One afternoon, after the kids had left for the day and we artists were putting some finishing touches on a mural on the outside of a large tent that serves as a community center, we began to hear shouting coming from inside the tent. There had been a meeting going on between local “street leaders” in that area of the refugee camp and one of the organizations that provides services such as water and sanitation. The tension was evident as the polite conversation quickly heated up and devolved into an emotional display of anger. The refugees’ frustration in Za’atari is becoming infamous as news stories consistently show protests that include rock- throwing, property destruction and attacks on international organizations and the Jordanian soldiers. Many are unhappy with the fact that Jordan’s government has forced some refugees to live in dry, desolate places like Za’atari and has prohibited them from working in the country. According to humanitarian workers with experience around the world, the services in Za’atari are far superior to those in other such camps around the world, but for these Syrians it is a big step down; most come from Da’ara, where they were used to green landscapes, flowing rivers and a seemingly endless water supply. Now they find themselves in a blindingly bright white moonscape without a trace of plant life, having to deal with rations on services such as water and food. The heat is exhausting and the wind blows dust everywhere, even creating dust storms that look like mini-tornadoes.
At some point, the argument reached a boiling point and someone got punched. We immediately got evacuated to a nearby caravan for fear that the violence would escalate further, or even that the presence of foreigners could further inflame their anger. A family welcomed us with the sweet, strong Arabic coffee that I’ve quickly come to love here. A middle-aged man sat and talked to us about his life in Syria, where he worked in the government’s security agency until the conflict began, at which point the killing of civilians horrified him to the point that he quit his job and fled with his family. As I listened to his story, I thought about how frustrated I would be to have my life on hold, waiting for what seem like eternity in a dusty, hot wasteland. Yet so many of my friends here are like this man; so welcoming and generous with what little they have.