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New Yorker: City of the Lost

Author: David Remnick
August 26, 2013


"Refugee camps are born of emergency and evolve into cities of dependency, bureaucracy, and static suffering. They rescue human beings, and then they warehouse them. They relieve the host country of the financial burden and diffuse it among the member states of the United Nations."

Early on a summer morning in the Jordanian desert, driving along an empty road toward the Syrian border. A skeletal hound limps by the roadside. An old man selling melons and coffee slumps on a crate and watches the dog. It's in the nineties already, and dust is everywhere. A gust picks up, and your lips are filmed with a gritty scum. After a few miles, signs start appearing for the crossings into Syria. In the villages here at night, you can sometimes hear the sounds of artillery fire thudding across the frontier; occasionally, a shell lands in Jordan. On the side of the road, in a shallow, sandy ravine, there's a small Bedouin encampment. You can see a tent bearing the blue, sun-faded letters U.N.H.C.R.—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A five-hundred-dollar tent goes for around a hundred dollars on the black market.

We arrive in Za'atari, a village six miles east of the city of Mafraq. Until a year ago, there was nothing much in the vicinity: some modest brick mosques and schools, a Royal Jordanian Air Force base. Za'atari, one aid worker told me, had been little more than "sand, snakes, and scorpions." The uprising in Syria, which began twenty-five miles away, in Dara'a, changed all that. The flow of refugees from Syria into Jordan reached such a point of emergency—thousands every night, evading sniper fire, crossing the frontier on foot—that Mafraq, to take just one city, doubled in size. Jordan, with a population of six million, many of them displaced Iraqis and Palestinians, could not go on absorbing limitless refugees. It became necessary to build a camp. During Ramadan last summer, the U.N.H.C.R., the Jordanians, and a laundry list of international aid organizations built and opened the Za'atari refugee camp in two weeks. One of the first things to be done was to overlay the sand with gravel, an expensive project intended to prevent sandstorms in summer and rivers of mud in the rainy winter. It didn't really work. There were sandstorms. There was mud. The snakes and the scorpions remained.

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