“We can’t continue to treat this as a very temporary situation”
After 4 years and 5,000 babies – some of whom have never left the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan – there’s an air of permanence to the temporary infrastructure that is now home to 80,000 Syrians (still only a tiny percentage of the estimated 4.8 million who have left their birthplace).
Filmmakers Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez have put together a 101 minute documentary After Spring that looks at the largest camp for Syrian refugees. While organised and run by the UNHCR, the camp has a life of its own. If measured by population, it would be the fourth largest city in Jordan, yet it is incredibly dense and only covers two square miles of desert to the east of Mafraq.
Refugees adapt their existing skills and occupations for the new situation, running 3,000 shops along the main street (dubbed the “Champs-Élysées”) and roads that criss-cross the camp.
Like life on the camp, the film sets its own pace, with lingering shots and moments of silence.
After Spring follows families moving into and out of Zaatari, assessing their mood and motivation. A caseworker evaluates the needs of new families. It’s rigidly process driven case work, with no help offered until the registration paperwork is in place and no automatic right to a ‘caravan’ (static home), even if you have a quadriplegic child who’s shivering. “They have their rules.”
The retiring camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt reflects on the achievement of getting the camp up and running, yet. He can’t hold back tears as children at the Taekwondo academy set up with UNHCR’s blessing and his assistance present him with a black belt and thank him. The kids are keeping fit, learning to be disciplined, socialising away from their tents and caravans, and learning life skills to prepare them for an uncertain future.
“We must prepare for the future of Syria right here”
After Spring isn’t the first film to come out of the dust desert camp, and won’t be the last. The European Commission-funded District Zero looked at daily life in the camp through the life of Maamun and his mobile phone repair shop.
Zaatari is reckoned to be the refugee camp that is most visited by the media and has developed sophisticated external and internal facing communications. (The @ZaatariCamp Twitter camp is defended as not being “propaganda” but instead offering truthful insight into the highs and lows of life on camp.)
The presence and management of UNHCR doesn’t equate to UN central funding for all activity. Voluntary fundraising along with pledges of development aid by individual nations and all contribute to the running of the camp. Over the years, external support has diminished in light of competing crises. The World Food Programme itself has lived hand to mouth with funding and supplies close to running out before being replenished at the very last minute.
Despite the harsh realities and inequalities of life on camp, there is some hope. The new Zataari camp manager Hovig Etyemezian was himself once a refugee, fleeing Lebanon during the war to live in Aleppo. He describes refugee status as “a title that you have next to your name that you want to disappear at some point”. He’s now working to help people who have stepped into his old shoes.
The lighting of the Arab Spring touch paper has had unpredictable results. The situation in Syria is still uncertain. Much analysis and many media column inches concentrate on the perilous journeys with smugglers, people traffickers and unsafe modes of transport. After Spring rests with the displaced people who have arrived at a destination. For some it’s a temporary home, for others it has proven to be a medium term habitat. But for all it has the potential to offer hope and security.
After Spring is currently being screened at film festivals. You can catch it in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival’s World in Motion strand on Friday 14 October at 6.30pm.