Exhausted and cold, hundreds of Syrians cross the Southern border into Jordan every day. These newly arrived refugees are transported to Za’atari refugee camp where they are given blankets, treated for immediate medical needs and registered by the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency) and the Jordanian Government. While we could never replicate and truly understand the exhaustion and uncertainty that many families experience, we wanted to undergo the official camp registration process for ourselves.
The gates into Za’atari grind open as the guards usher us into a nearby building. Walking in, our eyes relax as they get a temporary escape from the blinding sun and white stone outside. After zigzagging through a series of lines and doors, we are greeted by a smiling registration coordinator. He guides us into a warm UNHCR caravan (trailer) and begins to explain the registration process to us. He has helped tens of thousands of new refugees through this process. The first 10 minutes of every meeting, he says, are used to ensure that the family feels safe, comfortable, and welcomed into Jordan.
Registration usually lasts about 40 minutes per family but since we ask many questions, the entire process takes two full hours. The registration coordinator takes our identification information, scans our irises and officially registers us with the UNHCR as refugees. He asks about the size of our family and enquires as to the current location of any other family members in an effort to ensure new arrivals get placed near any family that might already be in Jordan. The iris scan confirms that we haven’t been to Za’atari before. While the camp has 90,000 current inhabitants, more than 360,000 have come and gone over the year and a half since it opened.
We thank the coordinator for his time and walk back to the rows of wooden benches in the waiting area. There aren’t many families here here with us now and no one is speaking much as they wait. We sit with them silently, waiting for the next step of the process.
30 minutes later, identification cards, food voucher and heater voucher in hand, we are efficiently ushered from NGO to NGO, turning in the vouchers in return for an array of humanitarian supplies provided to help families get settled into their new environment.
In total, we are provided with a UNHCR tent, 4 mattress pads, 8 blankets, a bucket, an aluminum pot, a gas heater (but no gas), a hygiene kit (soap, toothbrushes, detergent), a bread voucher, ration card, ID card, and a welcome meal (complete with Fig Newtons!). They also offer additional clothes and a second meal to those who choose. The supplies strike us as well-thought-out and, thanks to the generosity of donors, much better than what NGOs could provide when the camp first opened.
Still, the UNHCR staff admit that the initial humanitarian assistance is just a start. Families still need additional income, a sense of community and more personal freedom to make decisions for themselves, all of which will help the camp grow, thrive and become a more comfortable home for it’s residents. So far though we have been impressed by the dedication of the humanitarian teams on the ground, working every day to shelter and support their neighbors in need.