Camp Shangri-La

The Syrian Civil War is now more than three years old, the death toll by now is surely over 150,000, while estimates of those who have fled the country run from two to four million out of a pre-war population of around 22 million. Worst of all, there is no end to the carnage (including most recently chlorine gas used in the barrel-bombs dropped by regime helicopters on defenseless cities) in sight.

How strange, then, to come across a Syria-related news article that is actually upbeat! This was in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen yesterday, and you can get some idea of its strangeness from the headline, Wifi and pita bars: In the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.

ZaatariThe Palestinians can surely claim seniority when it comes to such tent cities, but the dire current situation in their home country means Syrians win on volume: that largest refugee camp is at Al-Za’atari, in the Jordanian desert just 12km from the Syrian border – in fact from the border to the Deraa region which, like Leipzig in the old East Germany, like GdaƄsk in Poland, and indeed like Boston in the United States, will be able to claim pride of place as the cradle of that country’s revolution, if that revolution ever succeeds.

This piece by Gidi Heesakkers* cites the Jordanian proverb that “only the devil lives in Za’atari,” only promptly to controvert that assertion as she writes about the two-day visit a certain Dutch photographer recently paid to that teeming encampment.

Refugee camps, those mean long lines, rice and tears? Seems not. In the largest refugee camp of the Middle East you can find a great pita bar. Photographer Henk Wildschut enjoyed a tasty sandwich there, in a shopping-street smelling of waterpipes, where shoes, festive dresses, lipstick and TVs were also for sale. The camp has Wifi and two supermarkets, with special sales, competitions and shelves full of cola.

Wild, eh? And you may well want to click through and take a look at the photos there (not all by Wildschut): the children look healthy, well-clothed, and reasonably cheerful; and the supermarket aisles look orderly and well-stocked indeed. Credit-card payment is even planned to be made possible – for those carrying them – in about a month.

Naturally, things weren’t always this way. You can understand how that was true especially at the beginning since, in the first place, there wasn’t a refugee camp there waiting for the fleeing Syrians as they started to arrive, and thereafter the actual provision of such facilities likely lagged well behind the need; this is the sort of thing national authorities set up only reluctantly, when the exigencies can no longer be ignored. They were also clearly pushed to do so by the UNHCR, which has poured a lot of resources into Al-Za’atari, but whose personnel it is said had to withdraw from the camp some twenty times out of fear for their personal safety.

That at least according to the camp’s UNHCR-appointed “mayor,” who has been a big factor in making it what it is today. He’s a German by the name of Kilian Kleinschmidt – but I didn’t have to tell you that he was German, you already knew (“Klink! Colonel Klink!”). Described in the article as an “Indiana Jones type,” and a veteran UNHCR administrator, now that things are going swimmingly with the camp he jets off to give TED talks, and makes pronouncements such as “To be able to choose yourself what you will eat, that makes you strong.” In fact, while the camp still has five distribution points giving out free pita-bread (a half-million served daily!), lately refugees have been issued free coupons that they can use to buy the food mix they prefer in the two supermarkets – gotta have competition! – or in sixteen other specialty stores.

Those with access to money/credit cards can buy even fancier foods or more substantial household goods, clothes, and the like. (You have to wonder how they secure that money; there is no mention of a bank.) According to photographer Wildschut, “It looks even better than Aldi [a German discount supermarket chain]. From the attention that is devoted to how things are presented, you can feel respect.”

Remarkable! But what are we to make of this? Firstly, things might not be so rosy there at the Al-Za’atari camp as is reported: for what it’s worth, the Wikipedia entry gives a less flattering review. What’s more, the never-ending crush of new refugees has spurred UNHCR and the Jordanian government to open up just recently another desert camp – planned to be even bigger – which is has been designed with a view “to avoid[ing] the pitfalls of Jordan’s first camp at Zaatari.”

Even if we assume that things are pretty good by now there, that also offers a mixed message. UNHCR is to be commended in particular for its good work, but ironically that all too easily sends the wrong message. In the bigger picture, of Syrian refugees elsewhere in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Turkey and in many other countries, there has not been enough financial and resource help actually delivered; people are still suffering, while governments conveniently forget about the amounts they pledged at donor conferences. Further, the more things look solid and impressive at such camps, the more they take up a permanent aspect, as if these people will never get a chance to go home. You can ask the Palestinians about that.

* Which must have originally been from the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, because that’s who Ms. Heesakkers works for. I cite this just to establish the correct chain of attribution.

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