1. Built environment
May 10, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 10:19am

Tales from Za’atari: Inside the refugee camp that’s becoming the fourth largest city in Jordan

By Olivia Cuthbert

In some ways, the house at the edge of District 8 is a typical Arabian home. A seating area at the heart of the structure features a few threadbare floor cushions, which double as beds at night. There’s a small improvised toilet outside, hidden behind a curtain.

The family living here has managed to purchase a second caravan, which serves as a crude kitchen with buckets full of pans and a small gas stove in the middle of the floor. A canopy, formerly a tent, is slung between the two rooms. It sags in the middle, disguising for a moment the blue logo emblazoned across. The letters underneath read: “UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency”. 

There are more and more makeshift houses like this in Za’atari,the vast camp in northern Jordan, where some 80,000 Syrians have taken refuge from their war-torn country. As the crisis draws on, some, disillusioned with life in the camps, have made the perilous journey back. But many have given up watching for a window to return, and are trying to build a life here in the interim.

Sunrise over the camp. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

Za’atari is testament to this. Initially intended to provide a temporary settlement when the tents went up to meet the first refugees five years ago, it has now become, to some extent, a city in its own right – the fourth largest in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

There’s a strange mixture of permanence and transience here. An increasingly sophisticated urban infrastructure is rapidly evolving as camp organisers look for more efficient and sustainable ways to accommodate demand.

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Yet while the Jordanian government has given the go ahead for an expansive new water network, sewage system and solar power station – facilities that surpass some of those in nearby towns and cities – the ban on building proper housing in Za’atari remains firmly in place. With the largest ratio of refugees to civilians in the world, Jordan’s government is wary. Their country has a long history of refugee camps taking root and, increasingly, Za’atari looks set to do the same.

It’s not something anybody wants. “As humanitarian agencies we don’t like to have camps. Rather than creating a synthetic setting, we prefer refugees to be accommodated in host communities, which will usually feature similarities in terms of culture and environment,” says Hovig Etyemezian, Za’atari camp manager for UNHCR.

“When a displacement crisis reaches the point where camps are needed,” he adds, “we prefer to keep them at less than 20,000 people.” Za’atari is four times this size. To date, some 400,000 have passed through the camp, which reached 150,000 at its peak. It is now closed to new arrivals, with the majority of incoming refugees sent to a new facility at Azraq in eastern Jordan.

The war economy

While life inside the camps is difficult, the world beyond the walls is fraught with obstacles. There are some 640,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, though a government census conducted last year places the actual figure at around 1.4m. The vast majority are living among local communities, where a recent study indicates that 9 out of 10 Syrians live below the Jordanian poverty line of $87 per month.

As a small country with a population of just 7m and scarce economic resources to support them, Jordan lacks the capacity to absorb the ongoing flood of asylum seekers into its towns and cities. Already, the number of refugees is outnumbering local populations in areas such as the northern city of Mafraq, 10km from Za’atari, where there are now two Syrians to every one Jordanian.

Home sweet home. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

The imbalance adds to the tension in local communities as Jordan struggles under the strain. Services built for a majority of Jordanians are now stretched beyond capacity. There are long lines outside hospitals, and some schools are operating classes in shifts to accommodate the influx of Syrian students. “We are very clear that the presence of refugees presents a burden on Jordan,” says Etyemezian.

But he adds that the situation could also be turned into an opportunity if the local economy is expanded to accommodate a Syrian workforce. Substantial investment from the international community is being channelled towards facilitating work permits and creating employment opportunities for Syrian refugees, who, until now, have been unable to work in Jordan. However, with too few jobs for Jordanians as it is, the situation requires careful handling.

This was a key topic in discussions at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London last February, where Jordan pledged to improve opportunities for Syrian refugees to work legally in the country. In the Jordan Compact, the government promised to create 200,000 jobs for Syrian refugees; it recently took the first step by introducing measures to help 78,000 Syrians enter the local workforce.

