Middle East

From Daraa to Zaatari


My husband, Najib, was working in the fields. Government forces launched a rocket that landed nearby. Najib’s leg was badly injured. Fear of leaving the house led me to care for him in our home. He could walk, but infection was setting in. The doctor told us we needed to leave our home in Daraa [Syria] and go to Jordan.

Who wants to leave their home, the only life you know, your livelihood, your sentimental belongings? We did not want to go! We cried. We prayed. We looked at our beautiful gardens. We watched our innocent one-year-old son play on the floor. Najib’s health, plus never-ending fear and danger, pushed us out the door into uncertainty.

It was raining. The road was a mudslide. The muck was up to our knees. Every few steps we fell. We trudged through neighborhoods pockmarked by war. A missile crashed into a building behind us. We were warned to be quiet and keep the baby from crying, because any noise would bring a barrage of bullets in our direction.

When our mud-covered bodies came to the porous border into Jordan, we were taken by a bus to the reception area of the Zaatari refugee camp. Two days later Najib went to a hospital inside the camp, and I was taken to a tent equipped with kitchen supplies and bedding. That was four years ago. – Hana

The reason

In March 2011, 15 young people spray-painted the walls of their school in the southern Syrian town of Daraa with the tell-tale phrase of the Arab Spring, “The people want the fall of the regime.” They also added the line, “It’s your turn, doctor.” The Arab dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had been toppled, and this message called out Syrian President Bashar Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist.

The boys were imprisoned, beaten, had their fingernails removed, and were tortured for weeks.

Daraa is like many small towns in Syria. An ancient farming community,  people know one another and relationships are close. The arrests and torture of the boys struck a chord. Their families approached authorities and asked for their release. The head of the security forces told them, “Forget your children. Just make more. If you don’t know how to make more, we will send someone to show you.”

The town revolted. Residents began protesting daily. Soldiers dragged away the people by their hair and beat them. The outrage grew.

Then, in a national speech, Assad labeled the townspeople “conspirators” against the government. Shock reverberated through the streets and two days later, weekly anti-government protests began all across Syria. The boys were finally freed in an effort to suppress the unrest. It didn’t work.

Therefore, on April 25, the government launched a full-scale siege on Daraa for 11 days. Hundreds were killed, power was cut off, homes and mosques were shelled, and snipers were posted on buildings. Protesters armed themselves, and thus began the Syrian civil war that is still claiming lives and displacing people more than eight years later. Tens of thousands, like Najib, Hana, and their family, headed to the Jordanian border and Zaatari, only 8.1 miles from Daraa.

Zaatari Refugee Camp opened in 2012. Located on a three-square-mile piece of barren desert, Zaatari became Jordan’s fourth largest “city” in 2013, when more than 150,000 Syrian refugees called it “home.” Since the opening of other camps in Jordan, the population has dropped to around 80,000. Three hospitals and three schools operate on a double shift system. The girls attend in the morning and the boys in the afternoon. A taxi system will take you to a bazaar area of makeshift shops selling food, household goods and clothes.

entrance to zaatari refugee camp in jordan

Zaatari and beyond

Najib recovered, but our lives in the camp were difficult. Communal toilets overflowed and privacy was non-existent. There was never enough of anything. I was afraid to go out of the tent without Najib and our son had no clean place to play. We were also Christians and that caused extreme tension. Other friends of ours, who had also fled the violence, joined together and moved a short distance from the main camp for space and safety. A landowner from Amman allows our 24 families to homestead on his property. Two other families live nearby. It is much better, but there still is not enough. We are given $20 a person per month [by the Jordanian government], but we have to pay for everything. The price for electricity has increased 55% in the last two years, so we go without fans, lights or refrigeration. Water comes in a big tanker truck and costs $20 a month. Food comes in the form of coupons that we must take back to the camp and redeem at the commissary. We band together and help one another.

syrian refugee families in zaatari refugee camp

How you helped

A local ministry runs a farm near Zaatari. Najib and Hana, expert farmers, have found occasional work there. They prune trees and tend the gardens. Another ministry operates a medical clinic serving the refugees. The staff of these ministries, all Christians from Jordan and the surrounding region, are highly aware that the needs go beyond physical aid.

In a sense, their open welcome and acceptance are as essential as the jobs, medical care, and basic humanitarian aid. One missionary doctor in the clinic put it best: “When they ask me to come to their house to eat, I do it. I can never go to sleep at night if I hadn’t helped someone that day. It is my passion. I go to them in all seasons and all times of day or night. They need to feel like they are human beings and are valuable.”

Najib says, “We look at our situation in two ways. Either God has placed us here for a period in our lives and we will return to Syria one day, or He will lead us onward for His glory. We will put our trust in Him.”

Through ANM, American Christians partner with these local ministries to provide a way forward for refugees like Najib and Hana. Our Collect page highlights current shipments of material aid to equip aid organizations, clinics, and local church outreaches like those in this article.

Jonathan Constant also contributed to this post. Names have been changed for this post.

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