Looking for Shelter (and a Little Privacy) in Jordan’s Largest Syrian Refugee Camp

As Syria's civil war rages, the world's second largest refugee camp has become Jordan's fourth largest city

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With winter fast approaching and thousands of Syrian refugees still living in tents at Zaatari, the huge refugee camp in northern Jordan, the most momentous new arrivals are the big, white boxes that enter camp on the back of flatbed trucks.  What the refugees call “caravans” are pre-fabricated one-room units, just four walls, a couple of windows and a laminated floor. But they are the object of such ardent desire that when a convoy carrying 300 of them approached Zaatari on Tuesday morning, camp authorities braced for a riot.  Three armored trucks took up positions near the entrance. The nearest aid agency hurried its workers indoors with frowns and pursed lips.

“The quality of the caravans differs, but they are protection” says Iris Blom, the camp’s deputy manager. “People fight for them. Literally fight.”

What unfolded on Tuesday, however, was a scene not of the angry desperation that characterized the first year of Zaatari’s existence, when as many as 4,000 people might arrive on a single day, overwhelming all efforts to accommodate them.  The pressures at hand these days turn out to be subtler and more delicately human, the sort that families face in the second year away from home.

Some much-needed privacy for newlyweds, for instance.

“She’s newly married, and she’s sleeping with his sisters. Which is unacceptable!” shouts Aisha Ghad Al-Sees, 50. She refers to her daughter-in-law, who married her son eight months ago, and bunks with both him and his five sisters. Which is the next thing Aisha announces to the neighborhood, not that it’s news in quarters this close. “And the boy’s 18 and for him to sleep with the teenage girls is also unacceptable.”

The new caravans are right there, lined up on trucks on Street 20 of District 1, a dusty lane in the oldest part of Zaatari.  The most important truck is the one bearing the crane that lowers the caravans — each bearing a stenciled flag of Taiwan, which contributed it — onto the plot.  The man controlling the crane listens to Aisha, then holds a finger to his lips. “The names have already been written down,” he says.

“No!” Aisha shouts. “Give me for my daughter. Give me for my son!”  She proffers an ID card, and guides him down from the truck  to her the doorway of the home the family has made in its 15 months in Zaatari: Not a tent at all, but two caravans, one facing the other across a concrete courtyard, fashioned in the manner of Arab homes.  They bought both of the coveted white boxes on the black market, paying 400 Jordanian dinars, about $600.  But they feel they need a third.

Caravans once were supposed to be distributed according to need, with priority given to residents designated as most vulnerable. But the UN’s refugee agency concedes it never quite worked out that way – officials have learned that, to get things done, they need to reach out to the tribal leaders that Blom refers to as “the Abu’s and the “Super-Abu’s” (Abu is Arabic for father). At this point, the rules say anyone living in a tent is entitled to a caravan, but there are not yet the 4,000 boxes needed to go around.

“It’s all mafias,” says a man watching as the crane director moves through the crowd like a celebrity. He gives his name as Abu Ahmed. “The people in Syria, they’re still ruling us here. We had to sell my wife’s gold to get a caravan.”

The operator climbs back on the truck. A box is hoisted into the air. It swings gently, first hovering over their side of the dusty street, then over the other side.  Will the Al-Sees get a caravan today?

“I don’t know,” says Aisha’s husband, Mansour, eyes locked on the prize. “I think I might.”

But when the box descends, it is to an open patch of gravel on the other side of the road.  Mansour’s son, 25, frowns. “There’s not a chance in hell I’m gonna get a caravan,” he gripes.   “Who do you talk to to get a caravan? I don’t want to sleep between my sisters. I want a caravan.”

His wife of eight months stands in the doorway of the room they share with the five girls. Her smile is sad, and her eyes rimmed with fatigue. Her mother-in-law explains that she is three months pregnant.