ACTED, the humanitarian agency that my brother David worked for, recently invited me out to see the refugee camps in Jordan. ACTED are a French NGO that have a presence in many countries all over the world. Their work is truly wonderful and I recommend that you look them up. This is the story of my visit.
Before the visit, I must admit I was quite nervous, as I was expecting many things – some of them not good. I expected it to be an emotional trip, however I was expecting the camps to be dirty, in squalid conditions, people with their hands out begging and worst of all hatred and hopelessness.
My first visit was to the ACTED country headquarters in Amman. There I met the staff and was given a guided tour of all the departments and buildings. One of ACTED’s primary operational edicts is to employ the maximum number of local people rather than people from out of the country. One of the wonderful things about ACTED is how everyone, young and old, feels as if they are family. Wherever I have been with ACTED, that family feeling is common to all.
I then visited a project that educates Jordanian street children and refugee children. I was shown around the building – the artwork on display was amazing. I met various staff and then had time to talk and play with the children (under 8’s). Afterwards I gave a talk to 50 young men and women followed by a question and answer session. I am quite often asked some hard questions however these students really gave me some good questions. There was a healthy debate with them, however what struck me was the determination to make their best out of their situation.
The afternoon saw me giving a talk to ACTED staff, about forty of them. Again, my talk was very well received and there were many messages of goodwill afterwards. That night I was treated out to a meal with staff in a beautiful restaurant with gorgeous food.
The next day saw an early start to the Zaatari Refugee Camp, an hour’s drive from Amman. Once out of the city the countryside was more barren than I have ever seen. Long rolling hills of rocky desert, completely and utterly barren. A harsh landscape indeed. This view out of the car window did nothing for my nerves about visiting the camp.
We arrived at the ACTED compound on the outskirts of the camp. There were many people there to greet me. I was then shown round the camp and met many of the ACTED family. We were driven round the outskirts of the camp to see one of the most important projects that ACTED run, the water and waste provision main distribution centre. It is a massive project that in line with ACTED’s policy of employing camp residents (that sees the revitalisation of the local economy) employs mostly refugee men and women. The way that the project runs from the very beginning to end was impressive. From water purity, tank hygiene to anti-corruption measures, it was extremely professionally run.
We then took a drive through the camp, on the way we stopped and talked with refugee widowed or single mothers who are employed to keep the camp litter free. All but the most basic communication was through the interpreter accompanying me.Â I must admit the banter was fierce and very funny. I nearly found myself married to a Syrian lady who admired my large stomach. She said that she was a good cook and I would love her food.
Further on, we met some more refugee employees of ACTED, men who were emptying the bins. This was the only point that I was met with any negativity as they wanted to work more and earn more so they could provide for their families.
We attended a hygiene promotion class for the women in one sector of the camp. Using games and humour the lessons were visibly enjoyed by the very participative audience. I was asked to take part in the games which raised a few laughs. It is seen as being much more efficient and effective in educating the women of the camp than a widespread audience, after all in their homes it is the women who tell the men and children what to do.
After a very nice lunch of a local chicken dish called Messi there was time to visit the camp again. This time to walk around and meet people on the street as it were. Zaatari is the third largest city in Jordan and is as busy. Most of the camp is housed in mini portacabins, organised into sectors, blocks and streets. Most of the refugees are from southern Syria who have fled for their lives from the conflict there.
We walked down a street called Market Street, we passed every type of merchant, every type of business, every way of trying to earn money. It was difficult to walk very far without being warmly greeted and welcomed. I was amazed to see so many different money making ideas, from a young lad who earned pennies from hand pumping bicycle tyres up, to engineering workshops.
When I stopped, and talked with residents who had lost everything, their homes, family members, possessions and livelihood’s I was met with warmth and a smile. When they heard the story of my brother, they were in tears. I could not believe that so many people who had lost so much were affected in such a way by my family’s story. It was as I expected very emotional.
Overall my expectations of the camp were so far from the reality. Everywhere was clean, tidy, there was no squalor, there was not a single person with their hand out saying give me, there was no dirt. At no point, no matter what individuals went through was there talk of hate. Even to the point of one man who had lost seven members of his family to Daesh and American bombs, there was not hate. At no point, did I have security with me, at no point did I feel threatened or in danger. I saw no hopelessness, in fact the very opposite, everywhere there was hope, everywhere people trying to make the next day better. I saw people who were determined to earn their way and provide for their families. I saw proud defiant people who in complete contradiction to barrenness of the landscape were so full of smile and laughter.