A Syrian Refugee Camp With Girl Scouts And A Safeway Store

A Syrian Refugee Camp With Girl Scouts And A Safeway Store

8:57pm Mar 17, 2014
An informal Girl Scout group at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan sings: "We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams."
An informal Girl Scout group at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan sings: "We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams."
Nabih Bulos / NPR
  • An informal Girl Scout group at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan sings: "We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams."

    An informal Girl Scout group at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan sings: "We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams."

    Nabih Bulos / NPR

  • Reema Ramoniah coaches a woman's soccer league at the camp. The players come from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did.

    Reema Ramoniah coaches a woman's soccer league at the camp. The players come from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did.

    Deb Amos / NPR

  • The Sultan Center Safeway is staffed by Syrian refugees who had to learn new skills to work here.

    The Sultan Center Safeway is staffed by Syrian refugees who had to learn new skills to work here.

    Deb Amos / NPR

On a sunny afternoon in the dusty, overcrowded Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a group of Syrian girls recites a familiar pledge and hope to change their future. The youngsters promise to serve God and country, to help people at all times and live by the laws of the Girl Scouts.

The troop was organized by Hanna Vazquez, a volunteer with Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based humanitarian group.

"We are going to do the Girl Scout music badge," she says, as the girls gather around.

In this desolate place, the troop's weekly meetings are a time to forget the horrors that forced these girls to flee Syria with their families. This week marks the third anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, and this unofficial Girl Scout troop is a sign these girls may spend their childhood in exile and their families are learning to cope with what may be a long-term stay.

There is music and singing here.

"We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams," the girls sing. Their dreams, of course, are of going home. Fatma Masri, a refugee herself, is also a volunteer in the Scout program. She knows that dream is now a long time off.

Reema Ramoniah coaches a woman's soccer league at the camp. The players come from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did.

Reema Ramoniah coaches a woman's soccer league at the camp. The players come from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did.

Deb Amos/NPR

"Look, if it was up to us, we would, of course, leave today. But finally, one has to deal with one's reality," she says. "In that case we will adapt to staying, and yes, I believe we are staying for a while."

It's not just the refugees who are adapting to the new timeline. The aid agencies must change, too. They know their work is not about a quick fix anymore. They are starting to design programs to prepare Syrian refugees for an exile that could go on for years.

A Soccer League And A Supermarket

A few months ago, a Jordanian aid group started a woman's soccer league at the camp.

The Asian Football Development project is based in Amman, supported by Prince Bin Al-Hussein, and promotes sports as a development tool. The coaches on the artificial turf field are Jordanians from the country's national team.

Reema Ramoniah, a goalkeeper, yells encouragement to the Syrian women on the field. The women wear Islamic headscarves and heavy coats. They're all from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did. Sports are new for them, Ramoniah says.

"They didn't know that football is played 11 against 11. Now, we are giving them some tactics, which is good," she says. "They didn't even know how to warm up in the beginning. Some of them didn't know how to run."

The Sultan Center Safeway is staffed by Syrian refugees who had to learn new skills to work here.

The Sultan Center Safeway is staffed by Syrian refugees who had to learn new skills to work here.

Deb Amos/NPR

It is a new skill for a new life far from home. But the Zaatari camp is becoming home. There are now more street lights and more police patrols. Many families have added a front porch to their trailers. Some have built small gardens. Satellite dishes dot the rooflines. There is a lively shopping street in the camp where live chickens and cellphone cards are for sale. A resigned stability is taking hold.

Recently, a modern supermarket store opened inside the camp with bright lights and wide aisles. These Syrians come from a culture of small bakeries, vegetable stands and the corner store.

The produce at the Sultan Center Safeway comes from Jordanian farms; the staff comprises refugees who had to learn new skills to work here, says Nahid Abed, the store's manager.

"How to merchandise, how to serve the customer, how to talk to the customer, and I think they are smart, they learn fast," Abed says. The process, he says, will change them. "This is what we are trying, to change them to move that experience to Syria, inshallah, soon."

A Refugee Camp Becomes A City

But Abed says he knows soon is not likely. This camp, opened in an emergency, has evolved into a city. It is now the fourth-largest population center in the country, with well over 100,000 residents. There is even a mayor, the U.N.'s Killian Kleinschmidt. He runs Zaatari, and he says his first job was to build a camp. Now the task is to rebuild the people.

