Children in Azraq refugee camp.

Prisoners of the desert: Inside Jordan's Azraq refugee camp

AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — Sitting cross-legged on a thin UNHCR mat covering a concrete floor and nursing her 14-month-old, Yasmeen Al-Alow was glad to be out of the jail that is Village 5 — Azraq’s notorious camp-within-the-camp.

Surrounded by barbed wire, Village 5 and Village 2 are where new Syrian refugees were taken before Jordan sealed its borders. Those inside the villages haven’t been allowed outside the wire for months. The Jordanian government fears the new arrivals pose a security threat to the other refugees in the camp. Containing new refugees in the prison-like camps is one way to decrease the chance of ISIS infiltration, authorities say.

Those living in Village 5 and Village 2 are virtual prisoners; unlike Syrian refugees who live in Azraq’s other villages, they are not allowed to walk through the streets, to the supermarket, or anywhere at all.

The Azraq refugee camp, located in a remote, sweltering desert landscape southeast of the capital Amman, is home to nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war. Half of Azraq’s residents are children.

Most of the Syrians living in Villages 5 and 2 arrived from a desert region surrounded by sandbanks along the Jordanian border. The United Nations estimates that more than 85,000 people are stranded in Ruqban — a camp near the point where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet — and Hadalat camp, 80 km to the west, where Al-Alow and her family were stranded for months.

iPolitics asked to visit Villages 5 and 2. A government official at the camp said it’s forbidden, citing security reasons. Photos were not permitted, either.

Since November, the Canadian government has welcomed nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees. King Abdullah of Jordan told the BBC in February that his country is at the “boiling point” because of an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The king said the international community has to offer more help if it wants Jordan to continue taking refugees.

The Jordanian government compromised, however, and set up Village 5 in March. It was a move intended to help international aid agencies trying to expedite the admission of thousands of refugees, like Al-Alow, who were stuck waiting at the border.

Al-Alow, 21, and her husband Muhammed, 26, had been living in their new caravan in Village Six for just over a week. Two jugs of water and a small kettle sat atop the small table at the front of the caravan that serves as a kitchen.

Yasmeena Al-Alow, her husband Muhammad and their 14-month-old Khaled. iPOLITICS/Janice Dickson

Al-Alow said she and her family are refugees by accident. They left their home in Syria a few months ago with the intention of visiting family in Jordan — but when they arrived at the Syrian border, they had no choice but to live in the berm while they waited to get into Jordan. That wait took four months; by then, the smugglers who drove them to the Syrian border could not take them back home.

“My family came to visit from Kuwait and they were on the other side of the barbed wire,” Al-Alow said via a translator. That visit lasted five minutes.

“We didn’t talk. We just cried.”

Kuwait has also sealed its borders, blocking Syrians from joining family members there.

Najwa Al-Shaikh, 32, and her four children arrived from Syria a few months ago; her family also lived in Village 5. Al-Shaikh’s mother arrived beforehand so their caravan is quite homey. Her mother has set up a little convenience store where children come to buy candy.

Despite the 35-degree heat, Al-Shaikh offered me hot tea and sugar on a silver tray, a display of Syrian hospitality found in every caravan I visited.

Al-Shaikh said she and her young children waited in the desert for months with little food or water in harsh conditions before they were granted permission to enter Jordan.

Her husband was arrested by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, she said. Sometimes, regime authorities tell her that her husband is still alive — other times they tell her he’s been killed.

She gestured toward her 11-year-old daughter Ala, who pulled up her pant cuff to reveal a thin leg covered with scars.

“One of my daughters was killed by the regime, and Ala was injured by the rockets,” she said. All Ala remembers is playing in the playground that day.

The situation in Azraq is “very bad,” the young woman said. Her mother shook her head and suggested that in a month or two, her daughter will adjust.

Aecha Mohammed Shaban, 29, and her four children are thankful for the safety the camp offers.

“In the beginning it was very difficult to live here, how can we live here?” said Shaban, sitting on a long cushion which doubles as a bed for her and her children at night.

Suddenly, the sound of gunshots coming from a nearby military base shattered the desert silence. The children — who had been smiling by their mother’s side — covered their ears and began to cry.

Children of Zaatari: Refugees, brides, mothers

  Israa, 14, and Zayed, 18, talk about their engagement in Zaatari refugee camp

Israa, 14, and Zayed, 18, talk about their engagement in Zaatari refugee camp

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan – In Jordan, the legal age of marriage is 18 but it’s up to a judge’s discretion whether to grant marriage permits to couples who are as young as 15 — a loophole many young Syrians are taking advantage of in Zaatari refugee camp. Some skirt the law entirely.

