As I enter Za’atari refugee camp, just over 30 miles south of the Syrian border, it’s like a sprawling city in the desert, all behind barbed wire. Over 100,000 people live here now, after fleeing the violence of Syria’s civil war.

The camp is clearly still under construction, with many new tents and metal caravans waiting for more refugees. It’s a sign that no one believes the war will end soon. In fact, UNICEF estimates that the refugee population in Jordan alone will reach more than 1.2 million by the end of the year. Amina, one of our local partners, is shocked by how much the camp has expanded since her last visit.

(c) Meena Lenn

Down the main market strip of the camp, people are selling everything: vegetables, chickens, cotton candy, cigarettes, pasta, cooking utensils, cheap plastic toys. The lane is choked with people of all ages, shopping and selling. Little boys, laughing and covered in dust, give each other rides in wheelbarrows. People are picking through a tremendous pile of old, worn shoes for sale. Everything is covered in dust, even the olive trees at the edge of the camp.

(c) Meena Lenn

Yifat with children living as refugees in Za'atari camp.

The metal caravans, freezing cold in winter and sweltering all summer, are 10 by 16 feet. That’s barely enough room for a family to sleep, and many of the refugee families are large.

The trauma of the war follows women even in the relative safety of Jordan. You can see it most clearly in their eyes: the hollow stares, the sudden tears, the inability to maintain eye contact in conversations. Among the refugees, even those who appear physically unharmed are wounded.

We talked to Meena who came across the border from her home in Homs after Assad’s forces burned down her house and killed her 27-year-old sister. Meena is 39 years old, the mother of 12 children and a grandmother of four. One of her older daughters was married here in the camp. “It is better,” she said, “for protection.” For Meena, married at 15, her daughter’s wedding was a blessing. But other women say that girls in the camp suffer the most.

We spoke with Sabeen, whose 13-year-old daughter was married shortly after arriving in the camp. “We had no money when we arrived in Jordan,” Sabeen told us. “Marriage was the only option to give my daughter protection and security.” Her daughter is now pregnant. Sabeen worries that her young body cannot properly handle the stress of pregnancy. And reproductive health services are scarce in the camp.

Hanan has two children, a boy and a girl. She divorced her husband long ago and came here from Daraa with her children when she heard the army was coming and that they had raped girls in the village nearby. “We left everything and came here, but my only dream is to go home.” She said she will not marry for protection in the camp. She looked away when I asked her why. “There is more than one kind of danger,” she said.

I will be posting more blog entries in the coming days, with information about my visit to Za’atari camp and my conversations with women there.

I know that stories of such hardship can be difficult to hear. We’re doing everything we can to bring vital humanitarian aid. You can be part of this effort. Click here to donate.

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