The Hardest Pill to Swallow
By Lily O'Boyle, USCRI Vice Chair
As a USCRI board member, I have had two opportunities to visit refugee camps. Last year some of us visited the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Most recently I traveled to Jordan, where Syrians fleeing violence are taking refuge. Nothing quite prepares you for the experience.
I was especially interested to go this time because I had never been to the Middle East and the refugee crisis brought upon by the war in Syria was an ongoing and escalating one that was causing the mass influx of refugees to neighboring Jordan. The numbers have increased dramatically since mid-June. The camps we saw in Thailand with wood and bamboo dwellings had been there for years, and were it not for the barbed wire fencing that marked their perimeters, one could easily mistake them for ordinary country villages. In contrast, the camps in Jordan (the three facilities we visited) were metamorphosing before our very eyes, clearly in reaction to the deepening crisis brought upon by the war just across the border.
Our visit to the camps was arranged by the Institute of Family Health from the Al Noor Hussein Foundation. They very kindly took us under their wing and brought us to the different camps. I was very impressed with their dedication and enthusiasm under very trying conditions. The first camp that we visited was Cyber City, aptly named for its former capacity as a technology facility that housed foreign workers. A group of concrete buildings provided multi-story dorm-like housing for the 438 refugees from Syria, 177 of whom are Palestinians. Families are assigned 3-5 per room with separate bathrooms for men and women and communal kitchens at the end of the hallway. There is a health care center that addresses mental and physical issues and there are makeshift classrooms for the children. On the day of our visit, a young Jordanian volunteer from UNHCR accompanied us on our tour. He had recently quit his job as a stockbroker in Wall Street—at the persistence of his mother—to return to Jordan and help out with the humanitarian crisis. I wondered how many like him were out there.
Our second stop was King Abdullah Park. Nothing about it remotely resembled a garden or a park. I guess once upon a time it had been designed to serve as some kind of an amusement park. At the moment, it was a gated, barren wasteland that had been appointed with box-like trailers to house the 750 refugees, 450 of whom are children. Save the Children was the prominent NGO here. Everywhere we went, we were followed and greeted with "hellos" and "how are yous" from groups of laughing and smiling children. How oblivious of tragedy they seemed. The children go to a local school outside of the camp and are bussed there daily in shifts. Save the Children staff showed us crocheted articles and jewelry made by women in the camps. They were planning for a bazaar, at which they could sell the items. One of the refugees showed us her room, where some family members were just getting up. At this camp they were subsisting mainly on canned rations since the kitchens hadn’t been set up yet.
The last camp and the largest by far that we visited was the Za’atari Camp. Looming like a giant mirage in the sprawling desert landscape that was dotted for miles with scattered goat herds and traveling camels, Za’atari is what you conjure in your mind when you think of a refugee camp. It is not far from the border. In response to the crisis, tents were speedily set up at Za’atari to provide housing to the first wave of refugees. Initially they had no water and no electricity. It is hard to imagine what it was like in the early stages of the emergency. It has since settled down to some kind of normalcy if you can call it that; although there is still some unrest and sporadic protests from disgruntled refugees. There is a much bigger camp that has been built next door with prefab housing donated by Saudi Arabia to address the problem of the impending winter. There are five tented field hospitals that have been donated by various countries, portable toilets, and kitchen facilities which were not yet fully-operational during our visit. Already, there is a growing commercial market for goods of all kinds. The new camp promises to be bigger than the first with a capacity to house up to 130,000 people we were told.
But a camp is a camp is a camp…it is still a place where refugees are warehoused and have not much freedom of movement. It is where they may have to wait for a very long time, fighting boredom and trying to fend off hopelessness. There are those who have benefited from Jordan’s bailout system, which permits some refugees to leave camps and live with family and friends; some have assimilated into Jordanian cities and have even found jobs. But for the 30-40,000 and still growing number that find themselves in camps, there is no knowing how long they may have to stay there. Their fate largely depends on how fast the conflict is resolved so that they can return to their homeland—their primary wish; how long Jordan can extend its hospitality before it loses its tolerance for the refugees who are overwhelming their already limited resources; and the amount of help that will be forthcoming from friendly governments and the international community.
Our delegation left in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. It did not escape me that while we were looking at the refugee situation in Jordan, there were countless people in the eastern United States who were homeless and without food and electricity. Some of these people are living in tents as we speak. I’ve often wondered what the difference is between people rendered homeless and displaced by poverty or natural disasters in their homeland and those forced to leave their home country because of war, political persecution, or religious oppression. I left the Philippines during martial law and although I was neither an exile nor a refugee, I had a nagging fear that there was a chance I might never go back home. It took 10 years before I was able to return. I remember going to Japan during those early years away and catching a glimpse of some rice terraces once during a tour of the countryside. I was reminded of the Philippines and was overcome by such an overwhelming sense of homesickness, I just fell to pieces and wept. I guess for people who are closely bound to their roots, this is the hardest pill to swallow. It is what makes being a refugee so difficult—to be rendered poor or dislocated in your own country is different from being poor or dislocated in another, no matter how hospitable your host country may be.
The path to resettlement for a refugee can be a very long and arduous one. One of a resettlement agency’s tasks is to facilitate this journey and make it as safe and bearable as possible for refugees to have a chance towards a new home, a new life. For people who have survived unspeakable tragedies, it can sometimes seem daunting and unattainable. Keeping hope alive so that one day they can pick up the pieces and move on, maybe even return home remains one of the biggest challenges. It has been a privilege to work with an organization like USCRI. This board trip has afforded me another opportunity to appreciate and value the work that USCRI and others like it are doing on behalf of refugees around the world.
Lily O’Boyle, USCRI Board of Directors
Mrs. O’Boyle is the author of numerous books on the Philippines including the most recent Tropical Gardens of the Philippines. In addition to serving on USCRI’s Board of Directors, Mrs. O'Boyle has served on the board of the US Committee for UNICEF.