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Finding purpose among trash

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Jasem Al-Wrewir, a Syrian refugee in Za’atari camp in Jordan, manages Oxfam’s cash-for-work recycling project. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

A recycling program in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp is putting refugees to work for cash, improving conditions within the camp, and minimizing the environmental impacts of waste.

Jasem Al-Wrewir is a Syrian refugee living in Za’atari refugee camp who is managing Oxfam’s cash-for-work recycling program.

Before the conflict in Syria began, my family and I lived in Ghouta, near Damascus. We had a house, a car, and enough money to live comfortably. I was 40 years old, with a family, and a successful business in waste management that I had built up over the course of 15 years. I was running four landfill sites that processed garbage and recyclable materials, and managing more than 400 workers.

Eventually, the situation in Syria deteriorated to the point that we were forced to flee. After a dangerous journey by night through the desert, my family arrived in Za’atari camp in September 2013. I followed shortly after. Adapting to life as a refugee was extremely difficult at first. I have 14 children, six of whom have disabilities.

We weren’t used to living in tents, to the unforgiving environment, the frigid cold in winter, or the blazing heat in summer. There was also garbage everywhere – along with the insects and other pests that come with it. Za’atari camp had dumpsters, but they overflowed and there was nowhere but the ground to throw trash.

A few months after my arrival, I started working in a cash-for-work program for Oxfam. My job was to clean the streets of the camp. It was far from satisfying, but it helped me support my family and pass the time.

In early 2015, a Jordanian engineer named Wissam told me he would be managing a recycling pilot project in one of the districts of Za’atari camp. They needed to find a way to collect, sort, and sell recyclable materials. Wissam knew about my experience in waste management, and he began to call me with questions. Over time his calls became more frequent, at all hours of the day, asking me for help. I was so excited to be using my skills again.

Then, I was asked to manage the new recycling project alongside Wissam. Of course I said yes. Little by little, I was filling the void I felt when I arrived in Za’atari camp.

The recycling project became our baby. At first, we ran into so many problems. It seemed like everything about the environment of Za’atari was different from what we knew, and new challenges were always popping up. But we persisted. We weren’t doing it for the money; we did it because the recycling project had become personal to us.

Three years later, our small pilot project has grown and now collects waste from all districts across Za’atari camp. We are responsible for diverting 21 percent of the waste produced in Za’atari away from landfills—that’s 285 tons (or 42,000 pounds)—every week! The garbage piles and pests have all disappeared.

Our cash-for-work team of 180 men and women educates the community on recycling, collects materials from households, and turns the waste into products we can sell. Like me, the other team members brought their skills and expertise with them. Former tailors are making rugs for the winters out of old clothing, engineers are making mechanical toys for our children, and farmers have built multiple greenhouses from recycled bottles to grow fresh vegetables.

For now, cash-for-work is a good way to provide some money to people in Za’atari camp, but the amounts we earn are small and must be supplemented by aid distributions. It takes me four months to earn what I made in a single day in Syria. Our opportunities to earn a real living wage are very limited. It is extremely difficult for Syrians to work legally in Jordan, especially those who live in the camp.

While it isn’t possible right now, I would love to build on what I have achieved here – to work in a recycling center in one of the cities in Jordan, outside of the refugee camps.

Oxfam is dedicated to creating lasting solutions to poverty, as well as responding to emergencies. Right now, millions of people are on the brink of starvation. Meet a few of the individuals working hard to overcome hunger, and find out how you can help.

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