Salam Ashara and his family left Syria in early 2013, when no one expected the civil war in their country to rage for years with no signs of relenting and create the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
The Asharas were among the first families to settle in Zaatari, Jordan’s first and now its largest refugee camp, with 80,000 residents. Zaatari has grown up around them as they forged new lives among the dust and dirt, preparing for years in exile.
They are part of the mass displacement of Syrians - more than 4.8 million have fled their homeland since 2011, including 655,000 who have settled in Jordan.
Refugees’ conditions have worsened. Many scratch out a living in exile close to home or risk their lives crossing deserts and seas. Some learn new languages and others face rising hostility toward the displaced in the Middle East, Europe and North America.
The UN refugee agency, marking World Refugee Day on Monday, says persecution and conflict in places like Syria and Afghanistan have raised the total number of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide to a record 65.3 million by the end of 2015. The previous year, 2014, had already seen the highest number since World War II, with 60 million displaced people.
Meanwhile, aid agencies lament chronic funding shortages. A UN-led aid appeal seeks $4.55 billion for Syrian refugees and host communities this year, but by April less than a quarter of the money had been received.
Donor countries are shifting the emphasis from humanitarian aid to long-term development in the regional host countries. It is part of efforts to discourage refugees from migrating to Europe, but education and work programs take time to kick in.
In Zaatari, the eight-member Ashara family - Salam, his wife Hoda and their six children - is trying to make a new home.
They live in two pre-fab trailers that they have connected with a tarpaulin canopy. They have two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and a kitchen - relative luxury for a refugee camp.
Ashara owns a housing goods store in Zaatari’s bustling market and once served as a community policeman in the camp.
After hours, the 43-year-old writes poetry and uses his verses to keep the memory of Syria alive for his children. One is titled, “Sixth Year,” a reference to the duration of the Syria conflict.
“We entered our sixth year saddened and in pain. Every day my son asks me, ‘How long, my father, until we return? I miss the children of our street, I miss the taste of our water and the weather of our gorgeous country,’“ he sings to his sons Ayman, 13, and Saeb, 11.
All of his children, except two-year old Mohammad, were born in Syria, and he hopes his poetry can secure their memories of home.
Time to leave
Ashara’s art once landed him in jail.
In 2012, as the conflict was intensifying, members of Syria’s feared paramilitary group, the “shabiha,” abducted Ashara from his family home in Syria’s southern Deraa province. Ashara says he was taken because he had published songs and poems protesting against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
When Ashara was released four months later, an airstrike devastated their neighbor’s home. The Asharas decided it was time to leave Syria. They packed bags and headed to Jordan, paying smugglers to take them past checkpoints. They walked the final three kilometers laden with their heavy belongings.
At the time, thousands were escaping Syria, heading to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Zaatari, which before the war was less than an hour’s drive from Deraa, was established in the summer of 2012. It quickly swelled from a few tents to a de facto city of over 100,000 people. The population dropped when Jordan’s second largest camp, Azraq, opened in 2014.
Ashara doesn’t expect to return home soon. He hopes his children stay in school, marry well and prosper in the camp.
“If the regime fell tomorrow, we couldn’t return for another 10 years,” he says. “Ten years. Because what we will face in Syria will be much worse than what the people are now facing in Libya. In Libya it won’t be another 10 to 20 years until it returns to half of what it was. With Syria I believe the dark times will be much, much worse.”
He sits down, takes out his notebook, and begins reciting. His sons lean in on his right and left, Ayman looking at the words, Saeb focused on his father’s face.
“Hear the voice of our village, and ask your loved ones about the conditions of exile,” he sings.