Two kilometers from the Syrian border, in the sharp Jordanian desert, is the Za’atari refugee camp. When it came into being almost overnight, it quickly developed into a city of refugees. The camp is now home to nearly 80,000 people who fled their homes to escape violence from the war in Syria. As of December 2016, around 6.3 million people had been internally displaced, with some having found refuge in Jordan.
In Za’atari, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become indispensable. Many refugees have learned to rely heavily on humanitarian aid and health services for essential resources such as food and water. To further research the lives of the camp residents, I spoke to Maseh Hadaf, a student from Canada who worked for several months at the Jordan Health Aid Society International (JHASi). His job was to evaluate refugee experiences at the JHASi clinic in order to improve medical care for refugees across Jordan.
Hadaf met with The Trauma and Mental Health Report to discuss his experience in Jordan, including his interactions with refugees, humanitarian workers and the local community:
“The refugee camp was barren in the middle of the desert. There were trenches around the camp, military outposts, jeeps with machine gun slots in the background, tight gate security with an armored vehicle, and barbed wire and fences everywhere. The UNHCR clinic we went to was run by JHASi. It was full of people. There was desolation and suffering in this place.
The number of asylum seekers worldwide has reached a record high since 2016 due to the intensification or spread of war, violence and persecution. The escape from hardship just to experience more hardship was a dimension of the camp residents that Hadaf experienced firsthand. The UNHCR reports of harrowing experiences that many refugees have to face during migration. This includes selling to armed groups, obliging them to pay thousands of dollars for ransom releases, sometimes enduring torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and long periods of time without adequate food and water. Everything before arriving in a refugee camp.
Even when arriving in a new country, these travelers face greater challenges as the public perception of refugees is often mixed and a number of people express their dislike for them. Some of the more extreme in this group even go so far as to compare refugees with a “virus”. When I asked Hadaf, a Canadian immigrant from Afghanistan, if his definition of “refugee” had changed since his experience in Jordan, he said:
“When I went into this experience, I made the idea of what a refugee is“ essential ”. What I mean is that I thought refugees were those downtrodden people who had been through an incredible amount of trouble and needed to be “saved”, and that was all they were. It was an unconscious, innocent assumption, but I discovered very quickly that the refugees I met were just people – some of them were assholes, some were weird. They were just normal people. And the humanitarian workers were not angels or saviors. Many of them only needed one job, and this was where they found themselves. The biggest lesson I learned was that refugees are only people! What a revelation. “
There are initiatives aimed at changing ideologies associated with refugees. A Canadian initiative called “The Together Project” aims to connect Government Supported Refugees (GAR) with Canadian citizens to provide social support to newcomers and to end the stigma often associated with the “refugee” label. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Alex Ablaza, one of the project’s volunteers talks about why she chose to volunteer.
“There is so much fear about the idea of immigration, especially through social media, and it has been really sad and frustrating for my husband and me. That way we made a difference and tried to shift this conversation to something more positive. ”
When asked about her thoughts on recent reports on refugees in the news, Ablaza was asked if her perception of refugees had changed. She answered;
“This experience has strengthened my personal attitude towards refugees and immigration in Canada. When I get to know this family now, I can’t even imagine what they went through. Now I think it’s even more important that we have to support these people.”
Ablaza’s empathy and action is a complete departure from the hostile climate that refugees often encounter. This long and unpredictable journey can have serious implications for refugees’ mental health. Hadaf interacted with many refugees while working on a position paper for government officials highlighting the various concerns of refugees having access to the JHAFi clinic and how operations could be improved for them. I asked him about the mental health of the refugees he had met in Za’atari.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Describing the mental health of refugees appropriately is a colossal task. It varies enormously per person, depending on which country they came from, what trauma they have experienced, what support network they have, what status they have (are they “asylum seekers” or “refugees”), how long they have been refugees, whether they live in the camps or in the city, etc. The experience of people who have been refugees from Sudan for 40 years Unlike the youngest refugees from Syria in recent years, is not entirely different in any conveniently identifiable way.Even in my conversations with Syrian refugees in the clinic with an interpreter present, there were big differences in the way people deal with the difficulties they had experienced. “
Despite the loss of their homes, loved ones, livelihoods, and many aspects of normalcy, refugees can thrive. In addition to supporters like Ablaza, who help integrate refugees into society while increasing their chances of success, Hadaf confirms the resilience he experienced in the camp himself:
“I laughed and joked with a few refugees, and children played football on the artificial dunes and ditches that were supposed to slow down or prevent a mass exodus from the camp. The uniform, trailer-like houses were painted bright colors with carefully detailed flowers and stars, and small shops were opening up in the camp. I even heard from someone that a makeshift mall is in the works. These are the cues and cues that make me appreciate the complexity of trauma and the resilience of mental health. “
Hope for a better future can be found in what are seemingly the most glaring places. When you see the brightly painted walls of the Za’atari camp and hear of children’s dreams of a new home, it is clear that resilience and hope for the future burn brightly in Za’atari. Maybe some of them just need a little help.
-Althea Parala, contributing writer
Feature: Maseh Hadaf, used with permission
First: Maseh Hadaf, used with permission
Second: Maseh Hadaf, used with permission