He, whose identity I cannot reveal, waived his hand asking me to follow. I didn’t have a permit to leave the community center, but he only went to the room next door, so I guessed I was allowed. Behind our poorly ventilated and extremely warm meeting room, was an even warmer room where he and others were setting up a temporary art gallery to display the products of an art workshop. Like most activities, this workshop had been organized by CARE-International, owners of the community center and one of the many organizations assigned by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to address enforced idleness in Azraq Refugee camp.
At the gallery, dozens of acrylic paintings were stacked against drywalls and many more were piled on top of two large foldable plastic tables –I spotted a couple that I wouldn’t mind buying, such as a colorful reinterpretation of Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” I remembered my uncle had paid thousands of dollars for an authentic replica and this was only 250USD, so I enjoyed the idea of having copies with different scales of affordability and the fact that not even my uncle could afford the real one.
His pieces were on hand and ready to be put up. “I am a painter,” he said, holding a dark canvas splashed with dots that represented the stars, multiple layers of splashed paint gave depth to the otherwise bi-dimensional painting. People say that the night sky in Azraq is impressive, as the desert’s climate keeps clouds away. In addition, the scarcity of electricity keeps light pollution low. Only two out of the four villages don’t have electricity at all. Instead, UNHCR provides four flashlights per shelter. Electricity in the camp goes on and off and the room’s air conditioner would constantly remind us about this.
“You haven’t signed it,” I said. He then flipped the canvas and showed me the back, just to reveal that the signature was behind it “I cannot sign the stars,” he responded. I tried to tell him that he was a poet, not only for this comment but also given how conceptual the rest of his pieces were. “Poet,” I repeated, but he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic. So far, signs and gestures had been enough to communicating but poet was a hard one. We both shrugged our shoulders and went back to the meeting room – maybe someone there could help us translate.
Al-Azraq Camp is recognized as “the best-planned camp for displaced people that has ever been constructed” (Pelham. April 24, 2014). Given months of planning and construction, Azraq is designed to house 50,000 people but can expand to hold up to 120,000 at maximum capacity. This might be necessary, only four years after opening, Al-Azraq camp houses more than 40,000 out of the millions of people who continue to migrate out of Syria into refugee-friendly countries like Jordan.
The camp’s life span is unknown but it is expected to last more than a decade. Still, it is considered temporal. Hence, both its design and management focus on preserving the camp’s temporality: it is prohibited to alter the aluminum shelters or to build with any permanent material (such as brick and mortar or concrete); it is not allowed to grow any plants directly in the soil; to have a job outside the camp, or to receive cash payments without a permit. In general, all refugees living in Jordan have work limitations, like Palestinian refugees from previous wars. These Palestinian refugees, who have been living in Jordan for more than one generation, are still considered second degree citizens, meaning they can only take certain jobs. Their kids, although born in Jordan, inherit these restrictions.
Azraq Camp is the second refugee camp built in Jordan by the UNHCR as a response to the ongoing war in Syria. The camp is located in the desert and 2 km away from the nearest village. Both its location and its design were chosen to avoid the failures of UNHCR’s first camp, Za’atari, which opened two years before and is now home to 78,804 people (UNHCR. June 6, 2018). The main “failure” of Za’atari is that the temporary tents in the camp evolved into permanent dwellings for refugees.
However, the permanence that UNHCR considers a failure is precious to the mental stability of people living in refugee conditions (Hu. 2018). In truth, if Syrian refugees had the opportunity to choose, they would prefer to live in Za’atari rather than Azraq. Of course, most would prefer not to live in a camp at all, but rather in one of the informal settlements that have emerged outside the camp. In fact, 81 percent of Syrian refugees live in these informal settlements and outside UNHCR’s camps (UNHCR, February 2018). This is a pressing challenge for small villages whose populations have increased dramatically in the last five years and to unemployment rates that were already high before the crisis. It’s the poorest who cannot afford to choose, so if they are lucky enough they will go to Azraq Camp after being held at the border. Above all, all the refugees I meet in Jordan –new refugees from Syria and old ones from Palestine, living inside or outside camps– just want the wars to be over so they can return to their hometowns.
“We need to learn skills that we can take with us, and that will help us rebuild Syria when we go back” said a wise young Syrian in our warm meeting room in Azraq. He would always stand when speaking and make sure everybody was listening to him preach. “The camp is temporal. It does not worth infrastructural investment, we should invest in knowledge.” I was listening while taking notes of all his comments, they were so unexpected and accurate, teaching me about the type of intelligence that one does not get at school. Perhaps his lack of formal education had given him a unique perspective and the ease to openly question prompts when they don’t make sense to him. “I didn’t select any invention [as requested] because all these are individualistic inventions. Also, they are created for the conditions of scarcity, they are too basic and keep us in the past. We need technology and we need to go further, where the rest of the world is.” I also admired his confidence as unschooled people tend to participate less during workshops.