"I mean, as sad and as tragic it is ... it's an opportunity to invest in the people of Syria while they are in exile," Kleinschmidt says. They need strength, he says, "to take care of themselves, which they will need to rebuild their country in the future."

For now, they have brought some part of Syria with them. At a restaurant in the camp, the falafel sandwiches sizzle on the grill, spiced just like back home. A television is turned to Syrian news and the latest details of the war.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week marks three years since the start of the uprising in Syria that spiraled into civil war. The bloodshed, air strikes and chemical attacks have sparked an exodus. More than two million Syrians have fled the country for safety. In neighboring Jordan, one refugee camp is now big enough to be the country's fourth largest city. Refugees' dreams for quick return from the Zaatari camp have faded.

NPR's Deborah Amos found people seeking solace in normal routines as they settle in for the long-term.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: On a sunny afternoon in this overcrowded dusty camp, a group of Syrian girls recite a familiar pledge and hope to change their future.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: They promise to serve God and country, to help people at all times, and live by the laws of the Girl Scouts. This troop is in the process of registering with Girl Scouts of America - a first in a this camp, says Hanna Vasquez, an American volunteer working with Mercy Corps, a U.S. based humanitarian group.

HANNA VASQUEZ: We are going to do the Girl Scout Music Badge. And that actually entails a few different activities; one of them is helping them make their own instrument using straws.

AMOS: In this desolate place, these weekly meetings are a time to forget the horrors that forced these girls to flee Syria with their families. There is music here and singing.

VASQUEZ: And the third thing is actually a really cool song, which is called (Foreign language spoken), "We Are the Girl Scouts." And it's very cool. We do a dance and all the girls love it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language)

AMOS: The song is insistent, along with a thumping march: We want to learn and rise up to fulfill our dreams. Their dreams, of course, are of going home.

Fatma Masri, a refugee herself, is also a volunteer in the scout program. She knows the dream is now a long way off.

FATMA MASRI: (Through Translator) Look, if it was up to us, we would, of course, leave today. But finally, one has to deal with one's reality. In that case, we will adapt to staying. And yes, I believe we are staying here for a while.

AMOS: It's not just the refugees who are adapting to the new timeline, the aid agencies must change, too. They know their work is not about a quick fix anymore. They must help prepare Syrians for an exile that could go on for years.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: A few months ago, a Jordanian aid group started a woman's soccer league. Reema Ramoniah is the coach. She played for Jordan's national team.

As a goal keeper? How many wins?

REEMA RAMONIAH: A lot.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: The players come from Southern Syria. They wear Islamic head scarves on the field. They are from conservative, rural families where soccer was considered something men did. Sports is new for them, says coach Ramoniah.

RAMONIAH: They didn't know that football is played 11 against 11. Now, we're giving them some tactics and which is good.

AMOS: They had no sports at all in Syria?

RAMONIAH: Yeah, they didn't even know how to warm up at the beginning. Some of them didn't know how to run.

AMOS: It is a new skill for a new life far from home. But Zaatari camp is becoming home. There are now more street lights, more police patrols. More families have added a front porch to their trailers; some have built small gardens. Satellite dishes dot the roof lines. A resigned stability is taking hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

AMOS: Recently a modern grocery store opened inside the camp. These Syrians come from a culture of small bakeries, vegetable stands and corner stores.

NAHID ABED: My name is Nahid Abed. I'm Jordanian. I'm the operation manager of Sultan Center Safeway.

AMOS: The produce comes from Jordanian farms. The staff is Syrian refugees, who had to learn new skills to work here, says Abed.

ABED: How to merchandise, how to serve the customer, how to talk with the customer, and I think they are smart and they learn fast.

AMOS: But it will change them. They will be different than when they were...

ABED: This is what we are trying, to change them to move that experience to Syria, Insha'Allah, soon.

AMOS: But Abed says he knows soon is not likely. This camp, opened in an emergency, has evolved into a city. There's even a mayor. The U.N.'s Killian Kleinschmidt, he runs Zaatari and he says his first job was into build a camp. Now, the task is to rebuild the people.

KILLIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: I mean, as sad and as tragic it is, but it's an opportunity to invest in the people of Syria while they are in exile.

AMOS: In exile, they've brought some part of Syria with them. Here, at this camp restaurant, the falafel sandwiches sizzle, spiced just like back home. A television is turned on to Syrian news and the latest details of the war.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station