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The scene was one that wouldn’t have been out of place in many towns around the world.
Shops flanked each side of the main road, the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business, the odd donkey cart and bicycle blocking the way of the occasional vehicle. Shops selling everything you could imagine; nappies for the babies, toys for the children, wedding dresses for the excited brides and food for the hungry workers. Only this wasn’t a town. This was a refugee camp.
The camp I visited is home to over 80,000 Syrian refugees. It’s been in existence for almost four years now and over this time it’s developed from a chaotic crowd of thousands of tents, to a structured camp – almost a town in itself. Most of the ‘homes’ have their own toilets. Many have satellites precariously balanced on top. These people who came to escape war; these people who came to seek shelter for a short time, are slowly but surely building lives in this place. And the longer they stay the more normal their lives become.
The calm of today hides a reality that’s not far away though. There’s a sense of unease in the air as you walk around. The long lines of people queuing in the midday sun, seeking permission to leave the camp. The young boys looking tired and hungry from another hard day distributing goods around the camp in their wheelbarrows for little compensation. This small piece of land the only place these people can inhabit, unable to leave without the permission of a foreign government. Traders smuggling in goods for their shops. Police patrolling the area, monitoring the situation tightly. Schools surrounded by razor wire. Every so often this tension erupts in protests as the people and the authorities clash. Finding the balance between allowing
people the space to exist, without creating an independent town, takes much patience and insight and it’s easy to get it wrong. For now though it’s working. The strict rules on preventing anything permanent to be built are stringently followed, but the hundreds of unregistered shops which have sprung up are quietly left to get on with it. For now at least, this gives people the freedom to build some semblance of a life, not a life which we would call normal, but a life that they are slowly learning to accept.
But should they? Should anyone have to accept this way of life? A life of temporary housing in cramped conditions? A life of reporting your every move? A life of never knowing when, or even if, you will return home? A life of not knowing if loved ones are still alive? Why should anyone learn to live this way?
Babies are being born into this life. Children are growing in this place, playing in the rubble and the ditches. Teenagers are being married here, still mere children themselves. Adults are muttering their last breaths within the confines of this camp, unable to return home to say their goodbyes. These people live between the promise of life, and the fear of death. These children grow nestled in between the hope and hopelessness they see on a daily basis. Here, in this camp they call home. Slowly, but surely, this is becoming the norm for thousands of people.
And these people are making the most of it. Pre-schoolers are playing in nurseries, their laughter escaping from the playgrounds as they are given space to deal with the trauma they have witnessed. Children are attending school, giving them a chance of a childhood so cruelly taken from them. Teenagers are learning new skills which may one day be used in a life they can currently only
imagine outside the camp. Parents are attending literacy and parenting classes, learning to sit together with their children and encourage them to attend school. Men and women are volunteering with the international organisations providing much needed basic services. Yet still this cannot be called a good life.
Premature babies and birth complications are all too common, but with limited support available there is little that can be done. Children struggling with the emotional impact of war; some too scared to attend school because of the memories of bombs in their schools’ back home. Others refuse to attend school, not wanting to put down roots, convinced that they will soon be returning home. But they are not returning home. Not any time soon. Instead they are witnessing their parents in this limbo life, a life where they are unable to work (no refugee is permitted to work legally outside the camps). Teenagers, starved of their own childhood, are now becoming adults where they too must live in this limbo state. These people were
living middle class lives before the crisis hit. This doesn’t make it better or worse, but it should bring home to us how lucky we are to not have been born in to this by a random act of geography. These people weren’t born into it either. They were thrown in to it. Now their children are being born into it. Now it is becoming their normal. Their daily bread. From a distribution centre in the middle of the desert, in a camp they call home.
It can seem like there is little we can do, here, thousands of miles away. But we can.
We can call out the people who tell us that charity starts at home – charity starts where the needs are.
We can call out the people who say these refugees are not deserving – tell me, who does not deserve a life before death?
We can support international organisations – it is they that are providing the much needed services and support to these people.
We can put pressure on governments – our governments whose actions are exacerbating problems in the Middle East.
We can do much to help. We should do much to help. We must do much to help.
It is so easy to become complacent with our place in the world. It is so easy to forget how lucky we are not to have been born on the wrong side of a border. If it was your child, if it was your friend, you would not forget.
This week the Syrian people showed me resilience and determination in abundance. They showed me that people learn to accept the most challenging of circumstances and make the best of what they have. Nestled in amongst the dust and despair of the camp, was a determination; a determination for a future. A future they are building. A future that will rise out of this camp with its rules and restrictions, to form a new normal where these people and their children are free to live as they please, to learn, to laugh, to work and to play. It is up to us if we support them. It is up to us to choose which side of history we will stand on. Their lives will go on regardless.
This video tells you more about the Syrian crisis and how it links to the refugee crisis in Europe. If you want to know more about how you can help the refugee crisis in Europe check this out there is also some ideas of organisations involved in supporting the crisis here.