Thirteen-year-old girls are engaged. Some are eager to wed, others are victims. Either way, child marriage is ubiquitous in the camp. In a society whose institutions have been decimated by war, one of the few institutions that hasn’t been damaged or destroyed and doesn’t rely on infrastructure — marriage — has been booming in what many believe are all the wrong ways.

The United Nations defines child marriage as a human rights violation. “Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects,” reads the UN Population Fund website.

Figures from the Chief Islamic Justice Department of Jordan cited in The Jordan Times show that early marriages represent about 35 per cent of all marriages of Syrian refugees in 2015, up from 18 per cent in 2012.

Young brides — and their mothers — in Zaatari cite a whole range of reasons for early marriage, some of which have to do with where they’re from in Syria. Not surprisingly, those who lived in villages may be accustomed to early marriage, unlike those who fled cities. But in the camp, the reasons for early marriage range from protection, economic factors and family influence to the worry that once a girl reaches 18 she’s too old and will run out of options.

Those options decrease even more for young divorcees. One mother said that only older men will marry women who have been divorced, or divorcees can become a second, third or even fourth wife to a man.

A lawyer in Zaatari, Mohammad Hamdan, said he oversees around 300 divorces a year in the camp and while some couples are older, many of them are under 18.

Israa Al-Atmah, 14, knelt beside her fiancé Zeyad Henawi, 18, in her family’s caravan in Zaatari. In a rare display of affection among the young couples I met with, she stroked his hand.

The couple is set to wed in five months when Al-Atmah turns 15. Henawi tried pushing the court for an immediate wedding agreement but was refused.

Henawi described the first time he saw Al-Atmah in the bustling and dusty street, eight months earlier.

“When I saw her, I was in love with her,” he said. One week later, Henawi’s family asked Al-Atmah’s family if he could marry her — and that was it.

“When I saw him, I trusted him, I like him,” Al-Atmah said of the street encounter through an interpreter.

Al-Atmah completed grade eight in Syria three years ago and hasn’t been back to school since. She said in Syria she wanted to become a teacher – and didn’t think of marriage until moving to Zaatari.

After some convincing, Henawi agreed to allow his fiance’s photo to be taken.

Israa, 14, and Zayed, 18, talk about their engagement in Zaatari refugee camp. iPOLITICS/Janice Dickson

At the beginning of the civil war, the fighting came and went, Al-Atmah’s mom Fawzia Kalesh, explained. Then the fighting lasted all day long. Unknown militias, speaking a language they did not recognize, moved in and started killing people.

They beheaded women and children.

Al-Atmah’s older sister returned to Syria after getting married in Zaatari and was shot five months ago outside her home.

Kalesh, changing the subject, echoed her daughter and said she wouldn’t be getting married at 14 if they were still in Syria. She would be in school.

Life in Zaatari is difficult, said Kalesh, and that’s why people are married at a young age.

The rationale varies, however, depending on whom you ask.

Heba Al-Mgeez, 16, married her cousin, Khaled, 23, two weeks ago. Smoking a cigarette inside the caravan lined with cushions, and surrounded by friends, Khaled said he decided he would marry Heba years ago. For Heba, she knew they would marry the day they got engaged. Khaled refused to allow Heba to be photographed for this piece.

“There is no reason except love,” he said. Heba’s mother piped in and suggested that once girls reach 18 they are “overage.” Heba’s mom was concerned with the options for men once she reached this age — maybe they would be older, or already married.

Like Al-Atmah, Heba doesn’t go to school in Zaatari. She completed grade seven three years ago. When asked about her new responsibilities as a wife, she shrugged. She’s still a kid.

When pressed about going back to school, her aunt interjected, “She studies the Holy Koran.” Her hopes? To be a mother.

Most of the girls say getting married is a big mistake, said Isra Shakbun, 30, a counsellor with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Zaatari. Shakbun, alongside caseworkers with UNFPA, works with young girls who are being forced into early marriage or who are married — and also young mothers.

A big part of their work is encouraging girls to stay in school until they’re 18.

Most have anxiety, depression, and fears about the future. “I don’t want to be a victim,” is a phrase caseworkers hear often.

“They are victims of marriage,” said  Fatimah Setan, 27, a caseworker. Setan said girls as young as 13 will attend their recreational programs — baby in tow. They don’t know how to take care of themselves, or their baby.

Majdoleen Mahmoud, 17, will marry her cousin Mohammed next month. Mahmoud said her parents talked to her about marrying Mohammed and she agreed.

