ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — As the Syrian crisis approaches its fifth anniversary, not far across the border in Jordan an altogether more hopeful milestone is being celebrated.
The Zaatari refugee camp has just seen the birth of the 5,000th baby at its U.N. Population Fund-supported clinic. As aid workers, government officials and family members gathered Tuesday to mark the occasion, baby Rima Salameh watched the events quietly in the back of the room, swaddled in a colorful blanket.
Although she was the camp’s 5,000th baby, Rima was her parent’s second. “It was easier this time than the first,” her mother, 21-year-old Kholoud Suliman from Daraa in southern Syria, told reporters.
Rima may be just a week old, but her presence in Zaatari is being taken as a sign that life is indeed continuing for Syrian refugees in the camp. In a speech at the party, Edward Kallon, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator, dubbed her birth an “auspicious occasion,” while Population Fund officials used it to highlight the fact that there had been no maternal deaths in all these childbirths.
Rima’s parents are clearly grateful for the help: After they were informed that their daughter was the 5,000th child, they named her after their doctor in the clinic.
As dramatic as it may sound, the 5,000 figure may understate just how much life is going on in Zaatari. U.N. officials estimate that the total number of births for those in the camp is closer to 10,000; several nongovernmental organizations offered childbirth facilities before the clinic opened in 2013, and over 1,000 cases that required more-advanced medical techniques have been referred to a nearby hospital run by the Moroccan military.
Zaatari’s population surged in the early years after the fighting started in Syria, at one point soaring to more than 100,000 people — enough to make the camp the fourth-largest “city” in Jordan.
After many families moved to escape the crowding and live outside the camp, the population dropped to around 80,000. Now, many argue that the camp is getting better and better — and that it may even evolve into a real city within a few years.
“They have created something that is approaching normalcy,” Aoife McDonnell, the U.N. refugee agency’s Jordan spokeswoman, said of the refugees in the camp.
At the event Tuesday, Rima’s father showed off some of that normalcy, bringing plates of falafel from the restaurant he works at in the camp to pass out to guests. Mohammed Salameh, 22, argued that the falafel is the best in Zaatari. He may well be right, but there is plenty of competition: Zaatari’s central street, dubbed the Champs-Elysees, is full of places to eat. There are estimated to be thousands of small businesses operating in the camp, with shops selling wares as varied as wedding dresses and bicycles.
Back in a small trailer that Salameh shares with his extended family, it is clear that although things may have stabilized in the camp, the problems are far from over.
Salameh says he earns just 5 Jordanian dinar a day for a 12-hour shift at the restaurant, barely $7. Over the course of the month, he makes around $210, a figure that is stretched extremely thin as he is the sole breadwinner for his large extended family.
Despite the new start in Zaatari, the family still faces daily challenges. Salameh’s father, who suffered a stroke, needs medical attention. One of Salameh’s sisters was killed by a barrel bomb in Syria. Her infant son, Fahad, now lives with Salameh in Zaatari; the family says he survived in the rubble for hours before being found. Another sister has a young child named Sham, an Arabic word that refers to a part of Syria — the homeland where new mother Kholoud Suliman’s entire family remains, despite the risk and the distance from their daughter.
In the end, Salameh explained, the hope is that Rima and her sister won’t go through all this. What he and his wife want for their daughters is just “a better chance than we did in our lives.”