AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan – Italian chefs taught Syrian refugee women to cook the Italian staple of gnocchi, or dumplings, helping to break the routine in perhaps the most restrictive of Jordan's three camps for displaced Syrians.
Thursday's lesson, part of the global Italian Cuisine Week, was held in the fenced-in Azraq camp in a remote area of northern Jordan.
The camp is home to some 40,000 Syrians, including about 8,000 who live in an area cut off from the other residents as they wait, often for months, to undergo additional security vetting.
The Italian team of two chefs and two students from a cooking school in the town of Sorrento guided a dozen Syrian women in preparing potato gnocchi with Mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. For dessert, they made jam-filled pie.
The food was made with items from the camp grocery and served to a larger group of camp residents. Refugee Ahlam al-Taybani said she will pass on her new skill to family and friends.
In all, Jordan hosts about 660,000 of some 5 million registered Syrian refugees in the region. The majority of displaced Syrians in Jordan live in communities, and only about 20 percent stay in camps, where they are supported by U.N. aid agencies.
Refugees can only leave Azraq with special Jordanian permits.
Hardest-hit by restrictions are those in so-called "Village 5," a fenced-in area within Azraq whose residents are not allowed to leave at all. Jordan has cited special security concerns and the need for additional vetting to ensure they have no ties to Islamic militants.
Azraq used to be bleaker than the larger and less regulated Zaatari camp, but conditions have improved. A solar power plant has begun providing several hours of electricity a day and a local market with 100 stalls allows refugees to make at least some choices in their regimented lives.
More than 5,000 Azraq residents have received Jordanian-issued work permits, U.N. officials said. It is part of a broader campaign by the international community to bring more refugees into Jordan's labor market and make them less dependent on aid. Those with permits are allowed to leave the camp.
Stefano Severe, the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, told The Associated Press that he hopes the vetting of those in Village 5 "can be accelerated in the near future."
He said 12,000 refugees have so far been vetted and were able to move out of the restricted area, and that an additional 900 recently cleared the hurdle.
Several refugees, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions by the Jordanian authorities, said they still have close relatives in Village 5, and that the prolonged separation is difficult.
Refugees said life has improved significantly in the camp with the introduction of solar power and the issuing of work permits.