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Paintings a poignant picture of Syrian refugee life for Canadian ministers

Young Syrian refugees play in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near the city of Mafraq, Jordan, on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
November 30, 2015 - 7:00 AM

MAFRAQ, Jordan - Propped against the plywood and metal walls of a community centre in Jordan's largest refugee camp, dozens of paintings provide a glimpse into the minds of some of the thousands of children who call Zaatari home.

An idyllic lakeside scene complete with palm trees and flying birds. A portrait of a mother with her arms wrapped around a child, their eyes wide. A beige United Nations refugee agency tent, flames burning out the sides, and "help us" written in blue across the sky.

Last fall, the World Food Program ran out of money to help feed the 80,000 people who live at Zaatari, a camp about 10 kilometres from the Syrian border that was set up in the early days of the war.

Without the prepaid Mastercards with the $28 U.S. per person, per month, to buy food at the two official supermarkets in camp, people pulled their children out of school so they could work for grocery money and rates of child marriage rose as a way for families to provide for their daughters.

An influx of cash from international donors — Canada among them — helped alleviate the immediate crisis, a delegation of federal cabinet ministers were told Sunday by WFP and UNICEF officials as they stood on at the centre of the camp, overlooking thousands of homes.

Immigration Minister John McCallum, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan were on a one-day visit to Jordan, one of the three countries from which Canada is now in the process of selecting 25,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement in Canada over the coming months.

The program includes $100 million in aid money too, some of it going to programs like food assistance to help forestall another such emergency.

The ongoing challenge was clearly on Sajjan's mind.

In the community centre, a painting immediately caught his attention — a black-and-grey canvas of a man pushing a boulder up a rock.

"There's a symbolism to it," he said. "The magnitude of the work ahead."

On the rocky outcropping at the camp's centre, the sun was shining so brightly the white metal housing seems to shimmer as kids danced around in the gravel, clowning it up for their foreign guests.

Camp manager Hovig Etyemezian told the ministers Zaatari is the most urbanized camp he's ever worked in and it's become more so; a project underway by UNICEF is seeking to modernize the water system to provide better and more efficient access.

What started with just those beige tents in the summer of 2012 is now a city, where the tents are attached to the metal buildings for use as porches, bathrooms or kitchens; the compound used to have communal facilities but they've been largely abandoned as people set up their own.

The Canadian politicians were taken largely down back roads in the camp, not seeing the inside of many of the places people are now calling home, but getting glimpses of it from their heavily-fortified cars and also along the dusty alleys they walked.

Laundry hung from lines strung between the metal shacks, kids in dusty rubber boots crowded around doorways, plastic toys in hand. Men lay on yellow and red mattresses in the sun. The main transportation for the residents are hundreds of bicycles, navigated expertly over the rocks, bells ringing to alert people to get out of the way.

There are 27 community centres, five schools running double shifts and two official supermarkets in Zaatari, but also a network of 2,500 unofficial shops selling everything from pomegranates to bike parts.

The main street is nicknamed the Champs Elysees after the French hospital that used to be there, and anything one needs, from a wedding dress to solar panels, can be bought in one of the tiny and dark stalls that line the way.

People have recreated their lives from Syria in the camp, with neighbourhoods largely made up of people from the same villages.

"We try to be resourceful in life and refugees are just like us," said Etyemezian.

The Canadian delegation stopped at a bakery run by an entire family of bakers who have adapted their method of baking bread in underground ovens to baking it in metal drums.

When they began swarming into the camp three years ago, largely from the nearby Syrian province of Dara'a, they were hopeful it was just a temporary stop, Etyemezian said.

Five months ago, a major battle in that region gave many renewed hope that Syrian opposition forces would retake the province and they could all go home.

But conflict isn't that simple, and now, Etyemezian said, many have resigned themselves to needing a new source of hope.

"There has been a major shift in the mood in the camp where before they were saying the solution is Syria, now they are seeking that solution elsewhere. This is why you started having this movement towards Europe," he said.

"I think the solution will be to have some of these refugees resettled and we are very happy for the contribution of your government," he added.

The reality is that most of the refugees Canada will take in between now and the end of February are unlikely to come from Zaatari or camps elsewhere, but from cities and towns — that's also where the vast majority of the four million people who've fled the Syrian conflict live.

But that hasn't stopped the residents of the camps from hoping they'll get a spot. During the tour, the presence of the Canadian delegation didn't go unnoticed.

"Canadians in Zaatari. Are there good news about resettlement for Zaatari people?," said one resident, in a tweet to Etyemezian, which he read aloud to the group.

"We certainly hope so," said McCallum. "That's why we're here."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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