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Harper visits Syrian refugee camp

Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited a massive Syrian refugee camp on Friday, taking in first-hand the sea of humanity that has fled the brutal, bloody civil war of their homeland.

On his first trip to the Arab kingdom of Jordan, Harper made a stop at the Za'atari camp in the northern reaches of the country, near the Syrian border.

Za'atari is the second-largest refugee camp in the world, a veritable city stretching for eight square kilometres and straining Jordan's resources and infrastructure.

The camp is a mass of criss-crossing laneways where as many as 120,000 people live, go to school and try to earn a living. The camp is encased by chain-link fences festooned with lengths of barbed wire; its residents live in ramshackle structures of corrugated metal.

"We talk in terms of hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of displaced persons; it's sometimes easy to forget that these are all individual lives," Harper said.

"We are touched by this. This is the reason we try to provide food and shelter and sanitation and education and security, to do what we can."

Not far from where Harper and his wife, Laureen, met with the international officials and aid workers who run the camp, Syrians in makeshift shops sold everything from wedding dresses to pet birds in cages.

There were barbers, fruit vendors and women selling hand-knit sweaters to ward off the cold on chilly desert nights, during which the pounding of artillery fire can often be heard from just across the border.

Children smiled shyly at a Canadian photographer as he snapped shots of their daily routine on a brilliantly sunny afternoon. Many waved at the Canadian motorcade as it arrived at the camp.

Women held babies; twelve are born every day at the camp. Half of Za'atari’s population, in fact, are school-age children.

"Home? Hoping that will be soon," said a man shopping in the makeshift market who's been in the camp for 18 months.

Harper, however, didn't see much of the activity. Due to security reasons, he was kept close to the base headquarters and its police station, as are most world leaders when they visit the camp.

The Canadian Press

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