Zaatari, Jordan –It is not unusual for Tomaa Al-Khaldi to host guests without an appointment.
If anything, it has become a way of life for the 58-year-old father and bakery-owner of Zaatari village. Located in Jordan’s northern Mafraq province, the small village’s population inflated with the arrival of approximately 79,000 Syrian refugees residing in the next-door Zaatari Camp.
Wearing a gray jellabiya, Al-Khaldi welcomes us into his guest room. Located a few kilometers away from the camp, Al-Khaldi’s home has become an impromptu station for volunteers and refugees alike. Not a man of many words, he evades my question on why he has opened his doors unconditionally.
“They are our brothers, and what they have gone through is no simple matter,” says Al-Khaldi finally. “It is enough that they were forced to leave their land, that is the most difficult thing.”Rasha and Tomaa Al-Khaldi. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati
Wearing a bright pink hijab, 26-year-old Rasha Al-Khaldi rushes into the room with cinnamon tea and a big smile. For Al-Khaldi’s daughter, working with refugees was inspired by a challenge. Formerly an employee at an agricultural research center and volunteer with local orphanages, Rasha first entered Zaatari Camp with a family friend from London.
He had brought donations to distribute to families in need in the area, and noticing the increasing number of neighboring refugee families, Rasha suggested they check out the camp. On their way out, police barred Rasha from exiting because they thought she was a refugee.
“I had forgotten my ID at home, and the police told me to go back to my tent,” says Rasha laughing. “At that moment I decided – because they had challenged me and barely let me out – that I would go back to the camp and start volunteering inside. Since I entered, I’ve been there everyday.”
Rasha quit her government job and now works with the World Food Program (WFP) and volunteers with Save The Children in Zaatari Camp. At home, she helps her father coordinate efforts with donors and volunteers. The extra house in the backyard has been transformed into an aid warehouse, storing blankets and clothes.
Volunteers who are new to the area find a warm welcome and helpful information. Syrians who need a place to stay, from a few days to several months, are home. When I asked how many families they’d hosted over the past few years, Al-Khaldi shrugs, and estimates several hundreds.
“Many families here are hosting Syrians, because almost everyone has a relative from Syria,” Rasha said.
A crucial service the family provides is helping Syrian patients who cannot find the medical attention they need find specialized care in Amman by coordinating with doctors there, and sponsors who will cover the procedures. Donations from friends abroad also help sponsor ten Syrian families who have set up camp in Al-Khaldi’s front yard.
“My young nephews and nieces offer to help as well; volunteering has had a positive effect on our whole family,” says Rasha as one of her nieces comes in to say hello.
In the past five years Zaatari has changed drastically. Construction has boomed and prices have surged with the influx of Syrian refugees to the small village and neighboring camp, leading some locals to complain about the situation.
“Some locals say Syrians have ruined things here, and they tell me I’ve taken the Syrian side,” says Rasha, shaking her head. “But it’s not that I’ve taken a side, it’s that I have seen the reality Syrians are living. And I have to put myself in their shoes.”
Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati