By Toby Fricker
IRBID, Jordan, 22 November 2013 — It’s olive season in Jordan. Between rows of trees, on the outskirts of the north-western town of Irbid, children help their parents collect this year’s crop.
The land is green and fertile here, two hours north of the Jordanian capital, Amman, as we approach the Yarmouk Valley. Across it, just a few kilometres up the road, is the Syrian Arab Republic.
I’m with UNICEF Jordan on an assessment mission to determine what support the Jordanian border guards need to provide better services to those who cross, particularly women and young children.
Crossing the border
Earlier in the year, thousands of families fled the Syrian Arab Republic by crossing the Yarmouk River and the upstream reservoir that form the country’s border with Jordan. Cigarette butts and plastic bottles that litter the ground are a sign of those who passed.
“They would cross soaked,” says Lieutenant Colonel Salah, one of the guards. He is cut short by the sound of a lone motorcycle that makes its way down the steep hill on the Syrian side of the border. For the moment, it’s a tranquil scene.
Near the border is part of the Hejaz railway, on which trains used to run from the Syrian Arab Republic to Saudi Arabia via Jordan. Earlier in the year, thousands of families fled the Syrian Arab Republic near the area.
The 200 to 500 refugees who arrive daily in Jordan now cross at the north-eastern border areas, which, despite challenging desert conditions, are safer to reach from the Syrian side.
“Only the badly wounded cross here now,” Salah tells us. But, Salah and his team share the concern that numbers could rise significantly at any point.
Meeting refugee needs
We head to a flat area of land that could be used as an assembly point for new arrivals. The space is suitable for constructing water, sanitation and hygiene facilities – and providing a safe place for women and children. Syrians arriving at the border spend at least 24 hours in such areas before buses take them to transit sites and then on to the Za’atari refugee camp or one of its smaller counterparts.
“We are getting ready in case the situation of a few months ago repeats itself,” says Lucio Melandri, UNICEF Jordan’s Humanitarian Affairs Specialist. “We need to provide immediate support to people and guarantee that humanitarian assistance starts as soon as their feet enter Jordan.”
At the north-eastern border, where Syrians are currently crossing, UNICEF, in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, is preparing to distribute winter kits, which include clothes, soap and oral rehydration salts for children under age 5.
We follow the river along the valley where the old Hejaz railway used to run. Going through Jordan, the tracks link the Syrian capital of Damascus with Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The sound of rattling trains is long gone. Instead, heavy gunfire echoes across the valley, a stark reminder of the reality inside the Syrian Arab Republic.
“I think it’s best to move on now,” Salah says.