In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, home to 146,000 Syrian refugees, Oxfam’s female engineer, Farah Al-Basha, is a woman on a mission. She is working amid a sea of male construction and site workers and is determined to show that she is just as capable as her male counterparts. Her story is a good way to mark International Women’s Day. 

Farah joined the Oxfam team earlier this year. She is an energetic 27 year old Jordanian who decided to quit her job at a private engineering company in order to work for an aid agency. Instead of working on military and defence contracts, and designing underground bunkers, she now helps to oversee the construction of water tanks and toilet and shower blocks in Zaatari’s refugee camp: “I wanted to work with an NGO to help people here, to try to do something more
for the community. For me, work shouldn’t just be about the money.”

She admits her first visit to the camp was a bit of a shock. “It was the first time I have ever been to a refugee camp and, honestly, it was overwhelming,” she said. “I had only seen this on television, not first-hand. I realized this job was going to be totally different in terms of what it required of me than my previous work…every day is crazy and every day is really busy.”

She’s been involved in drawing up quality, safety and inspection plans; liaising with and advising contractors; and carrying out on-site inspections to ensure standards are met at every stage along the construction project. “It’s been a life-changing experience for me. Helping to change people’s lives is not an easy thing to do.  It’s also a difficult thing to realise that, as much as you want to, you can’t help everyone everywhere.”

When I visit, she points out wide cracks in the cement floor of a new block which will house toilets and showers. “Look, the cracks are so wide”, she says, pointing to the floor where she has marked in red ink the words ‘rejected’. ‘This will cause problems…the contractors will have to fix it,” she says, shaking her head.   

She’s firm but polite as she speaks to the contractors, pointing out the problem. But they accept what she says. “I’m very demanding and quite strict, but they respect me”, she says, “they realise I am not here for a fashion show, but I’m an expert and know what I’m talking about.”

“Every day, big groups of women and children follow me as I work in the camp,” she says. “The girls say they see me as a kind of role model and say they’d like to do work like me when they are older. The children in the camp love to see us work: they make sure they are awake and up and about when we arrive in the camp for our day’s work.”

Farah is full of plans and ideas. She’s hoping to pass on some basic engineering and plumbing skills to some people in the camp; and to get women in the camp more involved with the work Oxfam is doing.

 “We’re surrounded by children for most of the day. We walk together, we eat together, and we share stories and dreams.  When the time comes to leave the camp, we get into our car, tired and exhausted, with messy hair and dirty jeans, our faces a bit more darkened by the sun than the day before.”

“We’re thinking about how lovely a bubbly shower will be, but before closing the doors, the kids come and say: ‘see you tomorrow’ and we close the doors with a big smile We forget about how dirty we are, or how lovely this bubbly shower will be and we start thinking about what can we do next for those kids”.

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