Archive for the ‘Jordan Fieldtrip 2013’ Category

Syria: The Trojan Women

Thursday, December 19th, 2013


“Syria: The Trojan Women “ a play based on Euripides’ Greek tragedy, has been adapted by Director Omar Abusaada to include the stories of 25 Syrian women refugees. The opening of the play is tonight at the King Abdullah Centre for Culture and Arts in Amman, Jordan


After six months of fundraising, six weeks of intense preparation and, for us,  two and a half hours of hitchhiking through the unseasonal snow, we arrive at the Centre to be there on their opening night.

The play’s focus on the impact of war has lost nothing of its potency since it was first seen in 415BC at the time of the Peloponessian War between Athens and the Pelopponessian League, led by Sparta. Since then, The Trojan Women has been translated into many languages, performed worldwide and adapted for relevance to modern warfare.

The universal themes, female perspective and anti-war message of Euripides’ work remain deeply relevant to a diverse audience.  As the testimonies of those women we have met prove, the way women historically experienced war – through rape, abuse, enslavement, loss and murder – is still very much the same.

The idea for a Syrian interpretation of this play came from Charlotte Eagar, an Oxford –educated classicist and former war reporter. Charlotte, along with her production team Hal Scardino and Georgie Paget, have been overwhelmed by the response when they suggested putting on an re-interpretation of The Trojan Women, replacing Euripides’ chorus with accounts from the women of what they have endured themselves and explanations of why the play is relevant to them.  The play now traces the parallels between the fates of the women of Troy and Syrian women fleeing the violence in their own country.

Funding for the project, has in the main, come from UK donors through the Prospero World Charitable Trust and that is why we have come to attend and to celebrate their achievement on the opening night. The play will run for 2 rather than the 3 nights because of the snow.

On the opening night, the theatre was three quarters full of a multi cultural audience including Jordanians, Syrian refugees and their families, and a healthy smattering of expats and visitors including Charlotte’s cousin who has flown out to Amman for the opening night. Each audience member pays an entry fee of JD5 (about £3.50). Total fees taken will be divided up and shared by the Syrian refugees acting in the play.


To prepare, the Syrian actress Nanda Mohammad trained the women for six weeks. The project has included drama therapy sessions for participants which aim to provide a therapeutic intervention to enable the refugees to work through the emotional trauma they have experienced. While the women work, their children are cared for in a crèche at the Centre with toys donated by  supporters of the project in London.

A visit to the crèche demonstrates that toys are not enough. Children who have witnessed what they have are often violent and not able to play with other children.

Before the violence in the creche begins…

Cameron and I go to play with the children: Cameron is punched hard in the face by a toddler as I crouch down and am kicked, repeatedly, by a four year old boy who simultaneously spits at me. It is a clear display of the trauma they have endured. A psychiatrist, himself a Syrian refugee now living in Amman, was brought into the project to visit the women. When he witnessed the behavious of the children, he extended his work to  them too and will continue doing so after the completion of the project.

Back in the amphitheatre at 5 o’clock, the play start time has been brought forward from 8 o’clock because of the snow. As the theatre fills up with Syrian refugees, the women take their stage. The audience is a healthy split of men, women and children. They come in slowly but the theatre soon fills up with chatter, movement and excitement.

A screen, split into two, appears behind the women. On the left side, the stories are told of Hecuba, Cassandra and Andromache. On the left, a Syrian woman relates her own experience of the Syrian conflict and how that is related to the Trojan protagonist.  Her voice suddenly softens and she pauses for breath. When she looks up, tears are falling down her cheeks as she continues with her story. Despite being entirely in Arabic, which I do not understand, the effect is extremely moving.

Although we do not have the opportunity to meet the women themselves and hear how the project has affected them, it is clear that the project has given them a voice. And the ability to share their own story in order that they may move on and create another, brighter narrative for the futures they are to create.

Publicity of opening night



Cameron Hill in Zarqua, Jordan

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Our day begins at the UNHCR office in Grab Dheir, a suburb of Amman home to embassies and expatriate compounds, with a soft view of the city spread across its seven hills through thick smog. We join field staff here to begin our journey to the Mafraq refugee helpdesk in Zarqua: one of two in Jordan, it has the capacity to process 250 cases per day.

