Roads; the life line of a refugee camp

By Theodore Sam, World Vision 

Spread over a massive area of around 1,920 acres (three square miless) of vast desert land, the Za’atari Refugee Camp, with more than 87,000 refugees, is probably the fourth largest city in Jordan now. All of the residents have fled their homes in Syria. Some have arrived recently and some have been here for more than a year.

Although they were safe from war, life at the camp was anything but comfortable; people were facing inconveniences, that made their everyday lives difficult and dangerous. One whole family died in a fire due to the lack of proper roads which meant that fire fighters couldn’t reach them in time.

“Two young girls, just 3 and 6 years old, and everyone in their family burnt to death. Their shelter caught fire, and the roads were so bad. There was knee-deep sludge all over the place and neither the civil services nor the fire service personnel could come into the street to put out the fire,” said Marwan, one of the residents at the camp.

Other people in the camp tried, in vein, to put out the fire with buckets of water.

“May both girls rest in peace…it’s a shame to say that if there had been a proper road at that time, the girls’ lives could have been saved,” adds Marwan.

Summers, winters and rainy season were equally challenging, because of the harsh desert land on which the camp is set up. “Last summer when they were building the mosque, there was a sudden dust storm and we almost lost some of the workers,” says Marwan.

“Thanks to World Vision for building the roads, many of our problems have been solved now,” he adds.

Alia, a Syrian mother living in the camp, moved to Za’atari with her six children nearly two years ago. “When we arrived, it was the big rainy season. It was a miserable situation. It was very bad. Our tent flooded, and there was water all around and there was mud everywhere. It was a really hard time at the camp. You have to move from your house to a tent, in a place you don’t know, and then it floods and everything is wet and the children are crying. [It makes] you wonder how you’re going to cope with it all. I was pregnant also, when we moved here, so I was very scared when the tent would flood.”

“The camp is now getting better and better. This drainage has made a big difference, even if to some people it might seem like a small thing,” adds Alia.

Without proper roads, ambulances and other emergency vehicles can't do their job, water tankers can't deliver water, people can't get to the market and children have a hard time getting to school. 

“Let’s say the children do manage to go to the school, they reach the school with mud and dirt all over them. Even if they do manage to sit in class the whole day with mud all over them, when they return home, their clothes can’t be washed because the water tankers can’t come into the streets to deliver water. Even if the water tankers do manage to come in, their vehicles would get damaged or break down and they won’t deliver water for the next week or two, till it is repaired,” says Marwan.

For people with a disability, it was impossible to go out. A person in a wheel chair needed at least two people to help him/her, one person to carry the person and the other to carry the wheelchair.

During summers, the winds would create so much dust that children would have breathing problems. And ambulances still couldn’t come in because the roads were bumpy, which would further complicate the health of the person the ambulance was transporting.

“Everything was linked to the lack of proper roads,” says Marwan.

To ensure that the camp was better organised, the Za’atari refugee camp was divided into 12 districts, with each district having their own leaders elected. World Vision, with funding from the UN OCHA Emergency Response Fund and ADH, built more than 21 Km of roads and approximately 42 kms of drainage trench (on both sides of the roads) in districts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 12. The roads connect these sectors to the main ring road around the camp, making accessibility much easier for thousands of families and children. And the drainage trenches connect to the main sewage system of the camp; ensuring waste water doesn’t flow onto the streets or stagnate.

“I’ve experienced the terrible conditions here in all the seasons: winter, snow, summer and floods,” says Firas, who has taken refuge at the camp with his family since November, 2012.

The waste water from his house and some of his neighbours’ houses would stagnate outside his shelter and sometimes even flow into the shelter. And the water from one street would flow into the other. “Now, the water flows neatly without flowing onto the roads or stagnating and dirtying the streets,” says Firas.

Before starting the project, World Vision conducted a thorough survey and worked closely with the community leaders and members to complete the construction of the roads. “[The] World Vision workers were very polite, ethical and effective in their work,” says Abu Ali, the leader of street eight, district two.

With further funding from OCHA, World Vision has just started work on 5.13 kms of additional road construction and 10.26 kms (on both sides of the roads) of drainage trench construction in district 11. World Vision is expecting to complete the project by the end of November this year.