5 Surprising Things we Learned from Spending Time in a Refugee Camp

5 Surprising Things we Learned from Spending Time in a Refugee Camp

Activism without experience can leak into that unfortunate area known as appropriation. Like when the tech bro at your work known for mansplaining wears his “The Future is Female” tee. Nobody wants to be THAT guy. So, as an organization pillared around refugee aid, we knew that before we could lead any change, it was vital that we spend time on the ground with the refugees themselves. We visited Jordan, where nearly 1 million Syrian refugees now reside.

Here are 5 surprising things we learned from the refugees we spent time with.

1. The worst part isn’t what refugees remember—it’s what they don’t know.

“My husband disappeared before we fled. I never heard from him again—I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t think I will ever find out.”

“We left our entire home and all of our belongings. I don’t know if my home still exists.”

“I had to leave my elderly mother in Syria. She’s sick and dying now, and I don’t think I will ever meet her again.”

These sentiments were echoed over and over again. The unknown seems to haunt victims of the refugee crisis more than the violence and turmoil they suffered through. While they may eventually come to terms with what they’ve endured, there’s no telling if they can come to terms with what’s yet to come.

2. Food, water, shelter, and healthcare are pretty well provided for—if you’re registered.

The UNHCR does provide basic necessities for registered refugees. They are given an allowance to purchase food and water, have access to tents, and most even have access to free healthcare. However, for refugees who remain unregistered for reasons like fear of being forced back to Syria (which doesn’t happen, but is a common worry), the UNHCR does not provide resources, so they’re left without many basic necessities.

3. Access to work is the real limited resource.

While their basic needs are met, it is pretty much impossible for refugees in Jordan to exit the refugee camps and build the same kind of life they had in Syria. Refugees must be registered with the UNHCR in order to legally work, AND they can only work through work permits distributed by certain businesses. Since the permits are the only legal way for refugees to work, and they are controlled by the employers, it is not uncommon for permits to be used as leverage to force refugees into accepting lower wages than Jordanians would be paid.  

4. Formal camps like Zaatari can be dangerous.

Refugees who do not have family in Jordan are immediately transferred into a formal refugee camp, like Zaatari. This camp houses tens of thousands of people and operates like a small city. There are small businesses, healthcare providers, and even restaurants. Despite this internal economy, the camps also experience violent crime. It can be dangerous for women, especially young girls, so some refugees do whatever they can to leave the camp. However, without a sponsor outside of the camp to guarantee them and pay their sponsorship, most refugees are left with no choice but to stay.

5. Their faith is unshakeable.

When we asked one woman what her hopes and dreams for the future are, we were expecting a description of a new life—an apartment, school for her children, and perhaps a steady job. Instead, she gave us a dose of enlightened and inspiring wisdom: “If it is Allah’s will, then we will accept staying here forever.”




  • Ibrahim

    Concise, info-packed and surprising – really learned a lot and loved the perspective!

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