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Becoming Refugees: Overnight Check-In at Zaatari

I watch people become refugees on a cold, damp November night, buses lurching through the gates of this dusty camp on the Jordan-Syria border, their passengers looking bewildered as they disembark into a new life. It’s one I doubt they’d expected they’d have.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

I wasn’t supposed to be here — journalists aren’t allowed into the camp after dark. A friend with an aid group snuck me in, to understand what it’s like upon arrival.

[![][2]][2]Here’s how it works: buses typically arrive at Zaatari in the middle of the night.

New arrivals wait in the cold to pick up tents and tarps and blankets, then spend the night in a large communal tent. The next day, they’re assigned to a small individual family tents and given two blankets per family. Concrete structures housing kitchens and bathrooms dot the camp, which is rapidly expanding as more buses arrive.

A new school built with money from the Bahraini government just opened. It’s got chalkboards and fluorescent lights and new desks. It’s nicer than the tents, but my minder, himself a young Syrian refugee, says many parents won’t send their kids to class: “the tents all look the same. They are worried they will not find their way home.”

At the moment of impact, the aid workers who have allowed me to tail them for a night are in fleece and down jackets as refugees walk off the buses. It’s so cold that the next morning one of their car windshields is covered in ice, on which I pour cup after cup of hot tea. Fears of coming “winterization” are rampant, with the UNHCR rushing to provide warm temporary trailers before a deep freeze hits the high Jordanian desert.

In the hours before the arrivals start, after the sky has gone dark, large trucks begin backing up to silos near the front gates. Gangs of Syrian workers in sweatshirts and shower sandals begin loading off huge pieces of construction equipment and plastic-wrapped tarps, packages of bedding, tents, and adding it to already-high piles.

(It’s Refugee Life in a Bag. Just add people.)

I am told the men, who run a gamut of ages, make the equivalent of $5 or $6 an hour. They are the lucky ones in a camp where work is scarce. A 10-year-old boy from Amman, the son of one of the drivers, brings me a cup of tea and refuses the 10 piastres (just pennies) I try to hand over; the workers go without anything to drink.


Things have gotten worse for the people on the buses since my overnight stay at Zaatari. Early this month, the UN reported that refugees fleeing to the border had reported being targeted and shot at by unknown assailants widely thought to be aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Parents sedate their children for the tense ride into Jordan, the UN says.

Of the 465,000 Syrians currently registered as refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, 138,000 are in the Hashemite Kingdom. Zaatari is the largest camp here, holding 40,000 — and growing.

In walking its alleys, I couldn’t get past the slices of lives left behind — the father clutching his iPhone, dusty kids playing street games they had learned in Syria. The code is that you ask before taking pictures of a tent, of a clothesline, of the inside of the dark, flame-lit kitchens. One woman is cooking up a storm and invites me to stay for dinner. All I can imagine is her stove in Homs. A spice rack? Wedding plates? A fridge covered in photos?

It’s unspeakably sad watching them roll in on that confusing first night, watching young men gather on a small hill near the camp, holding their phones to the sky to get cell service to Syria. A few months ago, they might’ve sat in cafes in Deraa, texting to friends down the street.

It’s best echoed by my minder for the evening, the twentysomething guy who left Syria “after 27 years of living there” and now sleeps, alone, in a dormitory down the road. Even with the job, has next to no money, so he smuggles in every night. At home, he was a student. He crossed one border and walked through one gate and that was it, he was a refugee.

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