It will be a long time though, before the benefits of these changes are felt in the camps. In the meantime, refugees in Za’atari do what they can to supplement the aid they receive, which is enough for basic survival but little else.

Some work with aid agencies in volunteer capacities but demand for these roles is huge and opportunities are limited. A number have managed to scrape together sufficient funds to set up stalls and restaurants – even internet cafes and wedding dress shops, along the imaginatively named main thoroughfare, Champs Elysées. There are now more than 2,000 small enterprises of this sort here, none of them sanctioned, but tolerated nonetheless. 

Others leave the camp illegally under the cover of darkness to work on neighbouring farms. Permission is required to enter and exit Zaatari but there are ways around the rules here. At night, aid workers doing the rounds might spot the shadowy figures of farm labourers slipping over the mound of earth that separates the refugee camp from the world outside, but they won’t say anything. The blind eye is necessary in a place this topsy-turvy, where restrictions govern every action but life couldn’t function if the regulations weren’t bent a little.

Fixing the plumbing

Camp managers have discovered this for themselves as they search for ways to make life here more dignified – a word humanitarian workers use often in Za’atari. As a longer-term view of the crisis becomes unavoidable, aid agencies are shifting from an emergency response to a resilience-based approach, resulting in the introduction of sustainable and – a word no one likes to utter here – permanent, solutions.

“Zaatari started out as a temporary settlement that was only supposed to exist for a few months,” explains Andrew Boscoe, Oxfam’s programme manager at Za’atari. “So initially we focused on providing a quick response with communal facilities and shared access to water.”

Inside the classroom. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

 However, as first months, then years, passed, refugees living in Za’atari started to make their own arrangements. More and more, as people accepted that they were going to be here for a longer period of time, they began to invest in their homes.

One of the biggest challenges for camp operators has been meeting the expectations in living standards of the Syrian refugees. “The humanitarian players who responded to the need for Za’atari in the beginning were mainly used to operating in a different context. While the facilities provided were actually much better than you’d find in an average camp in, for example, Africa, it represented a big drop in living conditions for the Syrians, who are used to running water in their homes and private toilets,” Boscoe explains.  

Many set about “privatising” communal facilities and establishing personal connections to water and sewage tanks. “We’d put new taps into the wash blocks one day, taking care to cement them in, only to find that they were gone again by morning, Boscoe continues. “We’ve had doors removed from the wash blocks, street signs taken for tables and even the aggregate from speed bumps melted down and re-used to line outdoor areas by the caravans; they’re very resourceful.”

For a while, this was the pattern across the camp, with materials from communal facilities reappropriated by refugees to enhance the living conditions in their individual homes. Now, the lessons have been learnt and the response from UN agencies and NGO’s operating in Za’atari is increasingly to accommodate the standards the Syrians are setting. This is partly to ensure changes are made properly, and partly because they have little choice. As Etyemezian points out, “If the population here doesn’t like the way something is done, they will change it themselves – so we listen to the population.”

Funding, used for an emergency response in the beginning, is now being channelled towards supporting a more long-term approach. This includes building a water and sewage network that reaches each dwelling, and supplying private toilet facilities to the more vulnerable households that haven’t managed to secure them by other means.

The alternative is botched DIY connections where refugees plumb into the pipes themselves and establish private sources of water. This increases the threat of contamination to the whole system, making it difficult to protect the quality of the supply.

Meanwhile, hacking into the electricity grid, which is what almost every household in Za’atari has done, brings another set of problems. In one instance, a septic tank exploded after coming into contact with an electric wire, and there have been tragic cases of children dying when walking over live cables touching wet ground.

For now, electricity in Za’atari is rationed – a necessary cut back after the monthly bill, paid for by UNHCR, topped $1m. A $20m solar power plant due for completion at the end of the year will go some way towards alleviating this problem but, for now, refugees must adapt yet again.

