Syria’s Ain Issa refugee camp hosts some 30,000 people, the majority of whom hail from the Deir al-Zour and Raqqa provinces, while the rest come from Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
They are forced to wait for hours in a long queue in front of the camp’s kitchen in order to get their daily meal. Several of the displaced complain about the limited quantity of food and that they only get one meal a day. This has left many of them hungry, especially in winter.
Asharq Al-Awsat toured the camp’s kitchen and spoke to some of its 52 workers, who work seven days a week without a break.
Contrary to many of the Syrians of Palestinian origin, who fled the neighboring country after the 1948 “Nakba”, Zahra Abdul Samad, 37, came to the country from the Gaza Strip only 15 years ago. Only 22 at the time, she came to Syria with her father and stayed in the Ain Issa town, which lies 50 kms west of Raqqa.
She married a town local in 2002 and moved with her husband to Raqqa later that year. They have five children and despite social differences, she managed to find a place for herself among the town residents.
At the end of 2014, the ISIS terrorist group captured Ain Issa before it was was expelled by the Syrian Democratic Forces a year later. The offensive to seize the town forced Zahra and her family to flee the area.
Her family was one of the original residents of the Ain Issa camp when it opened in March 2016, she told Asharq Al-Awsat.
She soon started working for an organization that distributed aid and food baskets to the displaced. She became responsible for the management of the kitchen once it was opened.
“The kitchen opened on the first day of Ramadan in 2016 and at the time, we offered ifar (breakfast) meals to the refugees, whose numbers were only a few hundred,” Zahra recalled.
She now works more than 12 hours a day, saying that her oldest daughter, Reem, helps her with chores around the house.
“Work in the kitchen takes up the majority of my day. There are no holidays. I come to the kitchen at 7 a.m. and return home 12 hours later after working non-stop,” she said.
Zahra wants to eventually return to Raqqa, but she, and others like her, has been hindered by the ongoing operations to remove the rubble and dismantle mines. Despite her Palestinian roots, she still prefers to live in Raqqa than return to her homeland.
Doua, 25, a Raqqa native and Zahra’s friend and colleague at the kitchen told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We are optimistic with Zahra’s presence here. Working with her eases a lot of our burdens and worries. She never rests.”
Several of the Ain Issa camp residents have complained that the quantity of food served, limited to a meal a day, has left many of them hungry, especially in the cold winter. The refugee needs energy to withstand the cold and live in a tent that does not shelter him from the harsh winds and heavy rain.
One of the managers of the kitchen, Abdul Nasser Hami, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the single daily meal is comprised of either rice or bulgar and a side of vegetable stock or beans and some meat. Bread is also a staple and some 30,000 loaves are distributed in the camp per day.
The kitchen cooks some 2.5 tons of rice, 2.5 tons of beans and 3 tons of bulgar a day, meaning some 8 to 10 tons of food is prepared on a daily basis, said Hami.
He acknowledged however that a single meal is not enough for one person, adding however that the camp does not have the necessary basics to cook more meals.
The Norwegian Refugee Council is currently providing the financial support and covering the kitchen costs, he said. It is also paying the wages of some 20 cooks
The Ain Issa camp is comprised of some 2,500 tents for Deir al-Zour refugees, 1,200 for Raqqa refugees and 20 large tents that house more than 20 families.