Syrian Refugee Camp
words from our founder, Sarah Collins, on the experience in Jordan:
In March 2011, fifteen Syrian children were arrested for scrawling anti-regime slogans on the walls of their school in Davra’s, a small town 90 km south of Damascus, close to the Jordanian border.
Protestors demanded the release of the children but local government refused to negotiate. In the days that followed the people took to the streets, the numbers reaching to hundreds and then thousands. The protestors called for the children’s release and for widesweeping governmental reforms including the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian security forces intervened and opened fire on the peaceful protesters.
The demonstrations grew in intensity and numbers, buildings were set on fire and mobile phones communications severed as the two sides battled for two weeks with heavy casualties on both sides.
On April 25th Assad’s regime cut the cities water and power and tanks were deployed to Davra’a, along with 6,000 trained snipers.
Um Samir was born in Davra’a and had lived there all her life.
She had led a peaceful and happy life there with her husband and children. Their house had always been filled with laughter and conversation, but things were different now.
The house and the streets echoed with the sound of constant shelling. Women and children were afraid to walk out of doors for fear of snipers. Food and water were becoming scarce and children could be seen in doorways begging.
Fear filled Um Samir’s heart. One of her sons had been shot and her other son had been detained without cause. The haunting drone of tanks shook the house.
The ‘Shabiha’, a radical militia formed by the Assad regime moved from house to house searching for protest sympathisers. The militia looted, tortured and committed sexual violence against both men and women as the violence escalated.
Just as Um Samir’s son was released, her cousin’s house, just two down, was hit and gravely damaged by a mortar shell. Armed groups entered the building and Um Samir’s cousin was shot and then burnt alive.
It was then that she decided to leave Davra’a for Jordan.
If they stayed they knew they would die. If they fled they had at least a 50% chance of survival.
But now the Syrian forces had turned the smuggling routes into a game of ‘life and death’. Civilians could no longer rely on the Free Syrian Army to guarantee safe passage. Horrific stories were filtering thru to Um Samir that agents of the Syrian army were posing as army defectors in order to trap, arrest and torture fleeing families. People were saying “You don’t know if the people who claim to come and save you may be there to kill you”
The group, mostly women and children, moved only at night, hiding in the forest in daylight as Syrian army helicopters bombed border areas during the day. Clouds of black smoke filled the air.
At 2am on the seventh day of traveling, the group, in clothes torn from barbed wire, some cradling young children, were stopped in their tracks, by searchlights shining out of the forest into their eyes.
Um Samir’s heart pounded hard in her chest, every conceivable nightmare playing through her mind.
Then someone shouted “Alfahla” (A thousand welcomes).
It was the Jordanian army.
Basha al–Assad’s bloody regime had massacred thousands of Syrians and turned millions more into destitute refugees. 500 refugees were crossing the Jordanian borders daily wherever and however they could.
Um Samir was now one of them.
The refugees were taken to a place called Al Bashabsheh, a complex of five apartment buildings housing 2500 refugees in harsh conditions. Here Um Samir and her family shared a windowless room with 15 fellow Syrians living in squalor for three months.
In July 2012 Um Samir’s family were finally transferred, to Cyber City. A five floor dormitory complex for migrant workers on the outskirts of Irbid. The camp, situated beside a desolate crossroads was home to 500 refugees who had witnessed Syria’s heaviest and bloodiest battles.
Conditions were cramped with 5-10 people sharing a 2-bed room and a single bathroom and kitchen shared between 100 men and women.
Energy supplies and water were scarce and expensive and prices soared daily. The refugees struggled to survive on meager allowances.
“Everyday was the same.” Sighs Um Samir, “We lived without purpose. Just waiting. This was not a life”
In 2012 the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Ertherin Cousins, invited me to join her at her church in Chicago to use the Wonderbag to make Thanksgiving dinner for the church members.
Ertherin was so taken with the Wonderbag, that she told me we had 'the potential to change the humanitarian world’ and asked if we were prepared to do a pilot programme at a Syrian refugee camp. Less than a month later I flew to Jordan to begin the first program.
It was there that I met Um Samir and our journey began.
She was pivotal in helping distribute Wonderbags amongst the people of Cyber City, mobilizing a community of women.
If you had to ask her what the difference Wonderbag has made, her worn face breaks into a quiet smile “ No longer do we have to fight for space and time in the kitchen. Wonderbag gives the women more freedom and now we make friends and not enemies; and some of our dignity is restored. We cook staple foods in the Wonderbag but also now we can make yogurt and bread dough and adapt new recipes. We use the Wonderbag 90% of the time and it doesn’t cost us anything to use it.”
Of the 2.1 million Syrian refugees who fled the country in fear since 2011, nearly 1.5m are women and children. They arrived in Cyber City with nothing but the clothes on their backs; desperately poor, extremely malnourished and in dire need of humanitarian assistance. But what I have witnessed at Cyber City are the beginnings of hope. The Syrian women have something that they now own, something that enables them to provide for their families and eases their difficult lives just a little.
They are regaining their lost futures. Change is happening and I would like to believe that Wonderbag is playing a significant role in that change.
Even though the women of Cyber City have no money, no homes and have no idea where they will go, they have hope and no longer live in fear.
The many stories behind each Wonderbag are different but there is always a similar effect.