That means making do without electricity during daylight hours, a source of much frustration in a place where there is already too little to occupy people during the day. With work opportunities scarce, many rely on television to endure long, aimless hours. In Azraq, the new purpose-designed and in many ways more comfortable refugee camp further south, electricity will not be available for a few more months and relies heavily on promised aid coming through.

“The lack of electricity here is one of the main reasons that refugees have preferred in the past to go to Za’atari,” explains Jameel Dababneh, team leader at Azraq refugee camp for CARE International in Jordan. The organisation has distributed solar lights around the camp, which some refugees have tactically re-wired and placed on their roofs to increase supply. However this still won’t generate sufficient power for something as simple as running a fan during the stifling summer months.

Yaseen Khalaf, a 43-year-old from Aleppo who has been living in Azraq for almost two years, describes the lack of electricity as the “greatest day-to-day challenge of life in the camp”.

The domestic front

That, and finding ways to fill the time. “For men like me, if they can’t find a job, boredom is one of the biggest problems,” Khalaf says, adding: “My hope in this life is just to go back to my country and live in peace.”

In the close, chaotic environment of the camps, boredom translates easily into frustration. Anger quickly follows, all too often manifested in the form of domestic violence – an ongoing issue among refugee communities in the camps.


Domestic life. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

It’s a problem that men have raised themselves. In a recent report by UN Women on Restoring Dignity and Building Resilience, the situation is explained by one refugee man: “When we stay at home and don’t know what to do with ourselves, all this turns into anger: At ourselves for failing. At our families for needing things. They tell you that family violence is increasing. Why do you think that is? When the pocket is full, everything is fine.”

UN Women’s cash-for-work programme provides economic empowerment opportunities and skills training for women in Za’atari. This is paired with protection referral services, life skills and counselling – not just for women but, crucially, for men too. The organisation’s #HeforShe dialogues engage men on issues of camp stress and tensions, over time looking at gender equality and domestic violence.

“While behavioural change is a long-term process, our monitoring has demonstrated the difference made through engaging men on issues of violence and equality,” says Rachel Dore-Weeks, recovery specialist, UN Women. She points to a recent impact assessment report by the organisation, which showed at least a 20 percent reduction in gender-based violence among its beneficiary population.

Manal Ahmad, an English teacher in her former life in Syria, has recently completed a cash-for-work cycle with UN Women. The past year has seen an abrupt role reversal in her household, with her husband taking care of the children while she goes off to work.

It’s an increasingly common scenario in Za’atari and many men have struggled to come to terms with the concept of their wives and daughters going out to work – but in these desperate times, deep-rooted customs must make way for survival. “The women go off to do things and the men just stay in the house. Sometimes I’ll be late back and come home to find him cooking with my eldest daughter (aged 12) helping him. That’s not normal in Syria.”

Little about life in Za’atari can be described as normal. Only the children born here, some of them now five years old, who have never known life outside the camp, are spared the unsettling sense of living in an endless limbo. For them, this world of caravans, eating and sleeping in one, going to school in another, is life as usual – though it’s hard to imagine they can have formed a very favourable impression of it. As aid trickles in and the makeshift city slots into place around them – a private water supply here, a new electricity connection there – conditions improve, but the world inside remains upside down.

Life goes on. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

Ahmad is luckier than most. Speaking English has allowed her to supplement her cash-for-work income with more lucrative translation work for visiting media. She’s been able to purchase additional caravans on the proceeds, building a kitchen and private bathroom.

The veneer of normality doesn’t fool her children though. “I am always telling them to study, study, as that’s the only way they’ll get out of the camp. I have tried my best to give them a sense of security, to recreate a stable life for them here – but sometimes, when we watch television, they point at the screen and ask why we don’t have a real house, with proper walls and furniture and rooms like everyone else.”

Olivia Cuthbert visited Za’atari with the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, which supports women in times of war and conflict.

All images courtesy of Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

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