Waiting for Assad’s fall, record numbers of Syrians flee to Jordan

The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is temporarily home to over 60,000 Syrians waiting for the fall of President Bashar Assad and the civil war to end. (Photo by Joseph Mayton)

ZAATARI, Jordan–As the Syrian civil war and the fight to remove President Bashar Assad unfolds, more than half a million people have fled their homes during dangerously cold winter months.

There are roughly 60,000 Syrians in the Zaatari, one of the largest refugee camps that sits just across the Jordanian border.

According to a recent UNHCR report, more than 1,000 people have arrived in the last two nights alone.

It’s freezing. The tent flaps are tightly closed to protect the cramped living quarters against the winds. As the sun went down, the al-Dayat family huddled around the small burner making tea to stay warm.

Here they wait for the inevitable downfall of Assad.

Abu Ghazi, a barber from Dara’a, joked about journalists and westerners passing through, referencing American films. He got us all smiling and laughing.

“The journalists who come to Zaatari are like Stallone. They come in, take a few pictures and then leave,” Abu Ghazi said. “They don’t talk to us and think they know what we want.”

Members of the al-Dayat family dream of returning to a post-Assad Syria where they can rebuild their homes. (Photo by Joseph Mayton)

I sat with the al-Dayat family for hours, learning about their lives. They are afraid for their family and friends still in Syria. They lamented the poor conditions in the camp.

The day before I arrived at Zaatari, a one-year-old baby reportedly died from the cold. Ask anyone in Zaatari what they need and the answer is quick and firm, “Blankets, blankets and blankets.”

Besides blankets, what else did they want? “We want books, maybe a football and things to do. We don’t have anything to do,” interjected Ahmed, a 29-year-old father of two who worked in Damascus before the uprising began.

Most in the camp understand full well the realities they will face when returning to their country. With over 30,000 Syrians killed since the uprising began, the country will not be the same.

They talk of destroyed homes and lost family members, but also of hope and justice. They believe that they will return home to watch a trial of Assad and his cronies.

More importantly, they will begin the process of reconstruction, reconciliation and democratic change.

The conversation turned to my overgrown beard, which was a point of jokes. “Hey, it’s the American terrorist,” was the one that brought out the most laughter.

Abu Ghazi works out of his makeshift barber shop in the camp. (Photo by Joseph Mayton)

Abu Ghazi insisted I check out the tent behind their living spaces. It was a makeshift barber shop. I couldn’t refuse and sat in the chair as he lathered my face and began to remove the hair. It took about 30 minutes, and a few cuts later, the job was done.

By then, we had gathered a crowd of interested onlookers. They were talkative and more than willing to spill their stories.

One woman, 25, had lost her husband to a sniper; a father had seen his two teenagers gunned down; a mother cried as she retold how her 6-year-old daughter and her husband were caught in another attack.

The brave faces the families had put on hours before came crumbling down. These were stories of unimaginable tragedy.

Meandering through the rest of the camp, I was surprised at the resources available.

The camp is home to hospitals where patients are treated in open-air receptions, schools that would put some public institutions to shame, and a market with fresh vegetables and other items up for sale. There is also a governor and a local police force.

Residents in the camp can purchase fresh vegetables using Syrian or Jordanian money. (Photo by Joseph Mayton)

According to the UNHCR, it is really a city in the desert. Despite the conditions being devastatingly poor, the residents were making it work; at least they were trying.

At the market I met Ahmed Toma’a, a 14-year-old boy and the sole survivor after his family was killed in a siege on Dara’a. His hair was slicked up, and he had the confidence that put me off-guard. He walked throughout the market waving at everyone he knew and stopping to get me to take photograph upon photograph.

What did he want to be when he grew up? “A surgeon.” Why? “So I can save people.”

Having worked in Lebanon in 2006 and living in Egypt over the past decade, war and death were not foreign to me, but there was something different about the people in this camp.

They were scarred by their losses, but they maintained hopeful that the future would bring justice to those responsible.

As Ahmed told me, “When Bashar falls, I will call you and we go home together.” It was sincere and I have no doubt that the day Syria is free, my phone will ring.

Joseph Mayton is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt and has reported across the region over the years. He is the Editor-in-chief of Bikyamasr and grew up in northern Idaho.

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