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Life in tin boxes: 24 powerful photographs from Azraq refugee camp

Just over two years ago, the Azraq refugee camp was opened in Jordan to house Syrians fleeing their war-ravaged home. Today around 35,000 refugees live there. World Vision’s Simon Day recently returned from Azraq. Here he shares some of what he saw

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Shimmering on the horizon are the white boxes of the Azraq refugee camp, home to more than 35,000 people. The camp opened in 2014, after the Zaatari refugee camp became overwhelmed with Syrians fleeing the war. Unlike most refugee camps, which grow rapidly in response to a desperate crisis, Azraq was planned over a year, and its population has slowly climbed.

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Azraq’s rows of shelters were built in an attempt to form villages and neighbourhoods, putting people from the same parts of Syria together, to try and create a sense of community. The simple shelters are built to house up to six people in just 27 square metres.

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There is capacity for 50,000 refugees in Azraq camp, and as the population passes 40,000, work has already begun on the planned extension of the camp to hold up to 100,000 refugees.

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Of the 40,000 Syrians living here, more than half are children. Many have been removed from school for years as the war in Syria escalated and they fled their homes; and they are only starting to get some of the education and support they need now they have arrived in Jordan.

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Many of the children I meet are happy. They miss their homes in Syria, and many have left family behind; but here they feel safe and secure. Many children suffered long term effects from the things they had seen, and the journeys they had been on. Safe in Jordan they can start receiving psycho-social support, and begin the slow process of restoring their lives.

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Children have been forced to grow up fast since fleeing their homes in Syria. They have had their childhoods stolen, witnessed things no young person should, and been removed from school. Now in Azraq refugee camp they get a chance to restart their education and their development, despite the terrible conditions.

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A green oasis in the middle of the desert, the football fields at Azraq refugee camp have become a vital escape for boys who have had their childhoods disrupted by the five years of war.

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The girls’ football field is hidden behind a curtain. The girls go to school in the morning shift. In the afternoon sun, when the boys are now behind their desks, the girls get to play football.

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Football gives the boys the chance to do something that feels normal, something they recognise from Syria, and allows them to momentarily forget where they are now.

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Khaled Abu Manar is one of the camp’s football coaches and a former professional player in Syria. He see young men escape from the life of the camp for a few hours each day when they get to play on football. He believes it gives them back some of the life they’ve lost, a chance to be children again.

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With little to do, children find their own fun in Azraq refugee camp, roaming the alleyways between shelters.

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Fatima Khalil escaped Syria with her five children. Once she arrived in Jordan she had a heart attack because of the stress of the journey out of Syria. Here she is safe, but she fears for her children growing up in a country that is not their home, without the resources they need to succeed.

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Her children have suffered greatly under the stress of the journey out of Syria. She desperately wants her three boys to get psychological help. One of her sons had developed a skin disease from the stress of the war and their escape. At night he hears voices in his head and struggles to sleep.

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This small shelter is now their family home. Six people live inside the tiny 4×6.5m box. While his Fatima is grateful for the security her children have in Azraq, “This metal box is not the life I wanted, or believed was my future,” she told me.

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Her young son has grown up inside Jordan. His family is desperate to help him hold on to his Syrian identity. So the family sings the traditional songs of their homeland to help the young children remember where they came from.

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One of my strangest experiences visiting Azraq refugee camp was the normality and familiarity of so much of the refugees life. The refugees are given vouchers by the World Food Programme to spend at the supermarket, allowing them to receive charity with dignity and autonomy. While the residents of the camp in many ways are reliant on aid agencies to survive, by giving them the power to make their own decisions in as many ways as possible they start to get autonomy over their lives again. From the central supermarket it is a long walk for many refugees back to their tin cabin.

While the supermarket is familiar in many ways – the cold air conditioned room, kids running riot, frozen chickens, bags of rice and fresh fruit and vegetables – the checkout is something I hadn’t experienced. To use their food vouchers each customer had their retinas scanned and linked to their voucher in order to stop black markets forming and prevent crime.

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I meet Amer at the local market where residents of the camp can set up stalls. It is his wedding day and he is at the barber with his best man. His skin is shiny behind a facial treatment for his big day.

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The barber, who had worked as a hairdresser in Syria, has opened a barbershop in Azraq’s market. Amer is about to marry a woman he met in the refugee camp where he arrived two years ago. The ceremony will be held in his house, followed by a street party.

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For lunch we have falafel wraps prepared in the marketplace. Moments like this delivered a bizarre sense of normality, in the middle of one of the strangest places I have visited.

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Syrian refugee Mutieb teaches English at one of the camp’s remedial schools. He sees the language as a tool for these children to escape the circumstance they have been given. When he leaves the refugee camp he wants to become an interpreter.

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His student Ghina has learned basic English in Azraq camp. She wants to travel and then become a doctor; and then she wants to return home and help rebuild Syria. Everyone I meet wants to return home.

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Hussam is 16 years old, and learned strong English in just three months while living in Azraq camp. The incredibly smart teenager has become a voice for young Syrian refugees in western media. He hopes to soon join his father and brother who survived the dangerous sea voyage to Greece and are now living in Germany.

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In Jordan 80 per cent of Syrian refugees actually live in cities and towns around the city. This mural in the capital Amman was painted by German street artists Herakut, who got kids to help them and then sign their names with what they wanted to be when they grow up. It makes me think of all the Syrian children who have so little certainty around their future.

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