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Syria's Refugee Crisis Worst since Rwanda Genocide
Photo by Jim Killam
Living on the Edge: In squatter camps, Syrian families congregate on a desert hillside outside Amman, Jordan.

On a desert hillside, 225 miles from their bombed-out homes in Syria, a half-dozen refugee fathers and sons have a modest winterization project going on.

Using lumber scrounged from pallets, plus a few rugs and canvas scraps, they tack together a vestibule for an 18-by-32-foot tent that 16 family members will share. The vestibule will help keep freezing winds out of the main living area, which is warmed by one small propane heater. Everyone will sleep on thick foam mattresses with a thin rug between those and the rocky ground.

"Winter is close," says Anas Mustafa Halif, 30, through an interpreter. "We have no clothing, no shelter, no fuel for heating, or even firewood. We can manage such hardships. We move around. But the children? It's very difficult for the children."

About 50 tents comprise this makeshift camp. Most of the Syrians here fled from the outskirts of Hama, a northern city that's been hit hard by Syria's two-and-a-half-year civil war. In fact, 45 are relatives or friends from the same neighborhood. They've landed on the east edge of Amman, opting for this grim arrangement over official refugee camps: Za'atari, to the north, is overrun with more than 130,000 people.

The UN estimates 3.5 million Syrian refugees are in the region and the refugee crisis is reaching historic proportions. The UN has "not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago," said UN high commissioner for refugees António Guterres at a New York meeting this summer.

When Vera Haddad pulls up in her red Peugeot compact, the men pause from their work to crowd around with their wives and kids. Haddad, a Jordanian Christian, visits once a week, and she always looks first for the new arrivals. She whips out a notepad and starts taking their names, including those of Halif and his family. As partnership coordinator for the Jordanian Evangelical Committee for Relief and Development, compassion for refugees is in her DNA.

"In 1970, we did experience civil war here in Jordan," says Haddad, 56. "I know what war is like. I know what fear is like. The first thing that occurs to my mind is what can we do? How can we help these people? And how can we let them see Jesus in our lives?"

Economic Strains

Sader and Foza, a Syrian couple from a village near Hama, have been living with Sader's sister in a tent in east Amman since July. Before coming to Jordan, the couple and their six children (four with cerebral palsy) were on the run for a year within Syria. The oldest, 17-year-old Muhammad, died of exhaustion en route to Jordan.

"It is hard to see your children suffer while they are living with you," Foza says. "We wish that we will die, but even death is not coming. Winter is at hand, and we have nothing."

Since 2011, 1.3 million Syrians have fled into Jordan, a nation of 6 million. Thousands more pour over the border each month, straining Jordan's economy. Food prices have soared. One local resident says cucumbers and tomatoes cost four times more than a year ago.

Demand for living space has tripled rents in urban areas. In one village Haddad visited recently, homes that recently rented for the equivalent of US$85 to $110 per month now go for $280 to $350. (Jordanian laborers typically make only 17 Jordanian dinars—$24—a day.) But in a country that's just 2.2 percent Christian, the crisis also has allowed the church to shine. In official and unofficial refugee camps, and house by house in the cities, Jordanian Christians and Syrian Muslims are encountering each other over tea, conversation, and compassion.

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Syria's Refugee Crisis Worst since Rwanda Genocide