Lost in the middle of a Jordanian nowhere

Lost in the middle of a Jordanian nowhere
Feature: For those 15,000 souls in Azraq refugee camp, this is the end of the line. It is the last word in refugee care. But it is also a soulless, lifeless and hopeless place
5 min read
13 March, 2015
Central planning has its advantages. But this is a soul-crushing place [Getty]

Azraq refugee camp sits in the middle of a windswept landscape somewhere in the middle of a Jordanian nowhere. Trucks on their way to and from Iraq and the Gulf lumber down Route 10, the only evidence, aside from the neat symmetry of the camp itself, that Azraq is indeed on planet Earth and not the moon.


Amman is 90 minutes distant. The teaming and vibrant Zartari Camp much closer. But these distances do not matter at all, for the chasm separating them from the nearly 15,000 forlorn souls adrift in Azraq is all but unbridgeable.


     The camp was purpose built by aid agencies expert in such things.

Azraq is the end of the line for Syrians escaping the war to the north – the last stop for the most unfortunate of refugees; those who have been wandering from refuge to refuge within Syria, losing in the process every possession and any sense of community. They arrive in Azraq only after having failed to win residency in Zartari or to make it independently in Amman. It is said that banishment to Azraq is the punishment for Zartari residents caught in the Jordanian capital without the coveted permit to leave the camp.


The slim prospect of escape from Azraq in search of employment in the grim shadows of Amman’s labour market and the resumption of a normal life for family and children is dictated by geography. There are no walls or security fences around the camp. Why bother? There are no trees or hills to intrude on the emptiness as far as the eye can see. The winter wind blows undisturbed, pausing only to rattle the prefabricated steel buildings that have been built by international aid agencies to house current residents and the many thousands more who are expected.

Discreetly patrolled

The Jordanian forces monitoring the camp are positioned very discreetly and inoffensively on its perimeter. An APC or two are parked in the depot near the camp entrance. In the wake of a failed experiment to police Zartari with Syrian security personnel drawn from the refugees themselves, Jordanian police have established a couple of rudimentary police posts, nothing more than caravans with a bed and a file cabinet, in two locations in the camp. They patrol the camp unarmed, successfully practicing a local version of the community policing strategy that has proved so attractive in the West.


A gaggle of little girls hover around the steps at one post. They play on benches outside, built so that those seeking official help, for a permit or blanket or magnetic cash card distributed to every family head, can wait their turn in good order. A simple roof has just been completed, a reminder that the winter chill will soon be replaced by the punishing heat of summer.


On a cold winter morning it looks as though the camp has been abandoned. Indeed entire blocs are totally empty. In those sections with residents, everyone is hunkered down, waiting out the day in the 12x30 foot buildings allocated to each family. Waiting for nothing to happen.


The “houses” resemble nothing as much oversized brittle steel fabricated buildings that serve as potting sheds in many British gardens. Some families have constructed windbreaks out of cardboard between their homes. Some few have even planted small trees and bushes outside their entrances, an inspiring sentiment given the dire circumstances. But even this gesture has its dark side. Who in their right mind would want to be here long enough to see a garden grow and blossom?


There is precious little insulation against winter cold or the desert heat. Refugees wear jackets, many with the logos of the donating agency or country emblazoned on the back. “Homes” have no heat, running water or electricity. The kitchen is a gas balloon tethered to a cooker. The toilet is a hole in the floor at either end of the neatly laid out street. Next to it is a small steel enclosure that is said to be a shower, minus the running water, just a drain in the concrete floor. But one of the only places in the camp that one can steal some privacy.

Food from the ceilings

UNHCR map of Azraq camp. Click here for larger detail

The dwellings were initially constructed with dirt floors, which let in both the winter rain and the rats that trailed in the wake of the desert’s new residents. Concrete floors were subsequently retrofitted for each home, but food is still hung from the rafters, just to be sure.


The camp as a whole was purpose built by aid agencies expert in such things. The spontaneous ramshackle quality of other camps is entirely absent here. Azraq was conceived by architects and built to spec. Its neat rows of dwellings are still mostly empty. A community centre – no more than an oversized dwelling – hosts regular meetings between international aid representatives, the police and camp residents, where problems are identified and addressed, and the pervasive, and potentially explosive sense of helplessness and lack of dignity is defused.


A field hospital and school are centrally located. A small cemetery too has been established on the periphery, as has the sole supermarket, which residents complain has higher prices than those on offer in Amman. Still, one can purchase shelled walnuts, expensive pistachios, frozen chicken, winter boots and blue tarpaulins, paying with a monetized credit card provided by the UN.


Central planning in Azraq has its advantages, but also its drawbacks. Everyone has shelter, a place to stay dry if not always warm. The nature of the place, however, leaves no space for entrepreneurship. The spirit of commercial enterprise so evident in Zartari is entirely absent here. It seems that the permit necessary to establish a local market zone remains unsigned.


There are no barber shops, no florists or dry goods store. There is no place to buy or charge an iPhone. No one is stealing electricity to set up a salon in an empty dwelling, or renting out part of his home on the sly. There is no black market, because there is no market at all. The spirit of those who end up here risks being crushed by a sense of hopelessness that even the inevitable coming of spring may not be able to challenge.

Read more from our special coverage of the anniversary of the Syrian revolution.