On a Trickle of Midnight Electricity, Syria’s Refugees See Home Receding

In a blaze of publicity, the Jordanian government and the UN announced last summer that the largest camp for refugees of Syria’s civil war would at last get legal electricity to replace its dangerous hodgepodge of illicit hookups. But in the precarious life of a refugee camp, even apparent improvements have their pitfalls, writes Dana Jebril.

On July 14 2016, the UNHCR senior field coordinator of the Zaatari refugee camp, Hovig Etyemezian, opened a new electricity distribution network in the camp. Located in Northern Jordan’s Mafraq governorate, Zaatari is the primary camp for Syrian refugees.

“Grandma will no longer have to tell stories to her grandchildren in the dark, children can now study in the evenings…I would like to thank the refugees for working to improve their lives,” Etyemezian said, in an opening ceremony of the new electricity network, which is meant to provide steady electricity for 80,000 inhabitants of the camp-from 7 pm to 4 am.

It is not storytelling in the dark, however, that poses a concern for the refugees amid a lack of steady electricity. “We do not want the children’s medicine to be spoiled. We need to put on fans to be able to breathe. I want to keep my children off the streets,” said Ibrahim, a refugee who expressed his concern for having electricity only at nighttime. Zaatar’s new electricity distribution network, it seems, is not really up to the task of making life easier in the camp.

Before the new electricity network, many inhabitants of the camp already had electricity in their shelters, mostly through illegally wired electrical cables that are connected to streetlights. Zaatari’s unofficial electrical network of spliced wires has, however, caused a plunge in the camp’s main power supply, and led to many accidents due to poor wiring. Some refugee families opted instead to purchase electrical generators that run on gasoline—but this option proved to be a major financial burden.

One of the camp’s residents, Ibrahim, is an electrician from Dar’a. He used his technical skills to construct a homemade misting fountain to cool the air. Cables to streetlights, or a generator, is connected to the fountain, in order to keep his shelter cool, and his children safe inside during the day. The new official network will not, however, solve Ibrahim’s family’s need for electricity during the day—a need expressed by other residents of the camp.

“We are a family of nine, as you can see. It is very hot during the day, and at night, we [use the electricity to]watch some television,” Um Youssef said. She told us that when she arrived in the camp in 2013, they had electricity all day, then only from 4pm to 10 pm, and now, with UNHCR’s new network, they have power from 7 pm to 4 am. She complained about the lack of electricity during the day, especially on the hot summer days when they are in need of a fan. “I throw water on the floor to make the air feel cooler for the kids, and maybe fill [containers]with water for them to swim in. We can not breath without a fan,” she added.

It is true that the new official network will provide a steady access and strong electric current during night hours, but it still falls short in satisfying the camp’s power needs. In fact, the network’s strong current has destroyed some of the modest household devices, according to one of the residents, Abu Ahd.

Abu Ahd owns a coffee-selling stall in the camp’s “shopping street”—sarcastically named the Champs-Elysées. He bought a generator to wire his shop and his family’s shelter. The generator consumes one liter of gasoline every two hours, which costs Abu Ahd 60 piasters (0.85 USD). After UNHCR installed its new distribution network, Abu Ahd is till dependent on the generator, because the new network does not supply electricity to commercial stores.

Abu Ahd is still better off than others in the camp, such as Abu Hussein, a refugee from the Syrian Ghouta region. After the generator he bought was damaged, he could not afford the repairs, which will cost him 70 dinars (98.63 USD).

Ibrahim told us that he doubts that illegal wiring will stop after the installation of the new official network. The cause of the problem, he stated, is mis-management by the UNHCR that designated one lamppost to service a number of shelters, and then left it to each household to unofficially extend wires from the streetlights to their shelters.

“We [also]have to pay for the wires, and we are often forced to extend long wires to far away street lights. Why do I have to extend long expensive wires to a far overloaded lamppost, when I can stretch out a shorter wire from a closer streetlight? It is worth noting, however, that a 100-meter wire costs 15 dinars (21.13 USD) in the camp. Ibrahim, for example, had to pay 30 dinars (42.27 USD) to stretch out wires from a far off lamppost to his shelter.

Apart from the costs of the wire cables, Ibrahim expressed his concern for public safety—which the UNHCR has claimed to safeguard with the installation of the new official network. Ibrahim mentions how refugees cannot afford but to buy low-quality cheap wire cables that are not properly insulated. He mentioned two instances when his stall and that of his neighbor’s caught fire due to faulty electrical cables, which they had extended from streetlight after the installation of UNHCR’s new network.

“UNHCR is working on securing funding to make sure refugees are able to buy the necessary cable connections for their households. It’s all dependent on the funding,” said Mohamed al-Huwary, UNHCR’s media and communications officer in Jordan.

According to UNHCR, the agency has allocated a monthly ceiling of 500,000 USD for the camp’s electricity bill. This gives Zaatari’s households access to electricity for a maximum of nine hours per day. The agency added, however, that household energy use is the responsibility of the refugees. It is up to the refugees to decrease their household’s power use if they want longer hours of electricity. UNHCR’s electrical engineer associate, Yanal Madani, told us that the agency must pay above-market prices (26.6 piaster or 0.37 USD per kilowatt) for electricity in the camp, which is a huge financial burden.

Residents were, however, quick to dismiss the agency’s recommendation to decrease their energy consumption. “They told us to watch only one hour of television, switch on the fridge for an hour, and so on. They want us to allocate a single hour for operating each device, but how can I switch on the fridge only for an hour? The medicine stored in the fridge will be spoiled,” Abu Emad told us.

The agency has, however, another plan to solve the camp’s energy needs. “Upon its completion, the solar power plan will be a great solution [to the camp’s energy problems],” Etyemezian told us. “We will be able to connect the new distribution network to the solar power plan. This will cut down the agency’s electrical bill, and will better provide electricity to the refugees,” he added.

The agency is now at work on a grid-connected solar power plan to cover the energy needs of the camp as cheaply as possible. All this new energy infrastructure from the UN, its partner organizations, and governments signals something else: a long stay for refugees in this camp. Zaatari’s resident have painted their shelters, they have marked their lots with stone, they have memorized the names of the surrounding streets. And now they have official electrical grid access. “Our aim is to give refugees the means for a decent life,” Etyemezian says. “But we have to remember that what we do will never be sufficient. Our hope is for the war to end, and that Syrians return to their homes.”

Dana Jebril Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard