For two and a half years, Azraq refugee camp in Jordan had no electricity. In winter, the 54,000 Syrian refugees here lived in complete darkness for nearly half the day. Families had a small solar lantern to study or work by, but its light would die after a few hours. In summer, when temperatures soar to 40 degrees Centigrade in the shade, food spoiled almost immediately, forcing families to walk several kilometres to the market in the scorching heat every day.
Pitch-dark nights left people—particularly women and girls—feeling too unsafe to walk to the toilets at the ends of their streets. Children and adolescents grew bored without entertainment, and families struggled to connect with their loved-ones abroad or keep up on news from Syria. Parents worried that their youngest children were growing up seeing only the desert’s beige dirt and dust, with no idea what a tree or grass looked like. And mothers, who do the bulk of the household chores, found their time eaten up by handwashing clothes rather than playing with their kids; instead of finding joy in watching their children play outside, they felt frustrated because they knew that dirty clothes meant hours of manual labour.
“If I should explain to someone who has electricity what life is like without it, well, it is like living in a different century,” explains Asmahan, a 30-year-old woman with four young children. “It is very tiring.”
Renewable energy brings a new sense of power
Thanks to the Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign, the IKEA Foundation granted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) funding to bring light and renewable energy to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
One of those programmes is building renewable energy projects in Azraq refugee camp. These projects are providing more than electrical power; they are helping refugee families rediscover their own powers—such as the power to nurture a newborn baby.
Every week, around 25 babies are born in the camp. Two years ago, Asmahan gave birth to her son Raad here and brought him home to a dark shelter.
“I used to suffer, waking up in the dark,” she recalls. “Our battery light would die out before midnight. Sometimes I could not give him medication.”
This year, just after their shelter got power, she had another son, Khaled. The difference is like night and day. “There was electricity, lights and television. I can get up any time to prepare milk, change diapers or give medication.”
Parenting changed in other ways, too. “Managing my children became easier,” she explains. “Now I can say, ‘Finish your homework and then you can watch TV,’ because my daughters always want to watch TV. The electricity made my children’s education better. During the wintertime, I could not help my daughter Shoukran with her homework because of the short daylight. Without electricity so much time got lost. Now I can help her any time.”
She smiles. “Another life for me.”
Solar power creates new jobs and security
The first phase of the IKEA Foundation-funded project enabled UNHCR to install solar street lights, giving Asmahan, her daughters and others a sense of security when they visit friends or the toilet blocks at night.
In the second phase, UNHCR contracted a Jordanian renewable energy company, which hired refugees living in the camp to build a solar farm. Ali, who was an Arabic teacher back in Syria, is one of them. Not only did he learn a new, marketable skill, but he also rediscovered his power to provide for his family and community.
“In the beginning I came as a volunteer, but they paid me,” he explains. “We were fairly and satisfactorily paid. My job has created opportunities for me to take care of my family. At the same time, I am very happy I have been doing something good for our community.
“Financially, morally, socially, we all benefit on all levels,” he says.
Nisreen, an English teacher and writer, owns an electrical appliance shop with her husband, Samer. She has noticed a big difference in the camp’s commercial life since families started getting electricity in their shelters. “People started to trade, bought washing machines and fridges. When summer comes, people will need more fans.
“We hope the market will grow,” she continues. “It will support the people of the camp, create more jobs and bring more money. People would feel like they are part of a complete society.”
Kids get the power to play, study, dream…and eat ice cream
In the same marketplace where Nisreen and Samer run their shop, a man sells ice cream to dozens of children who just got out of school for the day. The treat keeps them cool in the late-afternoon sunshine. They pull out mobile phones and play games, a way for their educations to continue beyond the few hours they spend in the classroom. On their phones, they can see trees, even if only virtual ones.
Amenah, a mother of five, says, “A lot of children wanted to see the world around, especially the youngest ones and the ones born in the camp, who do not know the world outside. Now the outside world will be known for them.”
Right now, half of the camp’s 54,000 residents have power, but UNHCR plans to extend it to the rest of the camp over the coming year. In January, when thousands of shelters were connected to the national grid, UNHCR started paying a hefty electricity bill every month. Now that the solar farm is online, the energy it produces will reduce the camp’s electricity bill to zero, and UNHCR will be able to spend that money on other projects that make life in the camp more dignified and that help young people prepare for a brighter future.