Real Life

SYRIA CRISIS: The boy from Wagga saving the world

On some nights, up to 2000 people crossed the border.

Through the heat haze you can just make them out. Five lonely figures making their slow way across the desert under the unforgiving sun.

As they get closer, the figure of a man takes shape, bent double under the weight of a white hessian bag. Behind him, a woman walks slowly, a bundle of blankets in one arm, a child in the other. A teenage girl follows, dragging a suitcase through the dust. And falling behind, and pausing occasionally to find her balance on the rocky terrain, a girl on crutches.

They have been walking through the night. It’s taken them twelve hours to walk the seven kilometres through the no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan.

As they scramble over a rise, helped by a man with a red scarf and a United Nations cap who has come to meet them, the mother sobs silently into her head scarf.

As they slump, exhausted, onto their meagre pile of belongings, their story starts to come out. Four months ago they left their home in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Driven out by missile strikes, persecution and the constant threat of death that have become the hallmarks of their country’s civil war, they have been on the road ever since in search of sanctuary.

The eyes of the children are lifeless, their faces are caked in dirt. In a small act of fatherly attention, a man pours a dribble of water into a bottle lid and, with his hand, washes the dust from his son’s face. The blankets the women have been carrying, though filthy from their cross-country journey, lie folded neatly at their feet. Even in the midst of desperation there is dignity.

To their right, and similarly huddled around a meagre pile of belongings, sit another family. They look exhausted. Dust-caked and bedraggled. A four year old girl carries an empty water container, her younger sister clings tightly to a teapot. Their border crossing took much longer than expected. The matriarch, a 75-year-old grandmother fell during the night and broke two ribs. She rocks gently on the ground now, head in her hands, crying softly.

They have arrived at their destination, but the outlook – like the landscape around them – is bleak, for this is the moment they become refugees. Minutes ago, before they crested that small hill and crossed an invisible line in the sand, they were the family of grocers from Damascus, the tailor from Aleppo, the A-grade student from Homs. Now they are refugees – people with nowhere to go, and no home to go back to. They are in limbo, and the hollow expression upon their faces betrays the hopelessness they feel.

As Jordanian soldiers hand out bottles of water and juice, the man with the red scarf moves purposefully between the groups.

His name is Andrew Harper and as the head of the UN Refugee Agency here in Jordan, he is ultimately responsible for the care and safe-keeping of an estimated 600,000 Syrian refugees in the Middle Eastern kingdom – a number that grows by the day. He oversaw the construction and now runs the second largest refugee camp in the world, Za’atari, on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. He is the husband of Erica, from Port Macquarie, and the father of three young girls. He’s a boy from a sheep farm near Wagga Wagga who is out to save the world.

Andrew, 48, is the UN’s go-to guy whenever there’s a refugee crisis unfolding. And right now, there’s no refugee crisis bigger than that which is unfurling in the countries surrounding Syria. In the last twelve months, some two million Syrians have fled the civil war raging in their homeland. Za’atari Camp, which Andrew built from scratch a year ago and which The Weekly visited with him last month, is home to 130,000 of them.

It was just over a year ago, as fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels intensified, that Andrew was given a convoy of tent-laden trucks, a scrap of dust-blown land barely fit for human habitation and ten days to create a home for the thousands of refugees who were making a beeline for the Jordanian border.

The initial trickle of several hundred refugees soon became a tsunami. On some nights, up to 2000 people crossed the border.

What was only ever set up to be a temporary staging point for displaced families has since taken on an air of permanence. Now there are field hospitals, a school, playgrounds and demountable sheds instead of tents (the daily dust-storms, snow in winter and blazing summer sun quickly rendered the standard issue UN tents useless). The camp’s main thoroughfare, dubbed the Champs Elysees by the gendarmes manning the French army hospital, is buzzing testament to the entrepreneurial flair for which Syrians are renowned. Fruit and vegetable vendors compete for space with kebab stalls, ice-cream shops sit next to hardware merchants and there are cigarette sellers, makeshift clothing stores and an internet cafe. There’s even a shop that rents wedding dresses and a stall that sells caged canaries.

If it all sounds a bit holiday-camp, muck-in-and-make-the-best-of-it, it’s not. While the commerce is conducted briskly, it’s not done with much enthusiasm. You only have to scratch a little beneath the surface of your average camp inhabitant to discover a simmering resentment at the lot life has thrown at them. They’re angry. With their persecutors (for obvious reasons), with their sanctuary-providing saviours (for who else do you lash out at when you are disenfranchised and frustrated?) – and ultimately with themselves, for being in such a hopeless situation.

Feeding, watering, providing sanitation and basic health to 130,000 people a day in the middle of the desert is no small undertaking. Trucks rumble back and forth to Za’atari in a seemingly endless loop – bringing food, removing sewage, and grimly, transporting to nearby hospital incinerators the amputated limbs of bombing and sniper victims.

To take a tour of the camp in the company of Andrew is to be assaulted with statistics, each one more overwhelming than the previous one. Za’atari is the second largest refugee camp in the world. Four million litres of water are trucked in every day, no mean feat given that Jordan is the fourth most water-poor country on the planet. Sixty percent of the camp population are children, 20 percent is under the age of four. It costs half-a-million dollars a day to keep the camp running. When Za’atari first opened a year ago, it was to house 700 refugees, it is now home to 130,000 and is braced to receive up 150,000 more (“a figure that is entirely probable,” says Andrew). Up the road, in Azraq, a new camp is being built – six times the size of this one. “And I’m pretty confident that will fill quickly too,” adds Andrew. “The civil war in Syria is not about to end any time soon.”