One year ago, yet another group of Hollywood professional met the wise teenager and some other adolescents in this same room. Back then, the occasion was a filmmaking boot camp for “giving people tools to tell their story.” (Shay Mitchel, 2017). At the end of the boot camp the movies were showcased at CARE’s community center during a celebrity-like event. “This isn’t a refugee camp in the middle of the desert. It’s a film festival, a moment of shared accomplishment to celebrate art, drama and the power of the silver screen.” (Knoll. Aug 17, 2017). During this ceremony, small golden figurines were given to the audience’s favorite films. The winner to the best film award was a silent black-and-white drama named “Peace Please” and created by a team of women. In this silent movie, Max Richter’s music gets continuously interrupted by bombings that kill all characters. At the end, only a young woman and a girl survive. All movies have Hollywood’s scent.
“I want to go back to Syria to become a film director” states the wise young man in his movie while narrating the story of his best friend, the first Syrian refugee to become a black belt in Taekwondo. “We would have never met in Syria because our towns are very far from each other,” but here in Azraq different communities are forced to live together, sometimes leading to new friendships and sometimes to disputes. In a profile by CARE, another teenager I met said that “everything [in Azraq] is so different from home – for example, the people. In your home, you know everyone, and they know you. It’s not like that in the camp. We were strangers put together.” (CARE, November 14, 2017).
Azraq is indeed different from Syria, and here people have to deal with extreme temperatures, flooding, snow and sand storms. Most of all, people have to deal with boredom because job permits are insufficient and recreational activities are limited by the desert conditions. “Idleness is the worst enemy,” says CARE’s team leader, Jameel Dababneh, (Lee, L. 2017). To reduce enforced idleness, organizations host sporadic activities such as the painting workshop, the filmmaking boot camp and a 5-day workshop with the Future Heritage Lab. I visit the camp as a researcher for the MIT Future Heritage Lab, where I was a researcher. The Lab had been working in Azraq for the last two years and its good work helped secure funding to build a new public space in Azraq. During my visit, we wanted to integrate people’s priorities and capacities for co-designing and co-building this new space.
During the workshops, both the Lab and participants from Azraq agreed on the importance of transitioning temporary workshops into ongoing processes that can become independent from the organizations, processes that can persist during the “temporality” of the camp and continue until Syrians are not refugees anymore.
So far, Taekwondo has been one of the most long-lasting programs. It was brought to the camp by Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation in 2016, to “help the camp’s residents deal with the traumatic events which have impacted their lives.” (World Taekwondo. September 10, 2017). Today, the taekwondo project has evolved into an established academy. Azraq’s Taekwondo Academy was officially recognized by World Taekwondo last April, through an inauguration held in Amman, Jordan’s main city, which is located 90km away from the camp. The academy has prepared black-belt masters, like the leading actor in the wise teenager’s movie. Hopefully these masters will become teachers themselves in the future, as the school aims to employ its own students instead of outsourcing teachers. This is something the wise young man also thought during our workshop “I learned how to improvise an AC and I could teach others. I also know a blacksmith and an artisan, we could exchange the knowledge that already exists inside the camp.”
“Shaeir means poet in Arabic,” another friend finally translated. – “Do you like poetry? I am a shaeir. I can show you.” Another NGO-based workshop, I thought. My English-speaking friend asked me to follow, but this time I was not allowed to leave the community center’s waiting room. In addition, my ride back to the city and outside the camp was coming soon and, not so important but also a factor, I wanted to stay in the shade as the afternoon sun was piercing my skin.
Our van was here, and I saw the poet coming back too; he ran during the last meters while carefully carrying two copies of a magazine founded by him and his best friend and published by CARE. Two years ago, these friends decided to pursue their passion for writing and storytelling. They studied how to manage a magazine and then gathered a team of 12 teenagers, six women and four other men. Team members self-organized to collect, edit, write and transcribe poems and stories from the people of Azraq Camp. My friend opened the magazine to pages 19 and 20. “I wrote this one,” he said proudly. “What is it about?” I asked. “About life and the future,” he replied.
