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'We're Even More Isolated Now': In a Syrian Refugee Camp, a Lockdown Ramadan

This story was originally published April 27, 2020 by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Life in an overcrowded refugee camp had become a little better for Syrian mother Khadija, until a coronavirus lockdown halted her cherished Ramadan gatherings and put camp residents on edge.

Khadija, her husband and three children are among about 120,000 Syrians living in camps in Jordan after fleeing the nine-year-old war in their homeland that has displaced millions of people.

Jordan hosts the second-highest number of refugees per capita after Lebanon.

There have been no reported cases of the novel coronavirus among refugees in Jordan, but nationwide lockdown measures have been extended to the camps, where overcrowded conditions would make an outbreak difficult to contain.

At the Azraq camp where Khadija lives in eastern Jordan, residents can only go out to buy essentials at certain times of the day. Schools and many small stores have closed, and many people with jobs have seen incomes dry up.

Now it is Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast all day before gathering to eat after sundown with friends and family, but the lockdown is a particular blow for 29-year-old Khadija, who asked only to give her first name. 

Cut-off from her new friends and community, the lockdown has made her nostalgic for Ramadan before the war in Syria, and brought back memories of the isolation she felt five years ago during her first holy month in Jordan.       

Syrian refugee women stand in front of their homes at Azraq refugee camp, near Al Azraq city, Jordan, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Ham
Syrian refugee women stand in front of their homes at Azraq refugee camp, near Al Azraq city, Jordan, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Ham

This is her story:

"It's been five years since I left my home in the city of Homs. I came here with my husband and children. We didn't know anything or anyone.

Our first Ramadan in the camp was unfamiliar and lonely. I still have memories of our holy month traditions back in Syria.

We had the means to buy what we needed and we could come and go as we pleased. We hosted friends and family for iftar meals (the evening meal in which Muslims break their fast). Before Eid, the holiday at the end of Ramadan, we would buy gifts for the kids and prepare sweets.

Those were the best days.

Over the years we managed to settle in at the camp and make friends. We would meet for meals and pass the time together. We made the most of it.

Then the coronavirus came. It feels like our very first Ramadan all over again — completely unfamiliar.

Being surrounded by community and breaking bread together is at the heart of our Ramadan traditions and now that's gone.

Yesterday, while I was preparing iftar at home, I started crying because of how different everything feels this year.

In addition to being confined to a camp, we're even more isolated now.

I'm living in a steel shelter with my husband and three kids with nowhere to go. My 13-year-old daughter, who's doing remote schooling, keeps saying to me "I'm so frustrated, I'm going to burst."

My five-year-old begs me to go out and play but I won't let him. I'm too worried because of the virus, even though there have been no cases in the camp.

Today, I was going to take my teething toddler to the clinic but when I saw how crowded it was I decided to treat him with natural herbs at home instead.

We receive coronavirus advice on hygiene and social distancing via text messages. We haven't been explicitly told not to visit friends at home but everyone is scared for their children.

All the families have gone into self-imposed isolation to protect themselves. There's definitely a sense of fear in the camp.

It's been difficult to cover our basic needs too. Usually at the start of Ramadan camp, residents receive food baskets and dates, but we haven't gotten anything yet this time.

My husband went out yesterday morning to buy some groceries from the supermarket but didn't come home until 4 p.m.

We're only allowed out during non-curfew hours between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and we're on complete lockdown on weekends.

The queues were so long and at the end he was only able to bring home a few items that I used to cook our iftar meal.

We have to make do with whatever little we can afford anyway. Our only income comes from the monthly cash assistance we receive from the U.N. Refugee Agency and even that doesn't last us the whole month.

When we first came here, my husband was able to work as a teacher at the camp for six months.

But work has been difficult to come by and neither my husband nor I have been able to get jobs through the cash-for-work schemes that aid organisations offer refugees, even though we always apply.

The coronavirus has halted all work, making it even harder to find jobs now. But at least those on employment schemes are still receiving their pay.

Hopefully this virus will end soon. We're only days into Ramadan and it already feels so different being stuck in this caravan without any human interaction.

Today, like yesterday, we'll break our fast at dusk, pray, watch a little TV and wait until tomorrow to do it all over again."

Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Helen Popper.

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