Kites, kids and the Syrian refugee crisis

Their tiny feet carry them kilometres across the desert in the baking sun.


Toys, homes, schools and too often family members, living and dead, are left behind.

When they finally find safe haven in Jordan, Syrian youngsters want answers to some very important questions.

What sort of animals are here? Birds? Snakes?

They’re the questions Australian Andrew Harper fields at the border as he helps exhausted families cart their luggage.

Harper represents the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan and the border with Syria is like his second office.

“It’s a moonscape, a black desert littered with massive volcanic rocks,” he says.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of refugees are crossing into Jordan each day fleeing the ravages of a bloody civil war more than three years old.

Syria has the same population size of Australia and as recently as 2009 hosted a lion’s share of the world’s refugees.

How the tables have turned.

Syrians, mostly women and children, are now making long journeys in cattle trucks to get within 20 kilometres of the border.

Harper likens their trek to the stressful logistics of lone mothers at airports juggling the gaggle of children and bags galore.

But this is 100 times worse.

“Women who may have four or five kids… they’ve often got to move the kids forward, go back for the luggage, and keep repeating the process (across the desert),” Harper says.

The sense of relief when people cross the border is palpable.

After initial medical checks, they’re given food, water and blankets. Heavily pregnant women often go into labour straight away.

At night the Jordanian military, who help to manage the arrivals along side the UNHCR, act as lighthouses.

Soldiers drive their vehicles up to the highest hill to flash their high beams into Syria’s darkness to guide refugees lost in the desert.

Jordan, with a population of seven million, is doing some heavy lifting in the Syrian refugee crisis – regarded as the largest humanitarian operation in history.

The kingdom has accepted close to 600,000 registered refugees on a temporary basis.

About one in six of them now call refugee camps home. Zaatari houses about 106,000 people and the new-specially designed camp Azraq, which opened in April, accommodates 7000 people but with a capacity for 130,000.

It doesn’t take long for many of them to appreciate their new surroundings. They tell Harper about their first good night’s sleep in three years.

Back home, worrying about the threat of your neighbourhood being bombed in rocket attacks has played havoc with sleep patterns.

As the months pass a strong sense of community develops in the camps which resemble desert cities.

A main strip at Zaatari has been dubbed the Champs-Elysees and small businesses have popped up providing everything from groceries and hair cuts to wedding gowns and mobiles.

Children are able to go to school and find amusement in small delights. Styrofoam boxes, string and ribbon make kites.

“I could never make a kite when I was young, even with all the materials an Australian household would have,” Harper says, marvelling at their creativity.

“That’s the wonderful thing with kids, sometimes the less they have the happier they are.”

For Harper, the father of three daughters aged under six, his own family provides a reality check after a tough day at work.

But he remains optimistic about bringing dignity to the lives of people in the agency’s care.

“We’re just got to make sure we don’t let them down,” he says.

* World refugee day is June 20. To donate to the UNHCR Syrian appeal phone: 1300 885 997