Although it is only 35 miles from Amman, the journey takes around two hours. Our schedule has been arranged by the head of the UNHCR’s urban response unit in Amman; this is the team responsible for refugees outside formalised camps such as Zaatari. Mafraq is a staging post for thousands in the region. Refugees come here to book appointments to register as refugees with the UNHCR, and to seek general advice on their journey towards more settled lives.

Crawling through choked traffic, we navigate roadblocks and closures, looping back through Amman’s endless highways to cross the city and collect case officers waiting at the roadside snowdrifts. By the time we reach Zarqua, 200 Syrian refugees are clustered outside the centre; a medical clinic run by Mercy Corps that now doubles as a regional registration site. It will take seven hours until the last applicant has been seen.

Many have waited four hours for our arrival. The frustration is impossible to miss. A heavy, metal gate secures the entrance and two volunteers direct the priority admissions: the elderly, frail, disabled and those with young children. People stand patiently with their documents into the afternoon. The final appointment ends at dusk as the call to prayer sounds from the mosque next door. Everyone has been seen.  In peak periods this may not be the case, and some refugees would then need to return the following Thursday.

The stories told are incredible, dismaying, harrowing. We meet Hasam, a 34 year old from Homs. He had lived in the United Arab Emirates, working at a private hospital as an accountant. Enjoying what he described as a stimulating job, he was promoted to a senior position until his passport ran out; unable to return to Syria to renew it, he was forced to come to Jordan and register for refugee status. A return would have involved certain involvement in fighting with either government or the FSA rebel forces, or an unaffordable bribe to avoid conscription. The Syrians we speak to estimate this at between five and ten thousand dollars. Five unsuccessful asylum applications later, he spends his days bored and dispirited, rations affording little else but bread, seldom leaving his room. Life turns on erratic contact with family in Damascus by Skype, daily visits to the mosque and Thursdays at the Mafraq centre to advocate for less able refugees. Desperate for work and a real routine, he feels he is waiting and hoping to provide and start his life again.

Khaled is a 19 year old car welder from Homs and he is illiterate. He has visible scars from six months of torture in a detention centre. The lacerations on his neck and ears are raised and sore, and he points to dozens of cigarette burns either side of his spine. His brother has been arrested and imprisoned by government forces. Khaled has not heard from him for over 18 months. He suspects he has been murdered. He fled Syria the moment he escaped the torture camp and is unable to return unless he wishes to join the FSA which he does not.

UNHCR outreach worker verifying refugee identities

Noor Al-deen is a 25 year old graphic designer, also from Homs. His uncle owned a butcher’s shop there. In January, rebels botched the kidnap of a Lieutenant inside the shop. His uncle was accused of plotting the kidnap. He was imprisoned and starved. His cousin was murdered. Noor Al-deen was deemed guilty by family association. He fled Syria and is here today to register as a refugee.

Others we speak to describe long periods of torture; many say they have no idea why they have been detained. Questions are returned: do British people know what is happening here, and do they care? Without the right paperwork, medical assistance is refused at public hospitals. Can British doctors come to help the sick and injured?

Fatima speaks slowly and calmly, recounting her long journey from Qaysa with her two small daughters. She lost her husband in the fighting and has had no contact with her sisters for two months. Now she is living day by day, sharing a single room with another refugee family. Deeply traumatised, she struggles to support her children with vouchers from the World Food Programme: she is here today to secure cash assistance of anything up to $125 per month- UNHCR say the amount she receives will be determined on her family size, circumstances and assessed vulnerabilities.  Fatima thanks us for listening to her, and returns to join the group waiting outside.

There are many more stories today- recounted with desperation and courage- and but a tiny fraction of the refugee mosaic in Syria. The suffering we hear today at Mafraq is heavy and raw, yet all the refugees here face loss on a scale that is difficult for us to comprehend. Most of all, there is an immense sense of lives left behind. For almost all this extends to the anguish and fear for their friends and family still at risk in Syria. For others, there is the unimaginable burden of grief and bereavement from loved ones killed in this conflict.







Reporting from an informal refugee settlement in Mawa, Amman

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

The end of December has been busier than the UNHCR staff had hoped. Most activity is limited to sunshine hours- the heat is needed to melt the road ice- and the shorter days mean restricted operations. The network of agencies and NGOs is now racing to keep up, and there’s plenty more to get done. Heaters still need to be delivered to refugee families in the camps and other settlements, storm damage to buildings repaired.

All these conditions are difficult, but creative civic efforts are underway in the city. On seeing stranded workers facing the night in their cars, staff in a coffee house in the Aboud neighbourhood stayed on duty, with people sleeping there until sunrise. Drivers with tyres stuck in the snow are helped on their way by teenagers on duty with bags of salt. Passers-by lend a hand at the first sign of trouble. These stories keep coming, and the recounting of them maintains morale.

Adding to the frenetic pace, some important delegations arrived to visit refugee programmes earlier this week. These include the Kuwaiti government: the biggest single donor across the region in this humanitarian crisis. Of course, Zaatari is at the top of every delegation’s lists to visit.

The second largest refugee camp in the world is a pressure cooker, with amplification of noise, tension and distress; there is almost no privacy. Maintaining people’s dignity here is crucial for a safe, calmer camp. So it’s no surprise that official visits can be unpopular, and if handled without sensitivity ‘the stones will start to fly’. One in five Syrian refugees in Jordan are based in the two government run camps: the remainder live in host families in urban and rural communities, or in informal settlements.

It’s easy to notice these settlements around the south western outskirts of Amman; familiar white and navy UNHCR tarpaulin is clearly visible on tents from the roadside. When community leaders invite us to Mawa, a settlement of 150 families in south west Amman, details of the arrangement are quickly discussed. Access will be acceptable to the families living there, and we welcome the opportunity to meet with them.

The outskirts of the city are reached quickly today. Police hurry over to the car when we get lost. They are eager to help and courteous. Later we hear that police call on the settlements from time to time; their main purpose is to enquire about the wellbeing of the community.
The Mawa site is in an arid field, bordered by roads and a steep bank to the north, with an imposing factory just behind. Beyond this is a mosque and uniform blocks of suburban housing. It resonates with the bustle of daily life: clothes drying on washing lines, children exploring a new lake in the pit and noisy goats. The tents look fragile in this seemingly chaotic place.

We meet Majit. He is an authority figure in this community, directing our visit with confidence, introducing us to families and explaining the infrastructure of the place. His responsibility is welfare of the school age children- a near continuation of the teaching job he left behind in Hamah, close to the city of Homs. He lives here with his new wife Fatima- a distant cousin from the same village. Last week they were married in a double wedding, with her sister and Majit’s brother sealing their union too. Both brides are fifteen years old, the men in their early twenties.

The interior of the makeshift school

We sit in the after-school club. It is the largest tent on site, and a much needed resource for around 100 school age children and their families. Before the bombings, children in Hamah led structured lives; Majit thinks the child care here has improved behaviour and general wellbeing. The tent is immaculate inside and has been ingeniously constructed: breeze blocks and compressed cardboard make the basic foundation, salvaged iron poles support a high roof, and the double tarpaulin protects against wind and rain. The floor is carpeted, and a neat stack of home-made desks lines the far wall. But there is no insulation, and the tent is cold in the winter months. A thick nylon sheet would make a big difference here.

Four years ago just two families lived on this land. They were economic migrants from Hamah and maintained links with extended family in Syria. When the impact of the conflict escalated in 2012, Majit’s village faced increasing danger alongside worsening living conditions. With existing links to families already established in Amman, 550 individuals reached this settlement over a six month period. Conditions would be harsh, but families would be safe- and there was seasonal work in the vegetable packing factory. The settlement has grown in size and basic facilities. And there are constraints. Income is irregular, and links to some essential services are poor. The nearest school is 10 kilometres away and there is no daily transport for the children.

