the man argues, as he tries to push the point that buying dirt in a refugee camp is a legitimate purchase.

Kleinschmidt explains that refugees have stopped seeing Zaatari a a temporary stopover before an imminent return to Syria and are now being forced to see it as a new home.

And as they come to the grim realisation that they will be there for foreseeable future, they have begun to try to make the most of it. Slowly, it has begun to take the crude from of a city, with all the associated idiosyncrasies, power structures and vices.

“Right now, there are different levels of networks running the city,” he says, pointing out one of the self-appointed district leaders.

“You have your usual mid-level crook you would have in any camp or community in the world who will take the opportunity to make an extra buck.

“That’s fine. We can live with this and we can work on that.

“But then you have bigger networks. They’re the ones we want to get rid of.

“That’s the ones the normal people in the camp want to get rid of as well.”

Prostitution is a problem, along with child marriage. On one afternoon last week, The West Australian stumbled across two weddings. In one, the bride was only 13.

Outside the camp, police try to deter Jordanian men who have come looking for Syrian brides — famed for their beauty and the sweet way they speak Arabic.

When the new camp opens, Kleinschmidt says the flow of new refugees will be diverted away from Zaatari and that “will finally allow us to have the dust settle here in the camp.”

“That means that we can begin to engage with a more stable population.

“That means we can, in a proactive way, isolate the bad elements.

“The people here are good people. And at least 60,000 children under 18 in this camp. They deserve more attention than they are getting today.”

In a small caravan on the camp’s outskirts, 12-year-old Bian falls silent when asked what happened to her parents.

She starts sobbing and explains that her father was burned alive and her mother killed when their house was bombed in Syria. She fled to Jordan with her aunt, whose husband was also killed.

“It is not unusual,” says a Save the Children worker, pointing out children running nearby who have also been orphaned.

“These people have been through so much trauma and this is not a good environment for them. They will have to grow up here.”

It is 5.30am the following morning and queues have already started to form in front of one of the camp’s main bread distribution points.

Refugees shuffle through barriers which are set up like cattle pens and peer through tin windows framed by barbed wire as they wait their turn.

They push forward ration their cards. One man explains he was a university lecturer back in Syria. Now, he says, he is begging for bread.

About 500m away, Daryll Ainsworth, a former Vietnam veteran from Australia who works for RedR, an organisation that provides skilled labour in crisis situations, checks the inventory of blankets and emergency packs which are being kept for new refugees.

“We have to be prepared for the possibility that 3000 could walk through the gates right now,” he says.

“I think of when I’m back in Wodonga and you see mum and dad and the three kids walking down the street, these people are exactly the same as that.

“A few days ago they had a car, a house, a family, a job. And now there might be a couple of members missing from the family, they’ve had to flee and they walk in here absolutely devastated.”

In the happy/sad demountable on the desert sand, a young Syrian woman lies in bed, cradling her 10-month-old son, who was born in they country she is exiled from. Next to them, her newborn sleeps in its plastic crib.

An hour later, she will pick him up and carry him into the searing heat towards the tent which is her home.

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