Not surprisingly, a visit to the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan is mainly a depressing experience. Yet there are elements of inspiration here as well.

The depressing part is obvious. Zaatari is a refugee camp, opened in July 2012 and originally meant to shelter perhaps 6,000 people but now “home” to more than 100,000 men, women and children. Of these residents, the clear majority — perhaps 65 percent — are children. Zaatari has grown so large that it is probably the fourth largest “city” in Jordan (after Amman, Irbid and Zarqa). And the 100,000-plus Syrians in Zaatari are but a fraction of the population displaced by the ongoing Syrian civil war and now living in Jordan. There are at least 500,000 more Syrian refugees living in host communities, especially northern Jordanian cities and towns like Irbid, Mafraq and Ramtha. Another half million or so Syrians were already in Jordan when the war began. They were, and are, housed mainly in Jordanian cities, and now have no real means of getting home.

Children in front of a tent at Zaatari refugee camp

The Syrians join previous waves of refugees who fled to Jordan, including Palestinians and Iraqis. Jordan even took in Bosnian refugees during the wars over the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But with a population barely reaching 7 million, and an economy that was in crisis long before the Syrian crisis erupted, the resource-poor kingdom is increasingly feeling the strain of the latest refugee influx. The hope, of course, is that the Syrians’ stay in Jordan, and in the camp, is temporary. But that was also the hope in 2012 and in 2013 and, at present, at least, the Syrian war shows no signs of abating.

Despite the dire circumstances, there are signs of human resilience in Zaatari as well. It is inspiring to see how Syrians have attempted to recreate their former lives, or forge new ones, creating something like a community in the camp. Many observers — and some refugees themselves — casually ascribe this phenomenon to a natural entrepreneurial trait of the Syrian nation. But similar statements abound with regard to Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi emigrants and refugees, as well as just about every other group of displaced people everywhere. Resilience doesn’t come from some timeless, immutable national character. It’s simply a matter of ordinary people in horrible and decidedly extraordinary circumstances doing whatever they can to improve the lives of their families.

What is also inspiring is the effort put forth by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, NGOs, international aid workers and Jordanian volunteers to make the camp livable. There is much legitimate criticism to be leveled at global donors for failing to deliver on their ample pledges and even more ire to be directed at regional and global powers for placing geostrategic priorities above humanitarian ones. But here on the ground, in the midst of this sprawling camp, aid workers are doing everything they can to make the lives of the refugees somewhat better.

What started as a scattering of tents is now a mixture of tents and prefabricated housing (usually called “caravans” or trailers). Some families have linked two caravans together, with aluminum or other ad hoc paneling used to create a kind of courtyard, sitting room or storage space between them. As the camp expanded, it assumed a clear grid-like pattern, now broken into 12 districts for the purposes of distribution of food and supplies. Much of the initial expansion was the result of trial and error, but the UNHCR and the Jordanian authorities have made gradual adjustments, including serious attempts at urban planning, as the camp has steadily grown.

After a series of problems with food distribution, protests and riots, Jordanian security forces now have no visible presence within the camp. These forces have established themselves instead along the ring road surrounding the camp, creating a cordon on the perimeter of Zaatari. Within the camp, Jordanian authorities have allowed various forms of commerce to emerge largely without interference. Their permissiveness led to the development of a main street that is somewhat sarcastically referred to in the camp as the Champs d’Elysées. There are now more than 500 businesses in Zaatari, most of which are stalls and small shops selling goods and services. These enterprises include salons, fruit and vegetable markets, small restaurants (generally falafel and hummus stands) and shops offering perfumes, cellular phones, sweets and wedding dresses. There is even a small jewelry store and a pet shop, with parakeets prominently displayed.

Periodic distribution of basic foodstuffs and supplies occurs at centralized distribution centers, and more extensive supplies can be found at the Safeway that opened at one end of the camp. Coupons are available for key staple foods, while other items are sold for cash, but at wholesale prices. The Jordanian manager of the Zaatari Safeway has a team of Syrian employees, as part of the camp’s cash-for-work program.

In addition to this commercial life, there is a school at the very center of Zaatari. Not all children attend, however, because many families encourage young sons to work instead and earn some money for the family, often using wheelbarrows to haul just about anything for cash. For many daughters, the challenge is very different: There is a clear trend of Syrian girls being married at an early age to local or foreign men. The UNHCR and Jordanian authorities are well aware of this problem, and while they strongly discourage the practice, it seems to persist.

Still, international donors have tried to gear spaces in the camp toward children, so that they don’t (always) have to be young laborers or child brides, but can simply be children. There are now playgrounds, children’s activity centers, and dirt and gravel soccer pitches. The latter spaces are part of the efforts of the Asia Football Development Program and the Norwegian Refugee Council to engage both boys and girls in soccer, in the interest of physical health and psychological wellbeing, as well as a semblance of community feeling for children who may have lost everything in Syria. The youth football program may, in fact, be the most inspiring feature of life in an otherwise difficult set of circumstances.

International branding is splashed over every positive feature of the camp. Housing is spray-painted with flags of donor countries such as Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Morocco’s green star on a red field is displayed at a large field hospital and set of medical clinics. Other facilities are marked with the flags of Japan, Canada, Australia, Qatar, the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile, a new camp has opened in Azraq and is already home to thousands.

Yet the foreign contributions to date are nowhere near enough. As the war continues, and refugees continue to cross the border from Syria, the strain on Jordan grows, especially in terms of basic services — water, electricity, food and education. For both Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities, the need is great.

Image: Curtis Ryan

How to cite this article:

Curtis Ryan "Refugee Need and Resilience in Zaatari," Middle East Report Online, June 23, 2014.

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