However, instead of going to the future, the poet’s mind went to the past. He told me how grateful he was to be in Azraq with his family. Before being transported here, he spent a month at the border checkpoint, which is relatively little time when compared to the years some people spend there. In reality, the border between Jordan and Syria holds more people than any camp. Only Rukban’s checkpoint holds a fluctuating population of approximately 50,000 (UNICEF, 2017) or 70,000 (Enab Baladi, 2017) Syrians living without proper infrastructure neither humanitarian aid. People got stuck in this area when the checkpoint closed in 2014 to prevent ISIS infiltrators from entering Jordan. To the date, the government of Jordan refuses to take any responsibility over the area, claiming that there are terrorists in Rukban who are using innocent people as human shields. As a consequence, this no-man’s land lacks humanitarian aid and proper infrastructure. “During rainy season, flood water reached our knees, so we could not sleep on the floor anymore.” People died – my friend knows of three people who could not resist the harsh flooding. These fatalities were the reason why he and his family were moved out from the border and into Azraq.
He continued to browse through the pages, pointing at Arabic writings that are unintelligible to me, so I couldn’t say much more than thank you. I also had to say goodbye, as the Lab’s team was waiting for me inside the van. Just like me, they were exhausted, overheated and hungry. Over the course of the following days, my poet friend would not be around as he was granted a temporary permit to go outside of the camp. These permits are hard to get, so he would not miss the opportunity to visit Jordan outside the camp’s barbed wire fence. To be accurate, the entire camp is not fenced. A Lab member explained to me that surveillance makes it unnecessary, meaning that a few observation towers are enough to notice a person walking in the middle of the desert. Moreover, Azraq Camp’s inhabitants don’t have anywhere else to go.
“There is hope in the camp, and if we can change the camp, we can change the world,” stated the magazine’s founders. They wanted to imprint this belief in the magazine by naming it “The Heartbeat of the Camp.” Above all, the magazine team wants to be a positive voice for the people living in Azraq, who feel frustrated about the world, and to distract people who continue to face the war in Syria. (Alghad. June 19, 2017).
I brought a copy of “The Heartbeat of the Camp” into the US with me. I am still unable to read any of its contents and I worried about having to tell the story of somebody else’s self-determination; being portrayed by someone else and reduced to a story is the exact opposite of defining your own self. In addition, the refugee crisis has been used as a platform to showcase artists and celebrities. The clearest case I know about is an intervention by Ai Wei Wei, a Chinese contemporary artist who has been documenting the “Human Flow” caused by forced displacement. To prove his point, the artist convinced a woman—who used to be a piano apprentice in Syria—to play some music at Idomeni Camp in Greece. “Art will overcome the war,” says Ai Wei Wei to the journalists interviewing him under the rain; meanwhile, in the background, the anonymous refugee plays a white piano that contrasts with the muddy ground of the refugee camp. (The Telegraph. March 12, 2017).
To prevent abusive relationships, UNHCR restricts communication between Azraq Camp inhabitants and external agents by granting different types of permits. Personal interviews and workshop activities require a different permit procedures.
Given the precedents of bad practices, permit restrictions, and blindly trusting the magazine team, I opted to translate the stories that people living in Azraq do want to share. Stories they have developed as passionate writers without being labeled as refugees. My poet friend suggested that I start the translations with the following story, which Anna Boots from New York offered to translate and that is being reviewed by the Magazine team. Hopefully, this translation is the beginning of a hakawati service for Azraq Camp. Hakawati is an ancient Arabic art of oral storytelling, which enables a broader audience to access otherwise obscure literature.
Please contact me if you are interested in joining this translation project.
The Importance of Dad
The trader had a wife and one son. He was very busy with work, and traveled a lot.
His son missed him. He missed playing with him, like his uncles played with their children in the big house.
His wife would always say, “Husband! Husband! Play with the child…take him to the garden…take him with you to the souk.”
But the busy trader had “an ear of clay and an ear of dough”
The urgings of the wife and the child were always met with the same response: “I’m busy, I’m busy, I’m busy.”
And when the delays increased, to prevent the boy from taking another hour of his time, the father would say: “Every hour of my time that I spend with my son costs me one hundred dinars.”
So, the boy retreated into himself, and started to ask his father, every few days, for five dinars: one time to buy notebooks, one time to buy books, one time to go on a school trip.
One day, the father got upset by the many requests and scolded his son, refusing to give him the five dinars. The boy retreated into his room crying.
After a while, the father regretted scolding his son, and went into his room to surprise him with an envelope of dinars that he had been saving and hiding under the bed.
When he entered the room, he was shocked to see a pile of money in front of him. When he asked he son about it, the son responded: it’s the dinars I have been asking for from you.
I collected them, to save up to one hundred dinars, so that I can buy one hour of your time, my father.
 In Arabic, books are read from left to right. In western page numbering, this would be pages 11-12.
 Dramatic population changes have been registered without causal explanations.
 Population estimates are based on satellite images as there is no organization on the ground.
 A definition they did not choose to have.