As the violence intensifies and spreads in Syria, some 250,000 people have fled into Jordan, according to Jordanian official sources. About 45,000 Syrians are sheltering in al-Zaatari refugee camp, 15 km from the Syrian border.
Fearful for the safety of family members still in Syria, refugees cover their faces for interviews as they tell their stories of flight and terror.
One man and his family fled with just the clothes on their backs.
“Our lives were full of horror and fear. There were continuous attacks by mortars, fighter planes, rockets, and snipers. They also surrounded the town and blocked food, water, and medicine from coming in. There was no way left for life to go on.”
This man is using the ICRC tracing service for the first time.
Amin Mohammad Yousef Irshied explained that the ICRC provided free phone calls to relatives anywhere in the world.
“The ICRC provides you with a family phone call for three minutes. This phone call can be made to any country in the world, and you can make this call once every fortnight.”
Politics may not be discussed during the phone calls. Under international humanitarian law, families have the right to know the fate of missing relatives.
ICRC worker Ali Abdallah says it is important for refugees not to lose touch with their loved ones.
“When people leave conflict areas and especially when they cross the border to another country, it’s easy that they lose track or information or news of their beloved ones. So what the ICRC is trying to do is to put an end for their anguish and uncertainty about the fate of their beloved family members. And that’s why we are providing them with such services.”
A woman refugee fled Syria with her children after her brother was killed and her father wounded.
“I am here because of the bombing. I was scared for my children. My brother was killed, my father was injured. Our life was turned upside down.”
She is now using the phone service to get in touch with her father.
Luma Jaradat from the ICRC in Amman says manning the phones can be difficult.
“It’s too emotional sometimes because you hear these stories and you feel sad for them. In the morning there was this little kid and he was crying, so I cried with him. But then I tried to be stronger and at least to assure them that if it doesn’t work this time, maybe later.”
But there are also conversations that bring good news from home.
“Sometimes you’re happy because you know that they are calling their relatives and they are all fine, doing well. They receive some good news, like someone had a new baby or someone’s getting married, which is good news.”
More than 8,800 people have called relatives in Syria or abroad from Zaatari camp since the ICRC began providing tracing services over two months ago. The camp is expanding as new refugees continue to pour in and the ICRC has doubled its services inside the camp.
Around the world, every year, thousands of family members are separated by conflicts, disasters or migration.
The ICRC’s work to reunite families goes back to 1870, when it obtained lists of French prisoners held by German forces, and could then reassure the families.
Since then, tracing people separated by conflict and disaster has become a major part of the ICRC’s work and involves the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in a global network.