Syrian refugees worry about long exile from home after years of war
Syrian refugees walk in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near Mafraq, Jordan on Monday, March 7, 2016. (AP / Raad Adayleh)
Karin Laub, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, March 15, 2016 3:16AM EDT
ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan -- The murals of forests, seaside cities and beaches being painted on homes in a desert camp in Jordan are cheery and colourful, meant to boost the morale of the Syrian refugees living here.
But they also reinforce a painful message to the displaced: a return home is a long way off.
As the Syria conflict enters year six this month, residents of Zaatari are grappling with the prospect of open-ended exile.
Memories of Syria are fading, roots in the camp of 80,000 people are growing deeper and resettlement to the West, though a long shot for most, is seen as a more realistic option than going back to Syria.
"I live on hope, but hope is far away," said Rasha Ali, 30, who fled a Damascus suburb four years ago. She now teaches in a camp kindergarten where most of the children were born after the March 2011 outbreak of the conflict, a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad that escalated into civil war.
Meanwhile, Zaatari's transformation continues from its beginnings in 2012 as a chaotic tent camp into an organized community.
Residents now have proper addresses, with numbers assigned to each pre-fab trailer on streets given names like "hope" or "dignity."
A $17.5 million German-funded solar power plant is to be completed by 2017, replacing a makeshift electricity grid. Work on water and sewage networks moves forward.
Camp director Hovig Etyemezian said the UN refugee agency tries to make Zaatari as livable as possible.
"From our perspective, the camp will continue being a temporary settlement until the last day of its existence," he said. "We are really hopeful that the conflict will end and that the refugees will return. For us, it will be a calamity if the conflict continues for another few years."
More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled their homeland, including some 640,000 now living in Jordan.
The fifth anniversary of the Syria conflict comes amid guarded hopes for a political solution after repeated failures. A limited truce has largely held since Feb. 27, and the UN-brokered indirect peace talks, which collapsed last month, resumed in Geneva on Monday.
But this month's milestone also caps the "worst year yet" for civilians in Syria, including a rise in attacks on medical facilities and destruction of homes, according to a recent report by 30 aid agencies, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, or NRC, and Britain's Oxfam.
Russia, the United States, Britain and France - all permanent UN Security Council members pledged to a political solution - have "added fuel to the fire" to varying degrees, either through inadequate diplomatic pressure on the war's players, political and military support to their allies in Syria or direct military action, the report said.
"This is the kind of schizophrenic situation we are now facing," said Karl Schembri of the NRC.
"We are now at a really important juncture where they (world powers) have shown some sort of commitment to this badly needed cessation of hostilities, and we have to cling to this moment of hope," he said. "They can't let Syrians down again."
In Zaatari, residents greet news of renewed peace talks largely with indifference.
"Empty words," said Emad Mansour, 31, as he watched the outside of his family's two trailers being painted by Syrian artists, all fellow refugees.
Unlike the peace talks, the new murals have injected a sense of excitement, if briefly.
"It's a nice change from white," Mansour, a father of five, said of the colour that has long predominated in the camp. The Mansours got two paintings, a forest on one wall and fish swimming in a deep blue sea on the other.
The murals are meant to deepen a sense of neighborhood in the camp's 12 districts. Each area has a base colour and a theme, such as education, the Arabic language, history or the sea. For the past three months, the artists have been painting trailers along the camp's ring road. Next, it's the turn of the homes lining each district inside the camp, said Etyemezian.
Anything political is off limits in the project, funded by the refugee agency and implemented by the NRC.
Head artist Mohammed Jokhadar, 30, said he gets a sense of fulfilment because the murals brighten the mood.
"People want green, water or something that reminds them of the community where they lived," said Jokhadar, who also runs a barber shop and a portrait studio in the camp's bustling market.
Uplifting graffiti accompanies some paintings.
"Knowledge can raise people to the highest levels, while ignorance can lower the noblest people to the bottom," reads a slogan in the education-themed district. There, murals depict books, computers and college students in cap and gown celebrating graduation.
The street art and permanent addresses aren't the only reminders that Zaatari is home.
At one of the camp's kindergartens, 5-year-olds - as old as the conflict - don't know much about where they came from.
Asked what he remembers, Alaa Sweidani said he used to have a bicycle back home. "We also had trees," he added shyly. Julie Hariri, also five, said she remembers a baby duck and a teddy bear.
Teachers said they try to instill a Syrian identity by talking to the children about their villages in Syria's southern Daraa province.
"We tell them, Syria is beautiful, and God willing, you will return," said Ali, one of the teachers.
Yet Ali has drastically lowered her own expectations of returning to Saida Zeinab, a Damascus suburb she fled four years ago with her husband and three children after their apartment was destroyed.
Her only realistic hope now is to travel to Europe with her children. Her husband Ahmed is in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker, after reaching Europe with the help of smugglers, along with tens of thousands of other Syrians. If he is granted legal stay, the family can attempt to join him, she said.
"Syria has no future," she said. Even if there is peace one day, she said, it needs decades to recover.