A woman in a man’s world: A Jordanian engineer brings her skills to the Syria crisis

By Oxfam
Oxfam engineer Farah Al-Basha stands in a partially constructed shower block that is currently being built at Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Earlier this year, Farah Al-Basha made a dramatic career change. The 27-year-old Jordanian engineer quit her job at a private company to join Oxfam’s effort to aid tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict in Syria.

Now, instead of working on military contracts and designing underground bunkers, Al-Basha oversees building toilet and shower blocks and installing water tanks in Jordan's sprawling Zaatari desert camp—home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

Improving access to clean water

Al-Basha and other members of Oxfam’s team in Zaatari focus on addressing the severe water and sanitation problems in the crowded camp. To combat the threat of waterborne diseases like cholera, Oxfam provided water tanks and taps to help 10,000 people get access to clean water, and has installed sanitation facilities including toilets, showers, and laundry areas. Work is underway to install 13 Oxfam tanks to facilitate water access for everyone in the camp.

More than 19,000 people have benefited from these efforts so far, and Oxfam hopes to reach even more in the weeks ahead.

“I wanted to help people here, to try to do something more for the community," says Al-Basha of her reasons for joining the effort. But she admits her first visit to the camp was a bit of a shock.

Over the past two years, over one million people have fled the deadly conflict in Syria into neighboring countries. With a daily influx of 2,500 to 3,000 Syrians crossing into Jordan each day, Zaatari is now equivalent in size to the fifth-largest city in Jordan.

"It was the first time I have ever been to a refugee camp and, honestly, it was overwhelming," she says. "I realized this job was going to be totally different in terms of what it required of me than my previous work.”

Al-Basha and her fellow engineers draw up plans, advise contractors, and carry out on-site inspections to ensure safety standards are met at every stage of construction. Her day-to-day work involves overseeing and inspecting the work of the (all-male) laborers and making sure everything goes according to plan—or if it doesn't, finding solutions to daily problems.

“It's been a life-changing experience for me,” says Al-Basha. “Helping to change people's lives is not an easy thing to do.”

A role model for the next generation

Amid a sea of male construction workers and site workers, Al-Basha stands out from the crowd. She explains that, while there are many women engineers in Jordan, most work in offices rather than at construction sites. “I've been working as an engineer for the last six years and I'm always the only female engineer on-site," she says.

Refugees in Zaatari camp at a water tap

Al-Basha says she is determined to show that women engineers are just as capable as their male counterparts. She hopes 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.

"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.”

It’s these young people, she says, who make her job such a rewarding experience.

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

"We're thinking about how lovely a shower will be, but [then] the kids come and say 'see you tomorrow' and we close the doors with a big smile. ... We start thinking about what can we do next for those kids."

Learn more about how Oxfam is helping Syrian refugees and donate now to support these efforts.

Reporting from Jordan and above photo by Caroline Gluck.