“Mohammed was in love with her…we are one family…that’s why I agreed to let her marry at 17,” said Mahmoud’s mother Amneh.

Like the other young brides, Majdoleen also gave up school when she arrived in Zaatari and won’t return.

At 17, Majdoleen knows she will have a lot of responsibilities after she marries Mohammed, like taking care of him and their caravan.

“I’m happy and comfortable,” she said.

Fifteen-year-old Omaima Al-Hoshan has been campaigning against child marriage since she was 12. Her best friend was preparing her paperwork to get married and Al-Hoshan told her, “You’re crazy, you’ll lose all of your rights.” Al-Hoshan did everything she could to stop her friend from getting married.

“Her father wanted it. He decides,” said Al-Hoshan. Shakbun, with UNFPA, said that some young brides-to-be ask her staff to intervene when they’re being forced to wed. Shakbun said they will approach the girl’s father and say that their daughter doesn’t want to get married. Sometimes they listen. Other times they tell them to go away.

“I felt guilty because I couldn’t stop my friend from getting married,” Al-Hoshan continued. Al-Hoshan heard that her now former best friend, 14, has a baby.

Al-Hoshan has made headlines around the world for her work in advocating for education and delaying child marriage in the camp.

She said her teacher was supportive of her work, and now Al-Hoshan runs workshops and gives talks across Zaatari in which she urges girls to wait. her advocacy was inspired by Malala Yousafzai after her mother gave her a copy of the education activist’s autobiography, I am Malala.

Al-Hoshan, who wants to become a lawyer, said she won’t stop her advocacy work until the whole community knows that early marriage is wrong.


Files from Turkey, 2015

  This is the last photograph a freelance photographer with Reuters took before leaving his home in Northern Aleppo for Turkey. 

This is the last photograph a freelance photographer with Reuters took before leaving his home in Northern Aleppo for Turkey. 

They were all from Aleppo. Three young men, their 20s interrupted by war. Violence forced them each to leave. Now, 900 kilometres away, they meet on a quiet outdoor patio in Istanbul. They look back at what it meant to leave home. For at least one of them, leaving meant never going back.

More than 3 million Syrians are living in Turkey. A large majority are not in tented refugee camps run by the government but on the streets begging. Most beggars are children. With the world’s media increasingly focused on ISIS and its atrocities, the stories of lives interrupted by an intractable, and barely understandable, civil war have often fallen silent.

On the far left side of the table is J, an undeniably handsome young man with dark and determined brown eyes that smile as he speaks. Wearing a colourful t-shirt and shorts, J orders a glass of juice and smiles at his friends, who are busy drinking beer. J is a well-known photojournalist who freelanced with Reuters until they stopped accepting his photos, he’s in Istanbul to find work. He spoke on the condition that his name would not be used. The photograph accompanying this story was the last photo he took before leaving his home in northern Aleppo, just one month ago.

Sitting to his right is Amin, who’s broad smile matches his friendly eyes. Removing his small black backpack and placing it on the side of his chair, Amin straightens his white shirt and folds his hands neatly in front of him. From time to time, he breaks his clasp to take a sip of beer. Amin is a physiotherapist who is working for an NGO in the border city Gaziantep. He fled his community in eastern Aleppo after ISIS arrived in 2014, and agreed to be quoted on the condition that only his first name be used. He is in Istanbul with the hopes of acquiring a Syrian passport.

Looking through dark aviator sunglasses, running his fingers through his long beard, is J and Amin’s friend. He leans casually on the end of the table, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. A former member of the Free Syrian Army, he’s asked not to be named. The Free Syrian Army is a group of Syrian Armed Forces soldiers founded during the Syrian Civil War in 2011 which acts in opposition to Syria’s regime in an effort to protect Syrian civilians. He’s in Istanbul visiting his mother who he has not seen for four years.

J, who has been travelling regularly between Turkey and Syria, is the first to offer his story. He begins by explaining that he’s made the decision over 70 times not to return Syria, but he keeps going back. Even now, he has not made the final decision to stay.

“Everyday Aleppo is becoming more and more dangerous with the bomb shelling,” he begins.

“It’s not being courageous to say this, but while I was in Aleppo, I wasn’t feeling the danger, but when you see it from the outside, you really feel it. It’s the most dangerous city in the world. But I feel the danger and the risk when thinking about my family.” J’s wife and two children, five and three, live in Gaziantep.

He says Reuters may have stopped accepting his photos because a lot of photojournalists were taking risks in Aleppo, they were getting injured and killed. Many of the photojournalists did not begin as professionals, they were media-activists, he explains, and often didn’t wear the bulletproof jackets provided by Reuters.

