A Syrian Refugee Camp With Girl Scouts And A Safeway Store

Mar 17, 2014
Originally published on March 17, 2014 6:57 pm

On a sunny afternoon in the dusty, overcrowded Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a group of Syrian girls recites a familiar pledge and hope to change their future. The youngsters promise to serve God and country, to help people at all times and live by the laws of the Girl Scouts.

The troop was organized by Hanna Vazquez, a volunteer with Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based humanitarian group.

"We are going to do the Girl Scout music badge," she says, as the girls gather around.

In this desolate place, the troop's weekly meetings are a time to forget the horrors that forced these girls to flee Syria with their families. This week marks the third anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, and this unofficial Girl Scout troop is a sign these girls may spend their childhood in exile and their families are learning to cope with what may be a long-term stay.

There is music and singing here.

"We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams," the girls sing. Their dreams, of course, are of going home. Fatma Masri, a refugee herself, is also a volunteer in the Scout program. She knows that dream is now a long time off.

"Look, if it was up to us, we would, of course, leave today. But finally, one has to deal with one's reality," she says. "In that case we will adapt to staying, and yes, I believe we are staying for a while."

It's not just the refugees who are adapting to the new timeline. The aid agencies must change, too. They know their work is not about a quick fix anymore. They are starting to design programs to prepare Syrian refugees for an exile that could go on for years.

A Soccer League And A Supermarket

A few months ago, a Jordanian aid group started a woman's soccer league at the camp.

The Asian Football Development project is based in Amman, supported by Prince Bin Al-Hussein, and promotes sports as a development tool. The coaches on the artificial turf field are Jordanians from the country's national team.

Reema Ramoniah, a goalkeeper, yells encouragement to the Syrian women on the field. The women wear Islamic headscarves and heavy coats. They're all from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did. Sports are new for them, Ramoniah says.

"They didn't know that football is played 11 against 11. Now, we are giving them some tactics, which is good," she says. "They didn't even know how to warm up in the beginning. Some of them didn't know how to run."

It is a new skill for a new life far from home. But the Zaatari camp is becoming home. There are now more street lights and more police patrols. Many families have added a front porch to their trailers. Some have built small gardens. Satellite dishes dot the rooflines. There is a lively shopping street in the camp where live chickens and cellphone cards are for sale. A resigned stability is taking hold.

Recently, a modern supermarket store opened inside the camp with bright lights and wide aisles. These Syrians come from a culture of small bakeries, vegetable stands and the corner store.

The produce at the Sultan Center Safeway comes from Jordanian farms; the staff comprises refugees who had to learn new skills to work here, says Nahid Abed, the store's manager.

"How to merchandise, how to serve the customer, how to talk to the customer, and I think they are smart, they learn fast," Abed says. The process, he says, will change them. "This is what we are trying, to change them to move that experience to Syria, inshallah, soon."

A Refugee Camp Becomes A City

But Abed says he knows soon is not likely. This camp, opened in an emergency, has evolved into a city. It is now the fourth-largest population center in the country, with well over 100,000 residents. There is even a mayor, the U.N.'s Killian Kleinschmidt. He runs Zaatari, and he says his first job was to build a camp. Now the task is to rebuild the people.

"I mean, as sad and as tragic it is ... it's an opportunity to invest in the people of Syria while they are in exile," Kleinschmidt says. They need strength, he says, "to take care of themselves, which they will need to rebuild their country in the future."

For now, they have brought some part of Syria with them. At a restaurant in the camp, the falafel sandwiches sizzle on the grill, spiced just like back home. A television is turned to Syrian news and the latest details of the war.

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