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My night working in a Syrian refugee camp

15 Mar 2013

Syrian refugees crossing the border with Jordan. (c) UNHCROn 13 March, I worked a night shift at Za'atari refugee camp near the northern border between Jordan and Syria. Here is my diary of the night:

9:45 pm: I arrive in Za'atari camp with members from the Handicap International team, who we're working with in Jordan. We meet our UNHCR contact at the International Organization of Migration caravan, where refugees arrive. The reception area is a kind of waste ground with a huge tent to receive the refugees.

I'm told that a convoy of four buses arrives every hour and a half. There are on average 25-30 passengers per bus. A convoy is already there as we arrive. Among the refugees are pregnant women and injured people.

10:00 pm: We attend a meeting to talk about the coordination between the different health services. People are screened on arrival and seen in order of seriousness. Everyone reports there being too many people and too few staff. 

10:10 pm: Four buses and one ambulance arrive. It's not easy to understand what they are supposed to do. For them it must be a lot worst. There are women, men, children, older people... All together in crowded mess.

A bus used to transport refugees to and around the camp. (c) Amandine Allaire/HelpAge International10:15 pm: A nurse explains to me that they identify those with urgent health issues and refer them to the appropriate services. For example, there is a UNFPA clinic for women. Handicap International has provided new forms for fast screening of people with disabilities and older people with lack of mobility and chronic diseases.

10:30 pm: Three buses and another ambulance arrive. The nurses call us as an older man with disabilities is stuck on the bus. He's the last passenger and cannot move to get off the bus. His son is with him; he looks exhausted. There is only one wheelchair available to transport vulnerable people with disabilities. In each convoy, there are on average five older people requiring mobility support.

His son and two staff help him off the bus. The son, aged around 55, tells us his father is 90. It has taken three days to cross the border by foot, the father in the wheelchair, the son, his wife and seven children. I ask him how he feels, he smiles and replies: "Severely exhausted".

11:00 pm: After the health screening, people go to the "NFI" (non-food items) area where a security guard is there to open the wire mesh gate. Staff here distribute one mattress and blanket to each new arrival, for their first night in Za'atari. Tomorrow they will receive another blanket, a hygiene kit and a cooking set. They used to distribute baby kits and winterisation kits (heater) but the stocks are depleted. There are a lot of people on the other side of the fence waiting for relatives.

Blankets distributed to refugees for their first night in Zaatari camp. (c) Amandine Allaire/HelpAge InternationalTo go to the next stage, the registration area, you have to leave this secured area and cross a new waste ground; with no light and no safety. Some refugees gather together around fires. Following the basic items provided, the new arrivals receive a "welcoming" meal, including one can of tuna, one can of beans, juice, a chocolate bar and a bottle of water.

11:10 pm: We leave the secured area as this is the only way to reach the next step by foot: The registration area. It is very dark and cold. We meet the same older man in the wheelchair with his son. It's a chore for his son to push the wheelchair on this sandy and stony ground. I don't understand why nothing has been done to make this area safe and accessible.

11:15 pm: We enter the UNHCR registration area. There are two registration caravans open. In front of each, there is a bench with ten men, facing a bench of ten women. People seem exhausted and confused. I'm not sure they understand why they are waiting here. There is no one around providing information.

UNHCR registration for refugees. (c) Amandine Allaire/HelpAge International11.30pm: A man and his older father are in the middle of the path, the man is supporting his father who doesn't feel well. He tells us that his father is suffering from high blood pressure and he doesn't know what to do. We ask the staff who are there. The UNHCR staff finally accompany the two men to the last caravan and give them priority. They finally give the older man somewhere to sit.

12:25 am: So far tonight, 978 people have arrived. We expect around 700 more. There were no arrivals between 9:30 am and 7 pm yesterday. For security reason, people cross the border at night.

12:50 am: The police arrive, transporting a 37 year old, paralysed man. He was injured from shelling in Damascus and has shrapnel wounds all over his body and face. He is now also blind. His wife is already in the camp but he doesn't know where. He is transferred to a hospital inside the camp for treatment. 

1:05 am: Three new buses arrive. There are many couples with babies and small children. Once again, they look exhausted. A lot of people come to us asking what they are supposed to do.

1:15 am: a 26 year old woman with disabilities is registered by Handicap International. She's in a wheelchair, with her family. They left Dara'a yesterday and crossed the border illegally because they didn't have IDs for everyone. They transported the woman with disabilities on a stretcher. One young man tells us that many have lost their IDs or, like his new born baby, don't have one. 

1:30 am: Another bus arrives. The last people to get off are an older couple. The woman seems very sad. Her husband is walking with difficulty, with the help of a wooden stick. We ask two young people to leave the only chairs available in the area so they can sit. The older man explains that they left Dara'a yesterday morning and crossed the border by foot. The doctor says that they don't have any medical problems, only "old age". I wonder who will help them get to the registration unit and access the right information. 

2:00 am: My colleague from Handicap International tells me: "I met an older refugee in Mafraq. He was so confused he didn't know where he was. He didn't know what day it was. I've seen so many people crying, but especially older people. They really need psychosocial support".

2:30 am: We join our UNHCR contact in the registration area. There are no more refugees registered until tomorrow. We share our thoughts: There should be more wheelchairs and more specialised staff to help and inform the new arrivals on the process. All the areas should be made more accessible and secured, with benches and information on the process.

We leave at 4am and agree to discuss further about the recommendations the next day. 

How you can help

Three million Syrian people have fled their homes. Older people are particularly vulnerable. Please help us to ensure that they get the food, shelter and medical care they desperately need.

If you are in the UK, you can make a donation to the DEC Syria Crisis Appeal by:

Text: Donate £5 by texting the word SUPPORT to 70000.
Online: Donate to the Age International DEC appeal.
Phone: Call the 24 hour hotline on 0370 60 60 900
In person: Donate over the counter at any high street bank or post office, or send a cheque.

If you are Outside of the UK: Donate via HelpAge International.

Thank you for your support!

Find out how we are supporting older and vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan, two years after the conflict in Syria began.

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Amandine Allaire
Job title: Emergency Protection Adviser

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.