Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A View from Za’atari Refugee Camp

Joan Knaus


By Joan Knaus

June 23, 2014

Editor’s Note: June 20th marked World Refugee Day, originally established in 2000 by resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Every year, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and civic organizations around the world commemorate World Refugee Day as a way to draw the public’s attention to the millions of refugees and internally displaced people who have fled their homes due to war, conflict, or persecution.  

Responding effectively to refugee crises demands the combined effort of governments, international agencies, non-profit organizations, religious entities, and individual citizens. The public justice issues at stake are complex and are impossible to fully address without these entities working together. As the number of refugees worldwide is now the largest it has been since World War II, resources and public response are stretched and falling severely short in meeting the pressing needs of millions.

Syrian refugees make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world. As the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year, the UN predicts that the number of Syrian refugees is expected to surpass four million by the end of 2014. Syrians have fled to Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran, settling in official and unofficial refugee camps, waiting on the conflict in their country to end so that they can return to their homes.

For over fifty years, Jordan has been a place of refuge for millions fleeing conflicts raging in neighboring countries. A country with no real natural resources to speak of, Jordan’s main attraction has been its open border and its relative stability. Jordan is now home to over 600,000 Syrian refugees. Those with money and means began trickling in during the earlier years of the civil war and rented apartments or bought homes. As the war has dragged on, poorer families are making their way, often on foot, through the desert and across the Jordanian border to be picked up and shuttled to one of a couple of refugee camps.

In this article, Joan Knaus shares her experiences of working with Syrian refugee women in Jordan, where she and her family have been living and ministering for nearly a decade. In 2012, she began going regularly to Za’atari camp, the largest refugee camp in Jordan. She describes her encounters with women there and how she eventually has become involved in an income-generating project for them.

Joan Knaus: There are now around 85,000 refugees in the Za'atari camp (although it’s difficult to get an accurate count) and another camp has opened in Jordan. The UN has sought to provide shelter, food, water, and basic medical care for the residents of the camp. The flood of refugees has at times been way beyond what the resources of the UN can handle, leaving thousands of families in tents during the harsh winter rains.

As we’ve visited refugees living in tents and containers, the women tell stories of their beloved Syria. We’ve also heard stories of the horrors they’ve gone through and they tell us of their concerns for families still trapped in a war zone. We’ve seen family after family in grief and depression. Some feel such hopelessness that they marry off daughters under conditions which would normally be unsuitable.

I first visited the camp with a friend one and a half years ago. We were moved to try to bring some hope to the women and girls whom we encountered. Under the supervision of the UN, we began an arts and crafts time for women once a week. We were asked to provide materials and lead a weekly activity for sixty women. Within a few weeks, we were seeing between 150 and 180 women each week, and it seemed that making bracelets, little purses, or even sock animals was an encouragement to these women.

They appreciated the diversion and were able to enjoy themselves for a few hours, but it was becoming clear that this wasn’t enough. These people were not returning to Syria, and the women (especially widows) needed a way to earn an income. We began training them to add beads to scarves bought in the local Jordanian markets. The women have demonstrated an aptitude for every aspect of the project including designing the patterns, arranging the beads, and packaging the scarves.

The UN has been very supportive and appreciative of our work and they’ve been eager to expand the project. We have produced and sold over 5,000 scarves, giving twenty-five women a reliable source of income. All of our efforts were rewarded on the day they received their first paycheck.

The camp is monitored by the UN with a detailed process for approval and entrance. Many NGOs are established and running projects there, but their efforts are just a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

This refugee crisis presents Christians with the opportunity to bring hope and help to desperately hurting people. There are thousands of children needing schooling, clubs, and sports. The men and women need ways to work and provide for their families. And all need the spiritual and emotional healing that only God can bring. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”