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3 October 2014updated 06 Oct 2014 8:48am

Life as an orphan in a plastic tent city, bombing Iraq (again) and keeping my “Juslim” name

Jemima Khan writes from Jordan on the Syrian refugee crisis.

By Jemima Khan

Zaatari camp in Jordan is a chalky pop-up city and temporary holding pen for the collateral damage from Syria’s civil war; 80,000 refugees, mostly women and children, existing in orderly limbo. Most left Syria on foot, in the dark, with only the clothes they were wearing and – if their house was not already pulverised – their door keys and documents.

I have met many refugees since I started working with Unicef 13 years ago and regardless of nationality, disaster or host country, they all share one thing in common – the knowledge that they are the world’s unwanted; bereft of home, hope, possessions and expression.

It was an encounter with a child refugee that first led to my involvement with Unicef. I was distributing tents to Afghan refugees who had fled civil war at the Jalozai camp in Peshawar, north-west Pakistan. It had been nicknamed “Plastic City” because its inhabitants were living in plastic bin liners during the monsoon season, with no shelter, food, water or sanitation. The Pakistani government, its resources already stretched and with resentment still high from the last influx of Afghans during the Soviet era, had refused to allow aid agencies access to the camp.

A small, emaciated boy in dust-coloured rags was bent double under the weight of a 25-kilogram tent. I told him to go and get an adult to help him. He explained that his mother had just died in the camp and his father had been killed in the fighting. He had no adult relatives and he was now the head of the household, responsible for the survival of his five younger siblings, including a small baby. He was seven years old, just a few years older than my eldest son at that time, who was still incapable of even running a bath unsupervised. His story, I learned, was far from unique.

At the Zaatari camp in Jordan last week, I met Adil, a gentle, serious, 17-year-old Syrian boy, the same age as my son now (it’s impossible not to make these comparisons), who desperately wants to finish school and to become an engineer but who has to work to support his family. One of Unicef’s goals – and it sounds like a trite corporate slogan until you meet a boy like Adil or see a toddler carrying a baby on its hip – is to try to give children in the camps their childhood back, through schools, playgrounds, activities, sports and safe areas. I was in Jordan in my capacity as Unicef ambassador so I could report back to donors on how the million pounds we raised last year for Syrian refugees has been put to use.

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Wake-up calls

Since getting back, I have been trying to think up ways to raise more money this year. The daily running of the camp costs half a million dollars. I considered asking friends to donate money not to have to attend another dreary charity dinner, but have decided that the quickest way to raise money is through a social media campaign – to try to replicate the astonishing success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $100m for the previously little-known Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, and the “no make-up selfie”, which raised £8m in six days for Cancer Research UK.

I’ll be kicking off a new campaign for the refugee crisis, #WAKEUPCALL, a photo taken first thing (preferably against your wishes) and posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – or not, if you want to pay a forfeit to charity.

It’s a chance for the tabloids to print free photos of celebs not looking their best, for columnists to scoff at the absurdity of it all (I do find it weird that there’s more cynicism around well-meaning charitable campaigns than ill-fated military ones); and, with any luck, it will enable kids like Adil to stay in school.

US v the US

The definition of madness, I’ve been reminded by friends recently, is repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome. On 26 September, a bewildering majority of British MPs voted to bomb the same people in the same place as in 2003, making this Britain’s sixth military intervention in Iraq in a hundred years. The difference is the target’s name – from al-Qaeda to Isil to Isis to IS or Daish, depending on whom you ask. Some Muslims have suggested “the Unislamic State”, although that would be confusing: the US v the US.

But isn’t it all a muddle anyway? Last year, the same British MPs were asked to vote for bombing the other side: to support the Syrian rebels (including Isis, whom we are now bombing) in their quest to topple the dictator Bashar al-Assad. That makes last year’s ally this year’s enemy. A large number voted in favour of both military campaigns.

The wrath of Khan

Speaking of name changes, my ex-husband, Imran, recently announced that he intended to get remarried soon, which made me think, as it’s been ten years since our divorce, it’s probably time to change my name back to Goldsmith.

I kept “Khan” originally as my children felt strongly about it, but now they’re grown up they don’t seem to care. With hindsight, I wouldn’t have changed my name in the first place (that said, at the time, I only just managed to hang on to my first name), but now I’ve been Khan for as long as I was Goldsmith and I last used my maiden name when I was a child (OK, 21). I quite like that my name represents my “Juslim” identity (Jemima being Jewish, Khan Muslim-ish). Anyway, I was just about to change back to Goldsmith when my brother happily announced he’d proposed to his girlfriend . . . which is great, except that she’s also called Jemima. I just don’t fancy being “the other”, “the big” or “the older” Jemima Goldsmith.

To make a donation to Unicef’s appeal for the Zaatari camp, visit: or text SYRIA to 70007 to give £5 

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