Impressions from 2 refugee camps in Jordan: Zaatari and Azraq

What is a refugee camp like? How are children living and learning there? And is there anything that I can do to support? These questions are still floating through my mind – it would be arrogant and naïve to expect easy answers – but I have at least some frame of reference now. I’ve just returned from Jordan, where I visited two camps.

How did I end up there?

During a visit to South-Africa a few months ago, I realized that I wanted to focus more on children and young people in extremely disadvantaged settings. I started to read in-depth about the refugee crisis and talked with about 30 experts, from refugees to NGO staff to policy makers. I wanted to get the big picture. Among the revelations were the numbers. That the large influx of refugees in Europe in 2015 equaled 0.2% of its population for example, while in Lebanon this figure was 20% (a great book with more insights and stories of refugees is The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley). I tested my grunting capacity in Arabic lessons with a wonderful Syrian teacher. I also got an invitation to visit and support the Better Learning Program for children in two Jordanian camps.


Picture by Mustafa Bader

Zaatari and Azraq: some background

These two camps are both similar and different. Both are substantial in size and located in the Jordanian desert. Zaatari has 79K inhabitants, while Azraq is smaller, with 54K ‘persons of concern’ (and 36K said to actually live in the camp). Life in Azraq appears tougher, with fewer facilities: families don’t have electricity in their cabins. Zaatari has 2,500 refugee-operated shops and businesses, compared to only 100 refugee-operated shops in Azraq. Also, the people in Azraq are thought to have experienced more of the war, since the camp was established 2 years later than Zaatari. There are positive developments at Azraq as well though; to start with, they are building a large solar panel field to provide families with electricity.

A few more child-specific figures about Zaatari: about 30K of its inhabitants are between 5 and 18 years old. In the ideal world, they would all go to school. There are 9 schools, with 21k school-aged children enrolled (think about the scale…). What I find hard to assess is how many children really get education on a regular basis. Does being enrolled mean going to school at least 4 days a week or just once in a while? I heard that children are – of course – often sent to distributions of goods, or to get water for the family, instead of to school. Also for children who do go to school, with the scale I mentioned, one wonders what the classes look like and how children are able to concentrate. Especially considering their war experiences and the general disturbance of family life.

To get an impression of Zaatari, this film by two young Americans is worth watching (it’s not free but you can hire it online for a small price, it’s for a good cause):


I was impressed with the camps. I had expected worse, more chaos mostly. Maybe it’s similar to when you see hospital Emergency Departments in the media and then visit the Royal Children’s in Melbourne. You find out how calm that environment actually is. Not that it’s empty – the ED staff see about 11K children per year – but it’s well organized and most of the time, the atmosphere is quiet. The Royal Children’s in Melbourne is different from an adult trauma center in Chicago though, and likewise, these Jordanian camps are different from other camps (plus two more things: 1) this is not how Zaatari started out but it has come a long way and 2) keep in mind that most refugees actually don’t live in refugee camps; in Jordan about 90% of the refugees live elsewhere).

The Better Learning Program

My visit involved the learning centers of the Norwegian Refugee Council. They support children who have dropped out from the camp’s school system and help them get back on track. I can imagine the colorful, child-friendly premises with lots of learning materials are literally a small oasis for the children. The rest of the camps, especially in Azraq, looks quite different. It was good to see the motivation and commitment of the local Jordanian staff, the international staff, and the teachers in both places.

The teachers are Syrian refugees, inhabitants of the camps. Many of them are involved in the Better Learning Program, which aims to help children concentrate in the classroom and deal with nightmares. These teachers not only have their own war experiences to cope with, but also try to support the children. It was great to be able to work with them during a few days and get some insight in their perspectives. We also spoke with a number of parents who have kids at the centers.


What struck me in a negative way is the lack of outlook. I knew it beforehand but it’s different to see it in reality. These people have already spent two or three years in the camp. There is no indication that they will be able to return home or move on anytime soon. In the camps, they are safe but also limited in their movement and work opportunities.

Towards a trauma-informed system?

Several conversations and also the Zaatari video showed that what is evident for trauma professionals, is not necessarily for everyone else. A boy who used to love school and now can’t be talked into attending, immediately makes me wonder whether something happened. Not the (lovely) guys in the video. They do find out eventually and it all ‘lands on its feet’ as we say in Dutch, but the way they handle the situation shows a lack of awareness, not only individually but also collectively. This comes with a number of risks, for example that parents behave harshly towards children who are still bedwetting because of stressful events. What I heard from the teachers is that many children are troubled by nightmares about their war and flight experiences. These are not isolated cases that can be referred to a limited number of specialists. While a lot of good work is already being done, there appears to be scope to build more awareness and support within the whole refugee camp system.

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