Refugee camps can be dark places. For many thousands of people living in tents and caravans far from home, the day effectively stops at sundown.
Lack of light puts refugees at greater risk of injury or misfortune, limits their educational prospects and makes it harder to earn an income. For women and girls, even simple activities like using the toilet or collecting water may become fraught with danger.
Today, at selected camps in Jordan, Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan and Bangladesh, UNHCR is working with the IKEA Foundation to expand access to lighting, renewable energy and primary education. Street lamps are bringing communities together—enabling kiosks to stay open for business later in the evening and helping women feel safer outside after the sun goes down. Solar lanterns are making it possible for refugee children to study after dark. At last, light is driving the shadows from the lives of the displaced.
At Azraq camp in Jordan, 11,000 people who fled the war in Syria have been struggling to adjust to the extreme weather and lack of power infrastructure. But thanks to UNHCR’s partnership with the IKEA Foundation, and through their Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign, lanterns are now being distributed and hundreds of solar-powered streetlights have been installed.
Here are just a few of the refugees—and one of the aid workers helping them—whose world will shine a little brighter tonight.
Sand whirls through the desolate landscape of Azraq camp in Jordan. In one of the insulated shelters dotting the horizon, 20-year-old Amer steps up to the solar lantern that is transforming his family’s lives in exile.
“If we had light, we could see our father’s expression if he is angry,” he jokes, flicking the switch and illuminating the shelter. Its pale glow accentuates the dark circles beneath his eyes. “I’m serious, though. When we don’t have proper light, the shadows play games and you imagine the worst. It’s difficult at night when you can’t see properly.”
Amer, along with his parents and four siblings, arrived in Jordan in May 2014, after two years of lucky escapes inside Syria that left his younger siblings on edge. While Azraq has provided his family with much-needed safety, its limited lighting and energy have perpetuated their anxiety.
“My 15-year-old brother, Eyad, is very traumatized from what happened in Syria. Night-time is particularly frightening for him and being able to switch on a light, to show what a noise was, would help. The shelters are noisy at night because they are made from corrugated iron, and some of the sounds remind him of what we lived through.”
Hundreds of solar-powered streetlights have now been installed, helping to improve security and safety after dark. “Light is very important here,” says Amer. “With outside light we could gather more easily and talk with friends and family. Being able to socialize helps you feel better.”
“It’s very windy and dusty here,” says 40-year-old Esaf, as she plunges a child’s T-shirt into a bowl of lukewarm water. Outside the small shelter, night is closing in. “I have to wash our clothes every day which takes a couple of hours by hand. At home in Syria I had a washing machine. I dream about that washing machine now I am here!”
Esaf and her family of seven arrived at Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp last year, after shelling destroyed their home in Syria. Here, the temperature regularly reaches highs of 46 degrees Celsius in summer, and plummets to freezing in winter.
“The heat has been terrible and so electricity would make our life better here,” Esaf says. “If we had power, we could have a small fridge to keep our food fresh and maybe a fan to keep us cool.”
Now, the distribution of solar lanterns provides refugees like Esaf with life after dark. Solar-powered street lighting has also been installed to improve safety and security at night. But much more still needs to be done.
“Our life has been so difficult for so long with the war,” Esaf says. “We feel as though we are back in the olden days without power and without being able to flick a switch and turn on a light. My youngest son is very scared of the dark, and when he has a bad night I can’t just turn on a light to make him feel better. The solar lanterns are good, but they don’t have enough power to last the whole night.”
For more than three years, 65-year-old Kareem watched the bitter war in Syria close in around his family. Then, one terrifying night in June 2014, shelling destroyed his home in Homs, and he finally decided that the time had come to escape.
“Before the war, life was beautiful,” Kareem remembers, squinting into the shadows of his small, metal shelter at Azraq camp. “The shelling and fighting destroyed it all and when we left our country was unrecognizable.”
“Having light helps our world at night take shape.”
Today, along with his seven adult sons and their families, he is safe in the desert camp. But the remote location poses new problems. “We are thankful we found help here—to UNHCR and to the Jordanian government for what they have done—but the camp is basic. We hoped it would have everything we need, but at the moment we don’t have concrete floors or electricity.”
Now the camp is changing, with the distribution of solar lanterns, the installation of solar-powered streetlights and the possibility of introducing renewable energy.
“How can I say this?” Kareem asks, tugging at his beard. “Without my glasses, the world is unclear and I feel uncertain. When I put my glasses on the world comes into shape and things become clear. Having light helps our world at night take shape.”
Um Fadi held out as long as she could, but as the war in Syria began to threaten the lives of her young niece and nephews, she decided it was time to flee.
“We walked all the way from Syria,” she recalls, gazing into the glow of a small solar lantern. “It took days. Twelve hours of walking just to cross the no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan. The children were exhausted.”
They found shelter at Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, but Um Fadi says it is no substitute for the home they left behind. “The Syria I remember was a paradise and it still is, regardless of the bombing and the killing. Is there any other place better than your own home?”
“When you turn on the light, you chase the shadows away and you can see what you’re facing.”
Even so, Um Fadi has tried to make the most of her corrugated metal shelter, and although they are still troubled by their experiences, her children are making new friends. “Here they feel a bit better as now at least they will go outside to play with other children, but we need power to make some kind of life in this camp,” she says.
With support from the IKEA Foundation, lanterns are now being distributed and hundreds of solar-powered streetlights have been installed.
“It is lighting that we need most,” Um Fadi says, wrapping a blanket around her youngest nephew. “Malek is anxious at night-time and I think proper lighting would make him feel better. When you turn on the light, you chase the shadows away and you can see what you’re facing.”
At Azraq camp in Jordan, beneath the heat of the summer sun, UNHCR energy expert Paul McCallion is inspecting solar lanterns. “Light and power are essential aid services,” he says, pulling down the peak of his cap. “We have become so conditioned to having light and power at the touch of a switch that it would be difficult to forget what it’s like not to have it.”
Paul knows better than most how important renewable technologies can be, having spent years working in the electrical energy sector. Now, in his role with UNHCR, he hopes to bring light and energy to refugee communities around the world.
“With light, people have opportunities and freedoms that are lost when the sun goes down.”
“At the individual and the family level, the impact of light and power is phenomenal,” he says. “With light, people have opportunities and freedoms that are lost when the sun goes down.”
His hope is that people will support the campaign. “If you think of it this way, for every light bulb a family buys in an IKEA store you will be helping to give light to a family in a camp,” he says, smiling, as he holds up the solar lantern. “It’s one family giving light to another.”
The Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign will help improve access to lighting, renewable energy and primary education in Azraq camp in Jordan, as well as in Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan and Bangladesh. For every LEDARE light bulb sold in a participating IKEA store between 1 February and 29 March 2015, the IKEA Foundation will donate €1 to UNHCR.
By: Kirsty McFadden
Kate Bond, UNHCR’s Digital Editor/Writer in Geneva, also contributed to this story