ZAATARI CAMP — Amani just turned 22. Two months ago she fled from the civil war in Syria and left her house in the capital of Damascus. After a dangerous nightlong trip, she arrived at Zaatari, the refugee camp just over the border in Jordan, where her parents and two sisters had already lived for more than a year. In Damascus she lived with her husband and five children, in an apartment in the old city center. Like many other Syrian girls, she got married when she was still a child. She had just turned 15 when she found the man of her dreams and decided to wed.
“In Syria, things are different,” Amani says. “Girls get married very early. It is a habit and a tradition. But it doesn’t mean we are all married off [to strangers]. I got to choose my husband and he got to choose me. We could never be more happy than when we were together.”
Five children later, the civil war broke out in the country that she loved for its uniqueness but disliked for its unfair policies and corrupt government. Living in the capital where the government of Bashar al-Assad was still in control did not make life easier for her and her family. Her husband took up arms from the first days of the armed revolt and began fighting with the Free Syrian Army. Soon, he became the leader of one of the biggest battalions fighting against the regime in Damascus.
Amani herself was also fighting with the rebels, despite the five children she had to look after.
“Women aren’t as strong as men, but sometimes they are more strategic. One can’t work without the other,” she says. But a deadly attack on their apartment building brought sorrow and sadness. Her husband and four of her children were killed on the same day.
Amani escaped and managed to save only her youngest daughter.
“When I heard the air jets of the regime approaching, I hid my little daughter underneath the sink of our kitchen,” she remembers. “She just fit in the small space between the sink and the garbage. She was just a baby. The other kids had run to their dad to seek protection. And I, in panic and to see what was going on, ran into the street. Seconds after reaching the street, I witnessed an explosion destroy the entire house. Within the debris I could only find my little baby.”
Retreat but no respite
After the tragedy, Amani decided to make the dangerous trip from Damascus to the refugee camp in Jordan, to protect her daughter’s life. But life in Zaatari has been anything but a respite.
“We are locked up like monkeys in a cage. The moment you walk in the camp, there is no way out anymore,” she says.
The camp is overpopulated. A sea of sails is spanned over 3.3 square kilometers and currently accommodates 150,000 refugees — three times the number that it was built for almost two years ago.
This artificial settlement, in the middle of a dry desert, is afflicted by sandstorms and disease. The little humanitarian aid that reaches the camp cannot help all the people who need it. Those who want bread or blankets to protect themselves against the bitter cold have to purchase them from the few individuals who receive this aid for free, but then sell them illegally. Some sell the aid because they are desperate for cash. Others are bored and regard it as the only way to fill their days. But what is clear is that an entire underground economy has taken root in the camp, making it even more difficult to properly organize aid. The struggle for food is fierce, and earning enough money to sustain a family is limited to the lucky few.
“I work seven days a week, for at least 10 hours a day, for an NGO that takes care of the smallest children here in the camp,” Amani says. “After working an entire week, I get three dollars. With an ill mother, an elderly father and a baby to take care of, this life was untenable. My older sister and her husband still have all their children, thank God, but this means five extra mouths to feed.”
Nourishing a family of 10 with only $3 quickly became unfeasible. Amani brought her younger sister, Amara, to work at the same NGO. But even doubling the income was not enough to take care of all of them. There was only one way to get money quickly, a route that many families took before Amani, and that was to sell one of the girls. Amani married off her younger sister.
“It isn’t rare in Syria to marry at the age of 16,” she says. “Most Arab men are aware of this, and often come to Syria to find a young bride. These days, they come to find them at the camps, where almost everybody is desperate to leave. I have seen Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis passing by the tents in search of a virgin to take along. They pay $300, and get the girl of their dreams in return.
“I didn’t have a choice. I knew she wasn’t in love, but I also knew that he would take care of her.” For a moment, she clams up and the room is filled with an awkward silence.
“I would have sold myself, but Amara was the only virgin in our family. We had to sell her, in order to allow the rest of us to survive. What else could I do?”
Amara was 14 when she married a Saudi who passed by their tent and asked her father for her hand. But that was after he had met Amani, who informed him of the family’s financial desperation and that her younger sister was still not married off. It was seemingly the only way to make it possible for the youngest sister to leave the camp, which is more like a prison than a home, and build a proper life. And with this marriage, Amani secured critical money for her family, at least for the time being.