He says the reason he is in Istanbul is not because he lost his position with Reuters, because he didn’t take photos for the money and he could have stayed and worked on documentaries.

“The people who are still there, they are used to everything right now, it’s different for people who come and go, and stay a period outside Syria and then go back to Syria. It’s more intense psychologically…you ask yourself what was I living? Where was I living? It’s different than people who are living in everyday danger.”

“The people who are staying in Aleppo, their income is so low that they can’t even imagine living elsewhere,” he adds.

Because of his income as a photographer, J was able to bring his family to Gaziantep where they would be safe from both President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS.

“We consider ISIS and the regime the same, the regime used to cut the heads of people – what ISIS is doing is not new – the regime burned people and they drowned people. ISIS took the matter of horrific torture from the regime. It’s like they are defying together who is more horrific,” he says.

J knows people, even old friends from before the revolution, who have joined ISIS and some who died fighting with ISIS. While he doesn’t talk to any of them anymore, he does receive threats online from ISIS fighters.

“I had threats when I worked with Reuters, just because I worked with Reuters, with Reuters we are ‘kafir’…’non believers.’ For them it’s proof I worked with a Western group.”

“There were online threats ‘if we get you we will kill you, we’ll cut your throat.’ It’s normal. Even on Facebook there are comments, sometimes there are common friends from ISIS, and they’ll go to your Facebook and they post threats on there, they have their digital army,” he says.

Imminent threats led Amin to flee his life in eastern Aleppo, he explains, joining the conversation. Amin was working as a physiotherapist treating civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army when ISIS arrived before New Years Eve last year.

“Death. Death for everyone,” says Amin, describing what it was like when ISIS arrived in eastern Aleppo.

“When ISIS arrived all I wanted was to leave. Leave, leave, leave, I felt like my life was threatened and I knew they would condemn me for treating Free Syrian Army people because they had already killed some of my colleagues and medical staff because they used to treat Free Syrian Army, who they consider the enemy.”

He says if he stayed, he would be killed, “so I wouldn’t be able to treat anyone. Where do I treat them – in heaven?”

Amin says his parents and sisters are still in eastern Aleppo and he and his brothers are in Turkey.

“If I stayed it would be a threat for my family because ISIS would come to my house and ask for me, to take me, because I helped ‘the enemy.’They would look for me and threaten my dad and mom and torture them until they tell them where I was, but I left.”

Unlike J, Amin can’t return to Syria. “I won’t be able to go anywhere near my parents.”

“Everyday I’m on the phone with my parents for hours,” he says.

“I have three sisters in eastern Aleppo. They can’t go out. Women in ISIS regions cannot go out. That’s just life,” he said, explaining that his father would have to accompany them if they wanted to leave their house. Because ISIS controls the border area between eastern Aleppo and Turkey, it’s impossible for them to escape.

Upon being asked if he wanted to share some of his experiences, the recent member of the Free Syrian Army shrugs. He says he’s only been in Turkey for three months and it’s difficult to imagine not living in Syria.

“For me I am better there than here, I’m feeling comfortable in Aleppo, it’s been just three months since I’ve left Aleppo but I’ve been there since the beginning, my life is there,” he says, adding that this the first time in his life that he’s left and came to see his mom, but he plans on returning to Syria.

J said the most difficult question to ask is what led people to join ISIS and to think like ISIS. He said Assad’s regime had a strong role in creating ISIS.

“In August and July 2011, the regime used to have in its jails lots of politicians who were free thinkers, communists and leftists. After the revolution, when people were asking about detainees, al-Assad said ‘ok, I’m going to free them.’ He freed the extremists and he kept all the intelligentsia in jail.”

“He opened the door to all the extremist Islamists that became ISIS,” explains J.

Now, explained the photojournalist, the regime and ISIS are supporting each other when it comes to controlling oil and gas in northern Aleppo.

He says liberated areas are obligated to get their oil and gas from ISIS because there’s no country that offers any support. ISIS controls oil and gas because it’s northern Aleppo.

The U.S.-led coalition could bomb ISIS in certain areas, muses J, but are afraid to because of the oil and gas. He says if the international community supported the Free Syrian Army from the beginning, ISIS wouldn’t have formed.

He also pointed to western media as a source that’s indirectly helping ISIS by repeatedly showing its propaganda in the news, and by neglecting to show the efforts of the Free Syrian Army, and the impact on civilians in Syria.

“ISIS will give one statement and people will watch it 10,000 times in the media, and everyday hundreds of children are dying in Aleppo and nobody is talking about it.”

