The 5-Star Tent Village

Life is hard for the millions of Syrians fleeing war. But it's a bit easier at the gleaming Emirati-funded refugee camp in Jordan.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

ZARQA, Jordan — The elderly Syrian woman dressed in the traditional jalabiya robe and khimar head covering was tired, but she patiently answered the questions posed to her. "Yes, they killed everybody," she said, alluding to her village in southern Syria. "My son Muhammed … he was serving in the army, and the regime killed him."

The woman, like all those around her, was a refugee from the brutal two-year civil war raging in her homeland. Along with a few members of her immediate family, she had walked across the border into Jordan a few days before and was now waiting in a shaded reception area to be registered at Jordan’s newest refugee camp, known as the Emirates-Jordan Camp (EJC).

Her family, along with a few dozen other Syrians of all ages, gathered around to answer questions, to have their voices heard. Unlike this old woman, many were laughing and smiling. They were the lucky ones: Not only had they fled the carnage with their lives, but they had been sent to this specific camp.

An estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees already reside in Jordan, and there is no end in sight to the influx. Opened in April, the EJC is the second camp for Syrian refugees established in the country. Located in a remote desert in Jordan’s Halabat district near the city of Zarqa, an hour’s drive north of Amman, the United Arab Emirates-funded camp is a marvel of humanitarian work. If there is such a thing as a "five-star refugee camp," international aid workers and refugees agree, this was it.

People on the ground in Jordan rightly praise the conditions at the EJC because they’ve seen the alternative firsthand. The new camp lives in the shadow of its older, larger, notorious neighbor — the Zaatari camp, a few dozen miles north.

Zaatari, which holds an estimated 150,000 refugees, is now described as "Jordan’s fifth-largest city." It is a teeming shantytown of tents, a massive strain on local and foreign resources, and a potential incubator of unrest. On April 19, a mass riot broke out in the camp, pitting stone-wielding refugees against Jordanian gendarmerie. Such disturbances have increased in recent months, leaving aid workers perplexed.

"No one knows what they want," a Jordanian aid worker employed by an international organization told me. "[Rioting] seems to be their way of communicating recently."

But the EJC, which as of late April held 2,000 refugees (with plans to expand up to 25,000), seems a world away from the headaches in Zaatari. It is located off a dusty two-lane highway in a far-flung corner of Jordan’s vast eastern desert — for miles all around, nothing is visible except brown sand. Rising out of this landscape is row upon row of identical white prefabricated caravans, laid out neatly at equal distances, surrounded by high metal fencing. The caravans are the EJC’s first and most prominent innovation: Instead of tents, refugees are essentially provided with mobile homes.

The EJC is intended for families because, as one camp official explained, it doesn’t make sense to "provide one caravan for two people." This one fact has a broad impact on camp life: It’s not a coincidence that I heard the EJC referred to by refugees, with an ironic flourish, as a "VIP camp."

The "VIP treatment" permeates everything at the EJC. Large prefab hangars serve as television rooms, while others serve as "pantries" for coffee and tea, separate from the actual kitchens. An expansive plaza will function as a public commercial space, replete with a stand-alone minaret and a large supermarket selling goods at below-market prices. A hairdresser has already set up shop there.

Solar panels provide electricity to each zone of the camp, a battery of water tanks connected to underground plumbing offer clean running water, and a playground gives kids a chance, as one educational volunteer put it, "to be children again." The camp also has an enclosed school area with room for 4,000 students, and tidy medical facilities staffed primarily by Syrian doctors, refugees themselves. It all gives the impression of a real town, of permanence — and camp officials weren’t shy at pointing out that the standard of living inside their "town" was likely higher than in neighboring Jordanian communities.

On several occasions, I had to ask my hosts from the Emirati Red Crescent, who were touring me around the camp, to repeat what they said, so incredible did their descriptions sound. For instance, an entire "green area" was in the works, where in six months trees and grass were to grow out of the barren desert soil. The vast hangar where refugees received free clothing featured new garments with their price tags still attached — a $500 coat, a $160 pair of jeans. "I can’t even afford to buy this in my country," an Emirati volunteer said sheepishly.

Given the limited resources at play and the unprecedented scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, why lavish so much money on a camp set to only hold 25,000 people? The volunteer shrugged, and said, "It’s the decision of the [Emirati] government." This is apparently the way the United Arab Emirates (UAE) does humanitarian work.

The camp’s conditions were succeeding in cultivating goodwill for the UAE among the Syrian refugees, but it did nothing for their opinion of the United States. In conversations with the refugees at the EJC, only one man, Faisal, a 60-year-old mukhtar, or representative, of one of the camp’s seven zones, explicitly wanted to thank "all the governments of the world for their help to the Syrian refugees." More common, however, once people found out I was an American journalist, was the refrain, "Where is Obama?"

"We need American planes," one middle-aged Syrian man told me. Another younger man added, "If America wanted [Bashar al-Assad] gone, he’d be gone in one day … but Israel wants it to be the way it is."

The Syrian refugees wanted the world to know how the Assad regime was "butchering and massacring" his own people; they wanted to emphasize the worsening conditions inside Syria. But above all they wanted American help. Daraa, the southern region where most of the refugees were from, "was finished," one refugee told me. "Everyone is here."

I asked these men how long they expected to remain as refugees — how long, in fact, did they imagine the war would go on for? They looked at me quizzically. "You tell us," one older Syrian man said.

Despite the fact that the United States has contributed the bulk of international humanitarian aid, the refugees expect more. The massive Zaatari camp, managed by what they view as the "Western" United Nations, is seen as a blight ("zero stars"), while the Emirati-run EJC is described, rightfully, as a "five-star" home.

The EJC’s lavishness is even more perplexing given the United Nations’ well-publicized cash shortfalls in tackling the Syria crisis. Even with a $300 million infusion by Kuwait and an additional $300 million given by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration over the past three months, U.N. humanitarian agencies say that they have only half the funds to cover their activities for the first half of this year. According to the latest figures from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there is a $250 million funding gap
in Jordan alone. A January donor conference in Kuwait drummed up over $1.5 billion in pledges, but the U.N.’s money troubles have persisted as donors have failed to make good on their promises.

One veteran Jordanian aid worker I spoke to in Amman said that the sizable difference between donor pledges from Persian Gulf states and the actual money given came down to "politics." "They want control over events on the ground," he told me. Instead of working solely through international channels, the Emiratis decided to build the EJC directly in cooperation with the Jordanian government, with international relief agencies subsequently brought in as partners.

Providing Syrian refugees with safe, humane, and comfortable accommodations, after all they’ve been through, is of course noble work. But as I walked around the camp, there was little doubt that the Emiratis had other motives as well.

It is no coincidence that a large billboard at the camp’s entrance projects the images of Jordan’s King Abdullah side by side with Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE. Every medical facility in the camp has a small white sign at the doorway stating that it is a gift from the "Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation — United Arab Emirates." The Emirati staff running the camp appeared to be on a first-name basis with many of the refugees, hugging and joking with them. While Washington debates the merits of a "hard-power" military intervention in Syria, the Gulf states have already been arming the rebels; while Washington provides large amounts of humanitarian aid money, it is countries such as the United Arab Emirates that have been steadily increasing their "soft power" among the Syrian people.

The relative luxury of the EJC can almost make a visitor forget the brutal reality of why all those Syrians were there in the first place. As part of their activities, the educational volunteers asked the children to draw images of familiar places and people — "their sources of strength," one volunteer called it. Among pictures of their old homes, of moms and sisters, and of relatives still in Syria, some drew a place they surely had never been, yet probably felt like they already knew: "The Emirates."

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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