Reflections from Za'atari Camp

by tuftsigl
Jan 21

Written by EPIIC '14 Student Researcher Safiya Subegdjo during her research in Jordan during the 2014 winter intercession


My visit to Zaatari was the first time I had witnessed the dynamics of a refugee camp. I was surprised by the activeness of the children playing in every direction my eyes turned, overtaken by the stillness of the barren land in the middle of nowhere, and amazed at the ethereal rays of light protruding through the bleak gray sky.


I wondered why I saw so many children but so few adults. I was distressed by the trenches built around the camp to prevent smuggling, while a little boy jumped down into it playing with his friends. I was scared when a few children started throwing rocks at the car we were driving in. I thought back at the advice I had been given – “Don’t even think about taking pictures. Zaatari is not a human zoo.” The pockets of green human waste laying on the ground and the flimsy tents in cold air made me shudder to my core. Young boys carting wheelbarrows trotted along the dusty roads with an air of dignity as they carried goods to make a few dollars. Child labor is rampant in Zaatari.


As I reflect on my time in the camp, I question myself. Who am I to write the stories of the thousands of men, women and children who experience this life every day? After traveling to Jordan, it seemed as if my friends and family were most interested in “what the refugee camp was like.” But how could a three-hour visit to a camp accurately reflect weeks, months, or years lived in this place? It can’t.


Yet my visit to Zaatari gave me a breadth of insight into the Syrian Crisis. After talking with dozens of NGO officials, diplomats and aid workers, I learned that the enormity of Zaatari makes it the fifth largest “city” in Jordan. I realized that the Syrian Crisis negatively impacts the most vulnerable subset of our human civilization – the poor who cannot leave the camp and find work in the city, those who must stay in Zaatari during the cold winter months for basic provisions of life. I learned that no one wants to admit it, but there’s a tacit acknowledgement that the crisis will have protracted effects for years, if not decades. I was reminded by many NGO officials of the forgotten crises and refugees around the world and how Zaatari is seen as a luxury for the poor in Jordan. When the Zaatari Camp Teamleader, Kilian Kleinschmidt, briefed us that morning about the camp, he pointed towards the seat I was sitting in and told us John Kerry had been in this exact spot a few months ago. If the Secretary of State couldn’t do anything to change this, how could I?


Frankly, visiting Zaatari made me upset and left me feeling empty inside. I felt slapped in the face as I saw firsthand how hierarchical policies and war affect individuals at the ground level. As a student studying international relations, I learned that if I wanted to change the world, I would have to understand it first. But it seemed to me that the more I try to understand the world, the more outraged I am by it.



There are some things I will never understand about this earth. But I can’t forget to appreciate the kindness and beauty of life as well. I am still in awe of the Syrian refugees I met who owned a small restaurant and gave my friends and I free fruits as a gift. At Zaatari, I talked with the staff of Questcope and asked what gives people hope. For Syrian refugees, there is hope that they will return home and that they will achieve their dreams one day. Through this experience, I realized that there is always hope in the future, and hope is something I can never lose.