“It’s ISIS did this, ISIS did that, everyone is forgetting what the regime is doing. They are forgetting that thousands of people are dying, not just because of ISIS,” he says.

“Do you think people ask how people are living in Aleppo right now?” he asks.

He says the media shouldn’t shouldn’t be repeatedly showing ISIS’ extreme acts.

“If they didn’t show the extreme acts of ISIS, they wouldn’t have attracted extreme people in every country and invited them, indirectly, to enroll with ISIS and kill people with them.”

“The 200 Canadians (who have joined ISIS) don’t know what’s happening in Syria but they know because of the media what’s happening with ISIS,” says J.

Amin says he saw the impact of the regime and ISIS while working in a refugee camp in Syria. He noted that the camp, while in Syria, was not close to his parents’ place and he went with the NGO he works with from September 2014 until January.

“It’s a disastrous situation. You feel powerless because the devastation is so much bigger than you. You feel hopeless because you can’t offer them anything,” says Amin.

“Some people adapt to the situation but many are mentally traumatized. Some would tell me they prefer to go under the barrel shelling and bombs of the regime than stay in the camp because you have to take turns, wait, even if you want to go to the toilet, or shower, everything,” he says, remembering.

“Kids, there are lots of kids,” he adds.

Amin says he is in contact with many Syrian people living in Turkey, and their situation is also “very bad.”

“Their every day life even in Turkey is disastrous. There are 300,000 in Gaziantep and this is the number the government gives but there’s more than that and it’s a very bad situation. Parents have to put their kids on the street to become beggars. I deal a lot with people with mental illness and physical handicaps and they ask for rehab schools and there aren’t any.”

Amin concludes with a smile, “I hope to get my passport tomorrow, it would probably be easier to seek asylum than to get a Syrian passport.”

Turkey turns blind eye to ISIS fighters using its hospital: sources 

ISTANBUL – Militants fighting in Syria for the so-called Islamic State have been flocking to hospitals in Turkey after being wounded in battle, sources tell iPolitics.

A psychologist with an American NGO who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not permitted to grant interviews said, “ISIS has been using hospitals in Adana.” Adana is a southern province in Turkey near the Syrian border.

“When we were working in Adana, I saw them. Right now, we’re no longer working there, but, we used to stay in hotels and we saw them after their surgeries,” she said.

“They are Libyan, Algerian, Tunisian, Iraqi — and it’s like what are they doing here? They are so injured and wounded, it’s ISIS, everybody knows without saying,” she said.

According to the psychologist, Adana has “the most extremist Islamic groups” in Turkey.

The psychologist, who also worked in Gaziantep, a city east of Adana, could not confirm whether ISIS fighters were also being treated in hospitals in that region, an assertion made by a U.S. officer who iPolitics spoke with in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.

The U.S. officer said when he was working in Gaziantep, there were ISIS fighters being treated in hospitals there, and then crossing the border back into Syria.

“I think the Turkish government is turning a blind eye to it,” he said.

The psychologist said the Turkish government is definitely looking the other way while ISIS militants are treated in its hospitals before returning to combat in Syria.

“In Adana it’s obvious. You can see them and you can hear them,” she said.

This isn’t the first time ISIS militants have been spotted in Turkey’s border towns and using its hospitals. ISIS commander Abu Muhammad received treatment in Hatay State Hospital last spring after he was injured fighting in Syria.

Turkey is faced with difficult challenges, given that it’s the only NATO country that borders Syria — not only because of the war its president, Bashar al-Assad, is waging against his own people, but now because of ISIS and its appeal to those who seek to join. So far, nearly 3,000 Turkish citizens are said to have joined the ranks of ISIS — many of them operating from within Turkey.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development Canada wouldn’t confirm whether the federal government is aware of ISIS’ activities in Turkey, but reiterated that “Turkey is a trusted ally and key partner in the fight against ISIS.”

“Turkey is a front-line state in the battle against terrorism and we stand with our Turkish partners in responding to all forms of terrorist threats,” said Francois Lasalle in an email.

Not only is Turkey plagued with ISIS sympathizers and an influx of nearly three million Syrian refugees, but in the past week Turkey became an active target. A suicide bomber, identified as a member of ISIS, killed 32 youth activists in Suruc, a town in Turkey near the Syrian border.

This prompted Turkey to finally take action against ISIS. According to Turkish and U.S., officials, the countries will work on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to purge ISIS from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border. While it hasn’t been determined how deep the strip would extend into Syria, it would mean an additional “safe zone” for Syrian refugees.

The plan dramatically intensifies American and Turkish military action against ISIS in Turkey.

Both stories appeared in