Picture a refugee camp, and you might imagine scores of tents, queues of people and a general feeling of transition and impermanence. Which is perhaps why my recent visit to the Za’atari refugee camp by the Jordanian/ Syrian border, with the charity Clowns Without Borders UK, was so unsettling.
Far from being a temporary space for the Syrian people displaced by the war in their home country, Za’atari has been home for many of the 79,000 residents since it was set up in 2012. It has one of the highest birth rates in the world, with many of its residents having never known life outside its confines. Just as in every other town, people are born, get married and die there.
The 5 sq km site is divided into districts served by separate hospitals and schools while a police force ensures people are safe. On the 3km long ‘Champs Elysees’, the main shopping street, it’s possible to buy almost anything you would on a UK high street, or on Amazon – I saw dresses and shirts hanging alongside baby baths, brooms and mobile phones. Restaurants nestle alongside cafes with bakeries supplying traditional Fatayer and Jibnah – meat and cheese pastries. People have jobs in the schools, hospitals, shops and restaurants within Za’atari and in the last few years, they have also been allowed to work outside of the camp, in Amman, the Jordanian capital, a 90-minute drive away or with local employers who come to Za’atari to find employees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also funds students to attend higher and further education in nearby colleges and universities.
The most shocking side of life in Za’atari is its very normality. People go about their daily lives in much the same way they do in every UK town and city. The difference is that most have been witness to terrible violence in their home country which forced them out of their homes to walk across the desert to the safety of Jordan. Most still have friends and relatives in Syria, or scattered across the world. Their future is uncertain. While they are physically safe in Jordan, they are in a mental and emotional no-man’s-land.
Which is why the work of charities like Clowns Without Borders UK, of which I’m a trustee, is so important. I travelled with two artists to Za’atari to train a group of young people through the charity Finn Church Aid. The aim is two-fold: that these young people go on to perform to, and train, children in the camp in the art of clown. And that these young people themselves learn new skills which will help them be employable.
Right now, there are a billion children who live in areas affected by conflict, war or disaster and when this happens children are often the first group in any population to lose their rights; the right to be a child. Clowns Without Borders brings this back by creating performances and workshops that encourage children to laugh, play and forget their struggles; to simply be children. Having seen first hand, and talked to children in Za’atari about what they have witnessed, this type of psycho-social first aid is key to their recovery.