It’s not home but for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Ramadan traditions live on

By Toby Fricker (@tobyfricker).

Za’atari camp, northern Jordan, August 7 2013: Outside Ibrahim’s caravan his children are playing inside a small metal boat. It forms part of a swing that dad has promised will be up in time for Eid Al Fitr, the holiday that this week marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

For the children, it’s a bit of fun in an otherwise tough environment. They’ve been living, all 12 of them, first in a tent and now a caravan at Za’atari refugee camp – home to 120,000 Syrians – for the past 12-months. It’s their second Ramadan in the camp.

Despite the harsh desert conditions, Syrian families like Ibrahim’s have been observing the rules of fasting for the holy month.

Ibrahim does his best to make the most out of a tough situation. “Ramadan is Ramadan, whether you are at home or living in a refugee camp in Jordan,” he said.

Breaking the fast

By 8pm the setting sun signals the end of the day’s fasting and the family settles down for the meal of ‘iftar’. Tonight, his two wives have cooked a large pot of meat and onion dumplings, boiled in yoghurt.

Alaa, Ibrahim’s 9-year old daughter loves the food. However, she struggles with life here in the barren wilderness of northern Jordan. “The heat is like being on fire,” she says.

Ramadan is important family time and home back in Syria is never far from Ibrahim’s thoughts. “We want to go back to safety and peace. A simple life, just a tomato and a piece of bread and to go home,” he said.

Desperate to escape Syria

Others are still trying to reach safety in Jordan. At around 1am we pass by the centre run by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and find Um Reef waiting patiently to complete her registration. The rest of her family is nearby, dozing on the floor. It took them 17-days to reach Za’atari from the northern Syrian town of Hama.

She’s exhausted but relieved to have reached Za’atari. “Of course we have nothing left back home. Nothing left for us to live in. We came to Jordan for the world to take care of us and feed us. Thank God they are doing their best,” she said.

Time to wake up and pray

The rhythm of the Ramadan fast means that night-time in the camp is more lively than the days, when people escape the heat inside their tents. The main market road (ironically nicknamed the ‘Champs Elysees’), is busy until past midnight.

When the camp finally falls silent, only two hours pass until the residents of Za’atari stir again. This time it’s to the sound of chanting and drumming.

Fuad, an 18-year old from the southern Syrian town of Dera’a is the camp’s ‘musuharati’. This ancient tradition involves a drummer man walking street to street to wake people up to eat and pray before the day’s fast starts again at first light.

“We started doing this two years ago in Syria and we’ve continued here in the camp,” he said.

“It is the same thing. We wake people there and here. Nothing has changed except the drum. We used the drum there (in Syria) and here we use a pot,” Fuad explained.

Fuad’s voice, and the metallic noise of his spoon striking the saucepan, echoes into the dark across the camp. Just an hour later the sun rises, and another day of fasting begins.