Life in the Al Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp

Below is an article that I wrote for the Galway Advertiser earlier this week.
In ten days time I am returning to Jordan to work teaching coding to teachers in local schools and in Syrian refugee camps.

The biggest humanitarian crisis since the aftermath of World War Two has led to an exodus of 5 million peoples from Syria since 2012.
In an effort to help refugees living within the Middle East, a small number of individuals from Galway in February 2016 became part of an ambitious digital learning programme designed to bring computer coding skills to thousands of children, teenagers and teachers living in camps and districts across the region. Known as Refugee Code Week (RCW) the initiative, led by the German software corporation SAP in partnership with the United Nations RefugeeAgency(UNHCR) and the Galway Education Centre, has developed course content and provided teams of IT volunteers from across three continents to upskill teachers from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries in delivering coding programmes to young refugees and the youth of host nations from eight years to twenty years of age.

The Galway volunteers taking part in the programme are Bernard Kirk , director of the Galway Education Centre and co-founder of RCW, Nuala Allen (SAP in Parkmore), Niall McCormick (Colmac Robotics) and Brendan Smith (NUI Galway).

Brendan Smith, who has through his Outreach projects at the university since 2004 worked with asylum seekers in Ireland, was seconded from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway to become a master instructor in RCW as well as in a sister programme, namely the highly successful Africa Code Week that has been operating since June 2015.

Here is his story.

The Middle East has experienced unimaginable devastation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As in all wars, civilians are the innocent victims.  In what was once one of the most modern countries in the region, it is estimated that 470,000 inhabitants have died since 2011, over 7.6 millions are internally displaced within Syria and over five million were forced to leave. Whilst approximately one million are in Europe, most are living in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In spite of the severe strain on their societies and economies, these host nations have responded with amazing generosity and friendship.  Lebanon has 1.2 million Syrians (in a total population of only 5.8 million that also includes 450,000 Palestinian refugees), Turkey has 2.7million and Jordan approximately 650,000.  Many refugees have lost family, friends, neighbours, homes and jobs. Scarred by their experiences of brutality and living in poverty often in enclosed camps in a foreign country, education and careers can become impossible luxuries as they spend their days struggling to survive.

There is a genuine fear that a whole generation of young Syrians will be absent from regular schooling. 

So it is essential that they are provided with the learning skills and knowledge that can offer them some genuine hope for a better future.  Refugee Code Week is part of that vision and commitment, with qualified trainers providing computer coding training to refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.
 I have worked in all four countries. But it was my time in the latter that introduced me at first hand to the sheer scale of this modern man-made disaster.
On my first trip on a small mini-bus packed with volunteers that left the Jordanian capital of Amman for the Al-Zaatari refugee camp located only a few kilometres from the Syrian border, I really was not sure what to expect. 
 Our destination represents the second largest refugee camp in the world. Surrounded by a deep trench, armed vehicles, military personnel, high fencing, barbed wire, with the sound of warplanes overhead, a huge mass of thousands of single-story prefabricatd wooden portacabins populated by over 80,000 confined inhabitants stretched before us.
It seemed to me then that we volunteers were but tiny pathetic dots on a human landscape where our high lofty aspirations would soon be dashed against the reality of everyday lives in an inhuman environment that was beyond our understanding.

But appearances can be deceptive. When it was hastily established in 2012, Al Zaatari was a sprawling tent encampment in a barren desert devoid of facilities, rife with corruption and violence. Most of the refugees that fled to Jordan did so to escape almost certain death or persecution in the Syrian city and countryside of Daraa which was where the uprising against the Assad regime began in March 2011. 
 But the Jordanian government, UNHCR, NGOs and donor countries working with the Syrian residents have together transformed Al Zaatari into a fully functioning city. Drill holes tapped into deep underground reservoirs provide water by way of a fleet of trucks and local storage tanks to the camp’s 14,000 families. It is expected that piped water will be installed in all homes later this year.  As well as nine schools, three hospitals, two supermarkets, and a number of sports fields, one of the most striking physical features of the camp is the large shopping street known by the camp residents as the ‘Champ Élysées’ that is populated with a myriad of Syrian boutiques, butchers, bakeries, food stalls, cafes and bike repair shops.  
The main mode of transport is the bicycle, thousands of which were donated by the Dutch government, from it seems those that they found abandoned outside railway stations across the Netherlands. 

Beautiful hand-painted murals emblazon the exterior walls of hundreds of huts extolling the message of hope, or showcasing the beautiful natural Syrian countryside that residents left behind and hope someday to return too.  But the main theme of the wall art painted by local artists is Education and the benefits that this promises.  

This belief is critical as there are serious problems for the youth of the camp.

Each family is provided with a quota of daily bread and a small monthly allowance.  But to pay for extra food and essentials a high percentage of residents work either with the UNHCR or often illegally outside the camp. Many of these illegal workers are children who can be exploited and abused.  30% of the camp’s residents are of school-going age. But 25-30% do not regularly attend any of Al Zaatari’s nine schools because they work. Hence our role in introducing computer coding into the camp’s schools and in promoting the economic benefits that this should entail for child refugees is something that we believe strongly in.

The students teachers that we taught came from many different career backgrounds but all were warm, gracious, creative men, women and children that had an appetite to learn, to overcome the circumstances that had befallen them and to teach the new language of coding to the children of Al Zaatari. 

We also provided a Syrian female organisation in the camp known as the Tigers who organise social and educational projects for girls with programmable robot kits. Because of the circumstances that they find themselves in, being confined within a small geographical space, there was no doubt that many of the camp’s female teenagers were getting married younger than would been the case previously when they probably would have had the opportunity to continue on into further education.

The UNHCR personnel such as Abdul Qader Almasri welcomed us with open arms and provided laptops, rooms and translators.

There were some cultural differences though to get used too. Whilst it was okay for me to shake hands with my male students, this was not the case with regard to females.  Instead I would place my hand above my heart and gently smile when we were being introduced or when leaving. Though most young women I taught wore the veil known as the Hijab, some wore the Nijab which covers all of the face except for the eyes. As a teacher from Ireland, this took a little getting used to!

But a sobering thought for me of my time in Al Zaatari and elsewhere in the Middle East was that many of the friendly kind-hearted Syrian people that I taught, met and now consider my friends would have been tortured, enslaved, conscripted into armed groups or killed had they stayed in their country.

Note: I will be organising an exhibition of murals and paintings by Syrian artists from Al Za’atari in  Galway later this year.

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