At the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

I hesitated to accept an invitation to visit the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where more than 80,000 Syrian refugees reside close to the border with their country. I was afraid that I and those accompanying me would go through what Lakhdar Brahimi, former U.N. envoy to Syria, was subjected to in Oct. 2012. Protesters allegedly hurled stones at him because they felt he was procrastinating and incapable of ending the unjust war that has displaced them.

Nothing has improved since Brahimi’s visit, which did not yield any results – just like my visit last Monday with a group of researchers. We visited the camp as we were in Amman for a panel being held by the researchers.

During the visit, I heard an expression that summarizes the suffering of the Syrian people and refugees in general: “We always meet with delegations and we voice our suffering to them. We make humble demands and they make promises, but nothing happens.” I heard this reprimand and I was silent, like the others, as we cannot lie. After all, nothing on the horizon calls for optimism regarding the Syrian situation.

During his visit, Brahimi promised to inform the United Nations of what he had seen in the camp. He must have done so. A lot has happened since he made that statement, but nothing that ends the refugees’ sufferings or helps them return home. Brahimi resigned, and a new envoy with new ideas was assigned. However, refugee numbers have doubled at the camp, which has become a city of caravans.

Some 430,000 refugees have temporarily stayed there, leaving to other camps or finding a cruel life in Jordanian cities, where there are no jobs and no one looking after them. I am not accusing Jordan of dereliction. The economy of the country, which has become a destination for Arab refugees, is limited and barely capable of employing its own citizens.

Regime responsibility

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shelled every city and town that has defied him. He claims to be fighting gangs and terrorists, but in fact he is fighting anyone who refuses his rule. In the doctrine of Arab tyrants and their obedient slaves, refusing governance is reason enough for the regime to kill liberals and destroy cities. Instead of blaming the tyrant, people blame the Arab Spring, those who believe in it, and those who long for freedom.

In the doctrine of Arab tyrants and their obedient slaves, refusing governance is reason enough for the regime to kill liberals and destroy cities. Instead of blaming the tyrant, people blame the Arab Spring, those who believe in it, and those who long for freedom.

Jamal Khashoggi

The Geneva 2 conference was held with the aim “of establishing a transitional ruling body with complete executive jurisdictions and which includes members of the Syrian government and opposition,” as stipulated by the Geneva 1 conference. The Russians, Assad’s allies, insisted on implementing the Geneva 1 agreement, and almost half of the world’s countries met for Geneva 2. It appeared as if everyone had agreed on ending this hideous and bitter struggle.

However, the Syrian regime succeeded in evading the stipulations, and the foreign ministers of countries that attended returned home and nothing happened. U.S. President Barack Obama threatened to intervene after Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. However, Obama then retreated and the Saudis, Turks, French and others said Assad had lost legitimacy and the massacre must stop. Meanwhile, Zaatari camp continued to receive more refugees.

At first, the regime denied the refugee crisis. One of its spokesmen even said the refugee tents and their inhabitants were a mere show aimed at distorting the regime’s image. As the world ignored the regime’s crimes, and as it targeted unarmed protestors in order to push them to take up arms to protect themselves, and as the regime continued to talk of “armed gangs” that it hoped would come into existence so the world could see the revolution as violent, its spokesmen stopped denying the presence of refugees. However, they said these refugees had escaped armed gangs and were a natural result of a war on terrorism.

Refugee burden

After more than two years since Brahimi’s departure and submission of a report on the newly-established camp, Syrians have become the second-largest refugee population in the world. Officially, more than half of the Syrian people are displaced, with 4 million scattered among Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and more than 6 million displaced inside Syria, where Assad pursues them with barrel bombs.

Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are no longer capable of hosting more refugees. Even the United Nations is no longer capable of containing them. While I was at Zaatari, an American supervisor at the U.N. Food Program told me about its program to provide food for refugees. The program is amazing, as it maintains some of the refugees’ dignity.

Refugees are granted cards provided by MasterCard, and the United Nations provides 20 Jordanian dinars per person per month. Each refugee spends the money freely at a supermarket inside the camp. It is a good idea, but it lacks one important thing: funds.

The supervisor said the program is decreasing the amount to 18 dinars this month, and it may be halved in a few months. It is only $28 for each U.N.-registered Syrian refugee, not for every Syrian refugee, whose total number is double the registered ones. However, donors lack the funds and willingness as the world has become used to the Syrian tragedy and it has disappeared from the news.


I overcame my fear and went to the camp. It is a cold desert in winter. The town of Zaatari, close to the camp, is no better and has no jobs. It seems that desperation reigns over the camp’s residents. Livelihood needs, the revolution’s disintegration and the world’s dereliction has diverted refugees’ attention from politics and protesting. Those who yelled at Brahimi two years ago did not yell at us.

While there, a young man who had worked as a nurse in Syria said: “If I return to Syria, whom will I join in the fighting? Will I join Al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? There’s no hope for the regime to win either. There’s nothing but chaos and murder. What will I do there? Homes are destroyed and there’s shelling on a daily basis. If the regime wins it’ll kill you, and if ISIS wins it’ll also kill you. We have plenty to do here, but as you see we have few resources.”

Another young man said: “I wish we used our wasted time here by getting an education. We need a university. It doesn’t even matter if we sit on the ground as we learn. It doesn’t matter if it’s distance-learning. We’d at least learn something, which can help us rebuild our country when we return. We must return, as wars eventually come to an end. However, the war will end after it destroys everything, so who’ll build Syria? Who’ll teach our children? Eighty babies are born here every day, and it seems we’ll stay at the Zaatari camp for a long time.”

A Jordanian officer, who seems to be the commander at the camp, told me that its administration is in the process of establishing a water and sewage network. So the camp is here to stay, and is turning into a miserable city that awaits something that appears unlikely.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on March 25, 2015.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.