In the maternity ward of the French military hospital, stoically staffed by no-nonsense midwives from Paris, there are tiny miracles happening every day. An average of six children are born each day into the living hell that is Za’atari. The birthing suites, if in fact you could call them that, are dimly-lit rooms inside a tin-clad demountable, the screams from a neighbour in labour are barely contained by the paper thin partitions. We know because a young woman went into labour while we there.

“The medicines are basic,” Solange the midwife tells me in her matter-of-fact, rapid-fire French. “There’s no epidural here, only paracetamol. We might as well be giving them lollies to dull the pain. These are some of the strongest women I have ever encountered.”

One such mother, Nadine cradles her new-born son in the recovery room. Mohammed is just four hours old. He slumbers peacefully, blissfully unaware of the uncertain future into which he has been born.

By day, the occasional patrol through the camp by Jordanian troops keeps things nice. By night, however, when the troops have gone and the gates are locked, Za’atari operates according to its own rules.

Many of the families are led by women. The men of the household, in many instances, have either been conscripted to fight back in Syria or been killed. Socially, it creates a distorted dynamic, with reports of women resorting to prostitution to protect their families.

“It can get a bit wild and woolly in there,” admits Andrew, noting his team is working on the creation of a community-based police force.

At night, you can hear the artillery pounding the Syrian city of Dara’a, only 20 kilometres away.

Za’atari is a hard-scrabble existence. More than 130,000 homeless souls scratching out a half-life in a dust bowl on the outskirts of Amman. Andrew won’t say it out loud (it’s his masterwork afterall, and a credit to his skills as a hard-talking, soft-hearted leader of people), but he knows this is no kind of a life.

“You have to try not to become emotionally attached,” he says, after listening to a family relay how they fled fighting and lost and uncle and two nephews to snipers along the way. “I have a job to do which requires me to remain rational and provide the most comfort in these people’s lives that circumstances allow.

“At least they are not waking up each morning worried about being killed,” he says. “At least they are safe.”

To paint Andrew as a no-nonsense action man is to capture only part of his daily life. As the UN Refugee Agency’s representative in Jordan, and as the man who has daily contact with refugees coming directly from contested areas inside Syria, he wears many hats. His advice is regularly sought by the King of Jordan and he has a close relationship with the Jordanian armed forces whose praises he cannot sing highly enough for the unwavering compassion they show to the waves of refugees that show up on their border. He is chief herder of the myriad NGOs that are operational inside the camp, he is personally overseeing the building of infrastructure for the new camp. He is boss, manager and colleague to UNHCR’s 600 staff in Jordan, a sought-after media spokesman on all matters refugee, and is regularly called upon by a relentless parade of visiting dignitaries, heads of state and celebrities to take them on a guided tour of Za’atari. He proudly shows off photos of himself escorting Angelina Jolie, and on the day The Weekly visited he was preparing to chaperone Princess Mary and had just flown over the camp in the King’s helicopter in the company of influential US talk-show host, Jon Stewart.

He readily admits there’s an addictive touch of ‘boys’ own adventure’ to his job, and with a two-way radio in hand and a crisis to tend, he looks completely in his element. Yet it’s when you see him at home that the portrait fills out.

Daughters Isabella, 5, Caitlin, 3 and Jessica, 2, are the lights of his life – three little girls who provide a daily, pink-infused counterpoint to his often grim workaday existence.

And then there’s his wife Erica, a lawyer and published author from Port Macquarie.

The couple met in East Timor when Andrew was working for the Australian government liaising between warring militias and Erica was (in his words) a “fresh-faced volunteer”. Love blossomed and a decade was spent traversing the world, trying to save it one humanitarian crisis at a time. From the war in Iraq to helping coordinate the emergency response in Aceh to the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami, their history as a couple reads like an action novel.

In between raising three kids, Erica, 36, works in Amman for the American Bar Association, providing legal advice to NGOs. You only need to see the couple together to see how immensely proud she is of her husband, and vice versa.

“The thing that never ceases to impress me about Andrew is that he will always fight the good fight,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s politically astute or not, he will fight for what he believes is right. Plus he has a very no-nonsense approach which I think is very Australian.”

But does she worry about the occasionally dangerous nature of his work? (Four weeks previous to our visit, whilst visiting the Syrian border, Andrew had been in a car accident in which one passenger was killed.)

“I have learned not to worry too much,” says Erica. “Because wherever we have worked, there has always been an element of danger. It’s the nature of what we have chosen to do. The trade off is that we get to work with amazing people and have this amazing life and get to do really important work.”

You sit cross legged in the dust with a succession of refugee families in Za’taari camp, and discover their stories are all of a kind: each one as horrible as the next. Forced from their homes by aerial attacks, houses burned down by advancing troops, family members killed, children waking terrified in the night, hounded across their homeland by automatic-weapon wielding soldiers. It’s tragic, but remote.

But then to stand on the Syrian border and see a family crossing the desert, dragging behind them in the dust whatever meagre belongings they’ve been able to salvage, is to fully apprehend the horror – to grasp the human tragedy.

As we hop back into our 4WD and begin the journey back towards Amman, Yousef, Andrew’s colleague who had minutes earlier carried the girl on crutches across the border, looks back at the hunched figures in the desert waiting to be collected by the Jordanian army.

“Humans can be so cruel to one another,” he says.


Australia for UNHCR has launched an emergency appeal for the crisis in Syria. Even the smallest donation can make a difference. To donate, visit the UNHCR website or call (02) 8355 8025. Donations are tax deductible.

To keep abreast of developments on the ground in Jordan, follow Andrew Harper on Twitter: @and_harper

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly. Photography by Nick Cubbin.

VIDEO: Angelina Jolie addresses UN over Syrian duty.

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