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Harper caps Middle East visit at burgeoning Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen Harper visit Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan on Friday, January 24, 2014. While in the Middle East Harper is visiting Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen Harper visit Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan on Friday, January 24, 2014. While in the Middle East Harper is visiting Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

ZA'ATRI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan - 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 prime minister echoed what he was told by the man known as the Mayor of Za'atari, Kilian Kleinschmidt of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg of the scale of the refugee problem and the tremendous human suffering that we see," Harper said.

"As large as this camp is, this is only one small piece of the refugee crisis and the refugee crisis here is only one small piece of a broader humanitarian displacement in Syria itself .... Obviously, unfortunately, it appears that this is going to, if anything, get worse or continue. So our commitment must be for the long term.”

To that end, Harper announced another $150 million in aid for Syrian refugees on Friday.

That's in addition to the approximately $200 million Canada has already earmarked for the refugees. The new money will go towards basic needs that include food, water and shelter while another $50 million will be provided to a UNICEF education and child-protection initiative.

He also announced an additional $15 million to aid in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.

“The use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians was an atrocity that cannot be allowed to happen again,” he said in a statement announcing the new funding.

All told, Canada has so far committed more than $630 million in humanitarian, development and security assistance in response to the Syrian crisis.

A Jordanian general referred to simply as General Omar by the Prime Minister's Office effusively praised the prime minister, and all Canadians, for their help when he appeared with Harper at the camp.

The general thanked "the Canadian nation, everybody, each and every single person, mother, father, woman, child, a teacher, a businessman, who contributed. I know it's taxpayers' money, but it's going to the right people."

From the relative squalor of Za'atari, the Harpers then travelled south to one of the seven wonders of the world, the Petra archeological site and prehistoric city famous for its rock-architecture and water system.

Located between the Red and Dead Seas, Petra has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It is half-built, half-carved into rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with breathtaking passages and gorges.

One of the prominent features carved into the rock is Al Khazneh, or the Facade of the Treasury. It was used to depict the front of a temple housing the Holy Grail in the film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

The Harpers, holding hands, wandered the spectacular site in awe, then enjoyed an open-air lunch at the foot of one of the pink sandstone mountains that characterize Petra. Camels and donkeys, used to haul tourists through the site, lounged in the sun or ambled by with tourists on their backs.

The Petra visit marked Harper's last public event on his first visit to the Middle East. The prime minister flies home on Saturday.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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