Life inside a refugee camp


Refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war in Syria now number in the millions, over half a million of whom are registered in nearby Jordan.

Loyola senior Grace Swanson (above) spent a semester in Jordan, where she interviewed officials in a Syrian refugee camp, as well as women living in the urban capital city of Amman who receive support from UNICEF.

Swanson, who studied abroad through the SIT Jordan: Modernization and Social Change program, focused her research on three categories: the social challenges of adapting to new surroundings; financial challenges; and safety challenges. Swanson met with older women with children, as well as young women between the ages of 17–21. She also interviewed representatives from the United Nations refugee agency and other aid organizations.

“They were in different stages of life, and their challenges varied that way,” says Swanson, an international studies major and dance minor. “Working women who had to support their families found financial challenges to be the most prevalent. The younger women who are of the age when they might be looking for a husband reported more safety challenges.”

Regarding safety, Swanson looked in particular at the effects of patriarchy on the safety and perceived safety of women.

“Young women with fathers there who were a part of their lives felt safe,” Swanson says. “Women whose fathers had passed away or who were still in Syria felt unsafe, because of a lack of a male figure. A male figure was a big factor in whether they felt safe.”

A prominent safety challenge in the refugee camp, according to Swanson, results from arranged underage marriages, as well as rape and sexual harassment, especially for women not accompanied by men.

“Some parents who can’t afford to take care of all their children will try to get their daughters married for financial security,” Swanson says. “This can lead to unhealthy marriages with older men, which can result in dangerous situations for women.”

She says that women living in urban areas reported quite a bit of harassment as well.

“Sometimes women will be forced to turn to prostitution or similar means as a result of financial desperation,” Swanson says.

As for social challenges, Swanson found that many of the Syrian women were self-conscious about their living situation. “They felt embarrassed in comparison to Jordanian women, and they know they are adding pressure to the Jordanian economy,” Swanson says. “They felt bad for challenges they’re causing, but they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

The refugee camp Swanson visited was well over its intended capacity—by three times, in fact. Overpopulation has made community-building difficult, although the UN is working to help build community as the numbers of refugees continue to rise.

Some of the women Swanson interviewed said that they enjoyed UNICEF-sponsored art and music classes.

“They really looked forward to it,” Swanson says. “They said that taking part in artistic endeavors helped them to cope.”

Despite the difficulty of their situation, Swanson says that the women she met were kind and open.

“They were truly remarkable,” she says. “They had suffered through extremely traumatic circumstances, but were not at all bitter or jaded. I was consistently amazed by their warmth and sincerity in the midst of such difficulty.”

During her time abroad, Swanson lived with a Jordanian family in the capital city of Amman, which allowed her to practice her Arabic. She also spent a week in the desert with a Bedouin family. Although she has no set plans, Swanson hopes to return to Jordan in the coming year.

This story appeared in the winter edition of Loyola magazine.