The community’s resourcefulness is impressive. There are showers in tents, using water piped in from the factory, and good sanitation with septic tanks deep in the ground. Waste is collected communally and arduous journeys made to a municipal dump in the near distance. The tents are as solid as they can be with the materials available.

Safiyah, Yaseen and their extended family outside their home

We meet Safiya and Yaseen in their large tent; sweet coffee and cigarettes are dispensed. Cartoon programmes play on a television and birds sing in a cage. We are joined by husbands, daughters, cousins and the tent is soon full. The talk is of another wedding, Safiya’s sister, who wants to study English Literature at university, and her cousin. Family structures seem strong. But there is poignancy and sadness. Many villagers left behind beautiful homes and successful businesses to come and live here- and the ability to help others in need is a prized part of everyday life.

There is no government support in this settlement, and a minimal NGO presence. Although it is resilience and resourcefulness that have enabled the community to adapt in this environment, both positive relationships with the land owner and strong diaspora have also made this possible- alongside a broader groundswell of support within Jordanian society. But a ceiling has now been reached with the current community resources. Getting children to the nearest school is the next major hurdle to overcome.

Refugee settlers elsewhere have been less fortunate, and many informal settlements continue to struggle with basic needs: adequate shelter, sanitation and keeping the community together. And exploitative labour, overcrowded and unsanitary housing and forced marriage are common problems both in and outside the camps. Syria’s future is uncertain, but these refugees will need strong ties with local communities, employers and public infrastructure for as long as they are in Jordan.



Grab Dheir, Amman, Jordan

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Zaatari has become the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. The three square miles of Jordanian desert, 12km from the Syrian border is the second largest refugee camp in the world. It is now the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Established in July 2012, it is home to 130, 000 refugees. At its peak in April 2013, the camp housed 203,000 Syrian refugees. The three hospitals here, mean that  healthcare and mortality rates are significantly better  for refugees inside Zaatari, than for those outside it. Although there are schools, attendance is low at an estimated 25%. Over 3,000 shops selling everything from bread, to scent, to wedding dresses, have been set up along the camp’s main roads, including one known as the Champs Elysee. There are football pitches, taxi services and children’s playgrounds.

But life here is hard. Violence is widespread and gangs are everywhere. Refugees are not permitted to leave the camp freely. Visitors come to visit on their tour buses as if they were on a day trip to the zoo. No-one wants to live here. But many, do not have a choice but to do so.

But despite the media focus on Zaatari, 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camps in host communities, many of them with host families. Their plight is slowly gaining attention.

Today we meet the head of the UNHCR’s urban response unit to hear more about what is being done for those living in host communities. He is a calm, charismatic and considered man. Which is no coincidence given that under his management, his team are responsible for home visits, cash assistance and the provision of healthcare to refugees living outside the country’s refugee’s camps.

Refugees who have entered Jordan must by law, register their status. Their first point of call is a the UNHCR helpdesk.  Many refugees, who have entered Jordan illegally, will have had their documents removed at the border. The task at the helpdesk is to verify the identification of applicant refugees, through corroboration of their stories and supporting documents where they are available, in order to move them on to formal registration at an appointment at one of the UNHCRs two registration centres in Jordan- Helda or Irbid.  Where entire families present themselves at the helpdesk, they will be registered on the spot and issued with their refugee paper.

During this subsequent appointment, refugees have their irises scanned. Once this is complete, they are presented with an A4 document confirming they are a UNHCR registered refugee. This paper must be guarded with their life. It, along with their iris print, entitles them to benefits including cash assistance on average of $125 per month for a family of 5, accessing education through UNICEF and  it is their passport to healthcare.  The UNHCR are working with the Jordanian government to implement a refugee identity card within twelve months.

The UNHCR make home visits to those who are sick or unable to attend the helpdesk. Or rather, their 250 caseworkers do. They have made 130,000 home visits to date, to assess refugee status and what to do next.

The cash assistance programme uses a biometric iris identification system to prevent fraud. The process is this. Refugees receive a message on their mobile phones once a month, telling them that money is ready for collection. They in turn go to one of 100 specialist ATMs fitted with an iris scanner to identify the refugee, and their cash is distributed from the cash point. They receive this form of cash assistance for 6 months before they need to re-register as a refugee.

