"I always heard the word refugee, but I never imagined I would be one."

Samar Hariri and her family were forced to flee Syria after they had close family members killed and her husband and eldest son were among the many imprisoned and tortured by the government.




One day you’re busy sending your kids off to school, planning your eldest daughter’s university applications, teaching your own class of primary pupils and organising dinner in your comfy two-storey home.

Days later you’re in a refugee camp with little more than the clothes you’re wearing. There is nothing left of Samar Hariri’s previous life except for sharp memories and a few precious photos.  The house, the cars, her children’s education and so many of her hopes and dreams have been taken by Syria’s brutal civil war.

Children in Zaatari camp.

I met Samar inside Zaatari camp, the world’s second largest refugee camp. Two years ago, Syrian families began arriving in the dusty desert of northern Jordan, fleeing war and persecution in their homeland. Almost overnight, the United Nations was forced to set up a refugee camp and what started as a few tents has now grown into a city of around 100,000 people.

“I always heard the word refugee but I never imagined I would be one. I heard of Palestinian refugees, Iraqi refugees but practically speaking, for me to be one? I could never imagine it until it happened,” Samar says sadly.

Back home, Samar – 46 – was the principal of a primary school and her husband an official in the education department. They had good, prosperous lives. But Samar and her family were forced to flee Syria after they had close family members killed and her husband and eldest son were among the many imprisoned and tortured by the government of Bashar al Assad.


Like many, the Hariri family thought the Assad regime would soon fall and they could return home in a matter of days or weeks. “Before we left we said we will stay ten days, or fifteen, maybe one month at the most. We didn’t expect a long stay here,” Samar’s 12-year-old daughter Dina tells me.

But that was two years ago.  They have now become just one family out of 2.8 million Syrian who have fled their homeland in what is the worst refugee crisis the world has seen in over 20 years. Jordan, where Zaatari camp is, currently hosts 600 thousand Syrians, Lebanon over one million, Turkey, 750 thousand and Iraq 200 thousand.

Diaa and Dina Hariri with Sophie McNeil.

Samar is now doing her best to provide for her children in Zaatari camp. She’s has even been forced to sell all her jewellery to try and make ends meet. But life here is full of challenges. Syrians are not allowed to leave without special permission from the Jordanian police and competition for resources inside is fierce. From standing in line for bread each morning, to flouting the official camp rules to try and build a suitable shelter – this ordinary, middle-class mum is shocked by what her family’s life has become.

“It is hard we used to have such a good life and that all disappeared,” says Samar. “I left out of fear for my children. All the suffering is for them.” Her husband, Abu Diaa, has done his best to flout the rules and build the family a nice shelter but after two years of camping out in the desert they just want to go home. “I tell him I want to go back to Syria now. I can’t take it anymore. He tells me no. It will be ok.”


Despite what Samar and Abu Diaa have managed to scrape together for their children there is one crucial element missing. “Some people might be jealous from each other because of food, clothes, but my family is jealous of education,” says Samar. “It was extremely important for me that my children receive an education. I used to stay up late with them and help them tirelessly because I am convinced that education is the core of life.”

More than 50% of the residents in Zaatari are children.

The day the Hariri’s fled their homeland was the same day Samar’s 20 year old daughter Ragda was supposed to begin her architecture degree at Damascus University. When the family first got to Jordan, Samar and her husband desperately tried to ensure Ragda and her two brothers could continue their studies.

“They ran away from the camp. Our goal was to reach Amman and find a university. We were putting everything at risk for the sake of their education,” she told me. But the end, it came down to one simple thing. In Jordan, Syrians have to pay to attend university and the family has no money.

Samar is devastated she can’t provide her kids with the future she had promised them. “I have a deep sadness in my heart. I see that the war has impacted our children in a bad way and destroyed all the dreams we built,” Samar explains.

The fate of Syria’s kids – more than half of Zaatari camp’s occupant are children – is a question Samar confronts each day. She’s a teacher at one of the camp’s schools and she’s determined to give the children the best opportunities she can. But the little girls in her classroom are plagued by diseases like Hepatitis and scabies and it’s terribly overcrowded. The biggest challenge, however, lies with her newest student 5-year-old Haya.

More than half the camp’s residents still live in tents.

“I called her to me and I hugged her and asked her who she came with, and she said that she came with her father who was wounded in his leg and hand and that her mother was killed by a shell in Syria,” Samar says.  It’s a reminder that nearly everyone you meet in this camp, from young to old, has been witness to unspeakable horrors. “God willing, I hope I will provide her with a part of what a mother can provide. Even just a small amount,” Samar says quietly.

But this inspirational mother and teacher refuses to be defeated.

Her first grandchild is due in November and Samar takes comfort in the fact she and her children and husband are still alive and together.  “We are trying to get back on our feet,’ she tells me smiling.  “God willing, life is not about to end. The future is ahead of us. We will renew ourselves and stand tall.”


To meet Samar and her inspirational family, tune into Foreign Correspondent tonight at 8.00pm on ABC1.

Some facts about the Syrian refugee crisis:

Total number of Syrian refugees: 2,839,134

Percentage of Syrian refugees under the age of 18: 51 per cent

Number of Syrian refugees per country

Lebanon 1,092,272

Turkey  761,206

Jordan  599,408

Iraq  225,409

Egypt  137,472

Total number of Syrians who’ve left their home: 9 million

Number of people displaced internally in Syria: 6.5 million

Funding required in 2014 for UNHCR to care for Syrian refugees: $4,264,717,711

Funding received to date: $1,137,461,548

Funding still needed from international donors: $3,127,256,163

The UNHCR says that if the Australia received the same influx of Syrian refugees per capita as Lebanon, it would be equivalent to around 5.8 million people.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR urgently needs donations to fund their Syrian Refugee regional response plan to care for 2.8 million Syrian refugees like Samar and her family. To donate, click here.

Sophie McNeill is reporter/producer with ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent. She has reported from Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, Syria, Israel and Iraq. Sophie is a mad Fremantle Dockers fan and mum to two young boys.  You can follow her on twitter @Sophiemcneill and Instagram here.