ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP // The murals of forests, seaside cities and beaches being painted on homes in a desert camp in Jordan are cheery and colourful, meant to boost the morale of the Syrian refugees living here.
But they also reinforce a painful message to the displaced: a return home is a long way off.
As the Syria conflict enters its sixth year, residents of Zaatari are grappling with the prospect of open-ended exile.
Memories of Syria are fading, roots in the camp of 80,000 people are growing deeper and resettlement to the West, though a long shot for most, is seen as a more realistic option than going back to Syria.
“I live on hope, but hope is far away,” said Rasha Ali, 30, who fled a Damascus suburb four years ago. She now teaches in a camp kindergarten where most of the children were born after the March 2011 outbreak of the conflict, a popular uprising against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad that escalated into civil war.
Meanwhile, Zaatari’s transformation continues from its beginnings in 2012 as a chaotic tent camp into an organised community.
Residents now have proper addresses, with numbers assigned to each pre-fab trailer on streets given names like “hope” or “dignity”.
A US$17.5 million (Dh64.3m) German-funded solar power plant will be completed by 2017, replacing a makeshift electricity grid. Work on water and sewage networks continue.
Camp director Hovig Etyemezian said the UN refugee agency tries to make Zaatari as livable as possible.
“From our perspective, the camp will continue being a temporary settlement until the last day of its existence,” he said. “We are really hopeful that the conflict will end and that the refugees will return. For us, it will be a calamity if the conflict continues for another few years.”
More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled their homeland, including some 640,000 now living in Jordan.
The fifth anniversary of the Syria conflict comes amid guarded hopes for a political solution after repeated failures.
A limited truce has largely held since February 27, and the UN-brokered indirect peace talks, which collapsed last month, resumed in Geneva on Monday.
But this month’s milestone also caps the “worst year yet” for civilians in Syria, including a rise in attacks on medical facilities and destruction of homes, according to a recent report by 30 aid agencies.
In Zaatari, residents greet news of renewed peace talks largely with indifference.
“Empty words,” said Emad Mansour, 31, as he watched the outside of his family’s two trailers being painted by Syrian artists, all fellow refugees.
Unlike the peace talks, the new murals have injected a sense of excitement, if briefly.
“It’s a nice change from white,” Mansour, a father of five, said of the colour that has long predominated in the camp. The Mansours got two paintings, a forest on one wall and fish swimming in a deep blue sea on the other.
The murals are meant to deepen a sense of neighbourhood in the camp’s 12 districts. For the past three months, the artists have been painting trailers along the camp’s ring road. Next, they will paint the homes lining each district inside the camp, said Mr Etyemezian the camp director.
Anything political is off limits in the project, funded by the refugee agency.
Head artist Mohammed Jokhadar, 30, said he gets a sense of fulfilment because the murals brighten the mood.
“People want green, water or something that reminds them of the community where they lived,” said Mr Jokhadar, who also runs a barber shop and a portrait studio in the camp’s bustling market.
The street art and permanent addresses aren’t the only reminders that Zaatari is home.
At one of the camp’s kindergartens, 5-year-olds – who are as old as the conflict – don’t know much about where they came from.
Asked what he remembers, Alaa Sweidani said he used to have a bicycle back home. “We also had trees,” he added shyly. Julie Hariri, also five, said she remembers a baby duck and a teddy bear.
Teachers said they try to instill a Syrian identity by talking to the children about their villages in Syria’s southern Deraa province.
“We tell them, Syria is beautiful, and God willing, you will return,” said Ali, one of the teachers.
Syria has no future,” she said. Even if there is peace one day, she said, it needs decades to recover.
* Associated Press