The system has been piloted in Jordan and designed by a Jordanian company who provided the first several thousand transactions free of charge as part of the UNHCR pilot.

Cash is a compliment to other services, including World Food Programme vouchers, which entitle refugees to food.  It is not intended to provide beneficiaries with the full cost of living.  Cash assistance is provided to refugees to compensate for laws that prevent them from working in Jordan. Many of them do so of course, in the informal sector- 25% if estimates are correct.

The level and speed of help is assessed on a case-by-case basis with at risk groups including children, female-headed households, the sick and the elderly being prioritised.  The UNHCR estimate that 30-50% of registered refugees fall into this category.

Of those who apply to be registered by the UNHCR as a refugee and receive their benefits, 5-10% are rejected as human rights violators. Others choose not to because they are independently wealthy or because they simply do not want to, despite the Jordanian authorities requiring them to do so.

It is unusual for the UNHCR to be providing an emergency response in a middle country like Jordan. However, their mandate is clear. To safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. To ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.

Tomorrow we visit Mafraq to see how the UNHCR enact this ambitious mandate.

Amman, Jordan. December 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013

When most people think of Jordan, images of Petra, the Dead Sea and the desert dance into their mind.

Today, in complete contrast, a thick carpet of snow awaits us at Amman airport. Storm Alexa has wrought havoc. Men in keffiyehs teeter precariously along icy pavements, cars glide on ice-glazed tarmac at a top speed of 3 mph and boulders of ice litter the road. Meteorologists report that this is the worst storm to hit the Middle East in 60 years. On the ground, we can certainly attest to the effects.

Last Friday, images of the Pyramids after Cairo’s first snowfall in 112 years went viral. In Jerusalem, Hasidic Jews prayed at the Wailing Wall while snow tumbled around them. Children in Lebanon sculpted round snowmen, Palestinians braved a foot of snow in Hebron clutching weekly shopping bags, and in Jordan, King Abdullah helped to push free a car stuck in the snow on an Amman street. Schools and government offices have been closed for days.

In Amman’s university district, students slide over banks of snow that harden again overnight and bring the city to a standstill. We meet an Arabic student from east London, snowed into accommodation for three days, describing an Amman gridlocked, shops re-opening slowly and an emergency national holiday in response to the standstill. Over shawarma and fatoush, we notice two Syrian kids in warm but dirty clothes, selling colouring books of the Disney princesses. They play in the snow in a larger group; later the staff hand them cartons of juice from over the counter. Half of Jordan’s current population of Syrian refugees are children.

Later, in the hotel, someone curses the freak weather, but thinks the melt will be good for the fifth driest country on earth. Mastering the hot water supply leads to dismay (run it for eight cold minutes first). Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster across the border in Syria cycles on rolling news as helicopter bomb raids in Aleppo kill dozens.

Jordan is bordered on the north by Syria, to the east by Iraq, by Israel and the occupied West Bank on the west. It is home to at least 300,000 refugees. 250,000 of them are from Syria, including 120,000 in Zataari, the world’s second largest refugee camp. The snow, sleet and biting winds have deepened the troubles of those living in makeshift shelters and tents as temperatures remain freezing. With water supplies frozen, many are melting snow on their stoves to access drinking water. The donated warm clothes and sleeping bags we crammed into our luggage to pass on are more needed than ever and we wish we could have brought more. There are grim predictions of families burning the few clothes they own to keep warm.

We are here for a short trip to visit two very different responses to the Syrian refugee crisis here in Jordan. First up will be Syria: The Trojan Women, an adaptation of Euripides’s play that has been reworked to include the stories of women who have fled the war in Syria. The play opens tomorrow in the King Abdullah Cultural Centre. We pray we can actually get to it. The UN have needed to postpone our visit to a refugee registration centre tomorrow because of the extreme weather conditions.

In Northern Europe, we may be dreaming of a white  Christmas. In the freezing refugee shelters around the region, the white dream is a white nightmare.