Azraq camp, six months on

A Syrian family passing through Azraq camp

The wind had really picked up and I started to shiver. The desert seemed to be hell-bent on showing its inhospitable face. In the moonlight I could see the rolling hills with their bare, small patches of grass and bush in a sea of stones and dust. No houses, street lamps, or mosques in sight. Not even a moving car. At least nowhere near the perimeter that marks the boundaries of what could turn into one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. 

"It is probably just that the registration in Rabah Sarhan is taking a long time," surmised one of my senior team members. The sense of anticipation kept us on our toes, despite having already spent more than four hours walking through the area which was designed to receive refugees.

Awaiting the refugees' arrival

This would be where we handed them all the items they would need in order to live in Azraq before they would be shuttled further down into the camp in the early morning. My team members seemed to radiate confidence that the systems and partners would jump into action, turning this place into a lively, safe and dignified environment.

This was not our first time working in a refugee camp; many of my team members had already been involved in another vast camp in Jordan: Za'atari, from where the dark media stories originated, casting a shadow over the soon-to-be opened Azraq camp. They also kept lingering in my mind: will we face angry crowds ready to hurl rocks at us at the smallest provocation? Do we need to worry about the team that has been trained so extensively over the past months and that is so eager to assist "our brothers and sisters from Syria"?

My gloomy thoughts were soon swept aside. My team's optimism was contagious, not blind.

We just refused to think about worst case scenarios and all the many things that might go wrong.

I realised that what gives them comfort is this positive outlook that symbolises the nature of our programme in the camp. Everything will be different in Azraq.

Learning from Za'atari

Yet, it might not be fair at all to compare Za'atari and Azraq camps. The former was established in the midst of a formidable humanitarian emergency. Thousands flocked day after day to Jordan seeking safety and help. Within an extraordinarily short period, the camp was flooded with 100,000 inhabitants.

Naturally, all the energy went into meeting people's basic needs as fast as possible. It was a tremendous logistical achievement. And it came at a price. People need more than water, food and a place to sleep. They need something meaningful to do and a seat at the table where decisions are being made.

What must and can be done differently

Zaatari's capacity wasn't endless and the conflict in Syria still shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, millions continue to find themselves displaced within Syria. The longer a conflict lasts, the more a people's coping mechanism gets eroded and the harder it becomes to survive on their own accounts; leading to more pressure on the neighbouring countries to host even more refugees.

That is when Azraq camp came in. The experience of establishing Za'atari camp taught us what must and can be done differently.

A neighbourhood of villages

One of the results of this process can be found as soon as you walk into Azraq camp: you do not find a huge mass of shelters, instead, a neighbourhood of various villages. In the middle of each village you find community centres that CARE has built with the support of UNHCR. Amongst it all is an active community life which seeks to combat idleness, lack of information and misinformation, supported by members of our team.

I still vividly remember the opening of the camp in late April, when we all stood shivering in the cold. There was already a sense of achievement, even though we had not received any refugees yet.

That sense of achievement was not at all misplaced.

More than 12 months of work had already gone into the preparation of this place. Thousands of shelters were erected in orderly rows and blocks. Water tanks on the tops of the surrounding hills were connected to pipes that run down to tab stands, and more than 100km of tarmac roads have emerged in the Northeastern Jordanian desert. Even the supermarket had come up at an impressive pace during the last four weeks. Now, its red signboard is towering in the distance.

The community centres have worked exceptionally hard to address the needs of people arriving in the camp. CARE and the other 20 agencies that work in Azraq have so far had success in engaging the refugees to take part in the development of options and solutions in the camp.

We are not complimenting ourselves too much when we state that we have to a good degree contributed to a successful first six months in Azraq camp.

Marten Mylius is CARE Jordan’s Team Leader in Azraq Camp

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.