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Zaatari refugee camp. The photo consists of many small tin houses on a flat desert landscape.
Coronavirus response

Confronting the cold and COVID-19 in a refugee camp

Syrian refugees in Jordan face a surging COVID-19 crisis on top of unemployment, barriers to accessing education, and other daunting challenges.

Photo: Kaity Kawar/IRC

Manhal, 43, and his family fled Daraa, Syria, because of the war. They now live in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan where, despite their situation, they have kept their children in school, education being top priority. 

Then COVID-19 swept over the world and everything changed—even in places where conditions could hardly get worse. 

Hear from Manhal in his own words about the challenges refugees are facing during the pandemic, how the IRC is helping his family and others, and what he wishes the world knew about people forced to flee their homes.

In a small tin home in a refugee camp, Manhal poses with his family: his wife holds a baby in a pink onesie, his four-year-old stands in front of him and eight-year-old and fifteen-year-old sons stands next to them.

Manhal with his family in Zaatari refugee camp.

Photo: Ahmad Al-Jarery

Leaving Syria 

We come from Daraa Governorate in Syria and now we live in Zaatari camp in Jordan. There are seven people in my family: three boys, two girls, and me and my wife. Muhammad is the eldest at 15 years old; then there’s Duaa, who is 13; then Ahmad, who is 8; Nizar, who is 4; and a new baby, she’s about 4 months old.

Daraa was beautiful before the conflict started. Our livelihood was improving and the economy was slowly growing. I had a grocery store selling vegetables, we owned our own home. Life was good.

Things changed when the war began; we were no longer safe. People started to feel afraid for their families. Our house was close to a checkpoint and there was a shooting there.

A man walks toward a crushed car in front of a recently bombed building. There is rubble and dust and smoke in the air.
An IRC-supported hospital in the Daraa Governorate in southern Syria after it was struck by an airstrike in 2016. Photo: IRC

Some of my brothers and other relatives had gone to Jordan before me and encouraged me to join them. They said, “At least you can sleep at night here in Jordan. You don’t have to worry about the safety of your children.” 

When my wife and I decided to leave Syria for Jordan, we were thinking more about our children than ourselves. Little kids can’t handle the roar of shelling and of conflict. 

We left together as a family. Many things have changed since—our family is bigger now. Life is hard in the camp. There are electricity blackouts and not enough job opportunities.

Ahmad Al-Jarery

Manhal with his three sons. "When my wife and I decided to leave Syria for Jordan, we were thinking more about our children than ourselves," he told the IRC.

Photo: Manhal with his three sons.

There are things I like in the camp—the social life, for example. People know each other and we have relatives here as well. The services are good and you can take your child to the hospital without a problem. There are schools for my children, something very important to me. 

Of course, that was all before the coronavirus pandemic.

Facing COVID-19 in a refugee camp 

I always had a dream that my children would go to school and I paid close attention to their performance. Today, the kids’ schooling is pretty much nonexistent. This is a common problem: classes are remote and a typical family owns maybe one mobile phone that is usually used by the father. Some families simply can’t afford to pay for the data. And even if you do have a phone and can afford to pay for it, the cellular network is not very strong.

Nine-year-old Ahmad sits and looks at the camera with his head in his hand.

Ahmad is nine years old and, like his brothers and sisters, is unable to attend school. “I miss school a lot. There are 21 students in my class and they are all my friends,” he says. “When I grow up I want to be an architect so I can build things like houses.”

Photo: Ahmad Al-Jarery/IRC

Unemployment has really been the biggest difficulty for us since the coronavirus. Previously people used to go out and work at the farms nearby and were able to provide for their families. But now that has stopped and we are coming up to one of the most difficult times—winter. 

We need warm clothing and many other things, including heat. People get sick more in winter, especially kids with colds and coughs. 

Wearing a mask, Muhammad sits in a clinic while a doctor wearing full PPE takes his temperature.

Manhal's son, Muhammad, at an IRC clinic where he receives treatment for asthma.

Photo: Ahmad Al-Jarery

My biggest worry is the future. We can’t know when there will be safety or stability in our country. My baby is still not registered in Jordan (unregistered babies are at risk of statelessness; if they lack proof of age, they could be denied child-specific rights and protections). My oldest son, Muhammad, has asthma and it’s gotten worse in the camp. 

Luckily, we are able to go to the IRC clinic, which provides excellent services. They take into consideration how people feel and what they are going through. Now when Muhammad gets an asthma attack, he has his inhaler and pills to alleviate the symptoms.

My wife also receives treatment from the IRC in the women’s clinic section. The clinic’s services have made a huge difference to us as a family.

Fifteen-year-old Muhammad, wearing a mask around his chin, sits and looks at the camera.

“During the coronavirus, I miss studying the most,” Muhammad says. “Before I wanted to have my own sweet shop when I’m older but now I want to be a doctor because it’s a humanitarian profession.”

Photo: Ahmad Al-Jarery/IRC

I wish the world cared more about refugees, both those in camps or outside them. I know the whole world is facing challenges right now, but refugees really are living in exceptional circumstances. 

My advice to other refugees is to take care of their children and raise them to the best of their abilities.

How the IRC helps Syrian refugees in Jordan 

The IRC began working in Jordan in 2007, supporting refugees from Iraq as well as vulnerable and crisis-affected Jordanians. With the arrival of refugees from Syria in 2012, we expanded our work, which now includes primary and reproductive health care, mobile outreach, protection and empowerment programs for those in need. The IRC is currently working in Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps, as well as in the towns of Mafraq, Ramtha, Irbid, Amman and Zarqa. 

Since the start of the pandemic the IRC has adapted its programming to ensure those most in need are able to receive assistance. All health clinics in Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps have continued to operate during the pandemic, even during national lockdowns, while in Mafraq and Ramtha we are providing remote health services. Our support for women and girls, our child protection services, our early childhood development activities and livelihoods support all continue to operate remotely via WhatsApp and over the phone.

Refugees sitting outside

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