Largest camp for Syrian refugees becoming city
ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan — The manager of the region’s largest camp for Syrian refugees arranges toy figures, trucks and houses on a map in his office trailer to illustrate his ambitious vision.
In a year, he wants to turn the chaotic shantytown of more than 100,000 people into a temporary city with local councils, paved streets, parks, an electricity grid and sewage pipes.
Zaatari, a desert camp near Jordan’s border with Syria, is far from that ideal. Life is tough here. The strong often take from the weak, women fear going to communal bathrooms after dark, sewage runs between pre-fab trailers and boys hustle for pennies carting goods in wheelbarrows instead of going to school.
But with Syria’s civil war in its third year, the more than 2 million Syrians who fled their country need long-term solutions, said Kilian Kleinschmidt, who runs Zaatari for the U.N. refugee agency.
“We are setting up ... a temporary city, as long as people have to be here,” said Kleinschmidt, a 51-year-old German. The veteran of conflict zones is getting help from urban planners in the Netherlands.
Many in Zaatari residents acknowledge, if reluctantly, that a quick return is unlikely.
“At the beginning, we counted (our exile) in months, then years, and now maybe decades,” said Khaled Zoabi, in his 60s, drinking tea and smoking with other refugees in a trailer-turned-men’s social club.
Signs of refugees putting down roots are everywhere, just 15 months after Jordan opened the camp.
Many tents have been replaced with trailers, with satellite dishes installed on roofs. Refugees have started hundreds of businesses, offering anything from semi-automatic washing machines and haircuts to freshly baked pastries and ground coffee. The camp has three schools, two hospitals and a maternity clinic.
Each day begins before dawn with calls to prayer echoing across the flat land. Desert nights are cold, and in October, two U.N.-issued blankets per person aren’t enough. Kleinschmidt hopes to move more refugees from tents into the warmer trailers before winter.
On a recent morning, four men sat waiting around a trash fire near the arrivals area. On the way were relatives fleeing the rebel-held Ghouta district near Damascus, under siege by President Bashar Assad’s troops.
One of those waiting, 18-year-old Malik Salim, made the journey a month earlier, driven from Ghouta by hunger and regime shelling. Men caught at Syrian army checkpoints risk arrest or death, he said.
Dusty and dazed, the newcomers — often in the hundreds each day — line up for U.N. blankets and tents.
Mahmoud Joumma, 39, stood with his wife and two boys, 5 and 10 years old, by a pile of blankets. They lost their home in Syria’s central city of Homs last year in government shelling and for months sheltered in abandoned apartments. With shelling worsening, they decided to head to Jordan, a four-day journey.
Joumma, a former bus driver, said he hopes Assad and the opposition can reach a political deal. “If they don’t, God curse them both.”
As newcomers settle in, veterans begin their morning routine.
The camp’s five bread centers open at daybreak. About 500,000 pitas are handed out daily — four per person.
At the largest center, near the main gate, women and girls enter on the left, men and boys on the right. Each hands a yellow ration card through a metal divider and receives bread.
Bread is free, as are rice, bulgur and lentils. Each person also gets six dinars ($8.5) worth of food stamps every two weeks. With that, they buy eggs, milk and chicken and groceries at markets that redeem coupons.
Refugees have created their own camp economy, but its rules are murky. Gangs of thugs have arisen to control some dealings, including a black market in U.N.-issued supplies, Kleinschmidt said.
Camp residents earn money by providing goods and services, from selling homemade pudding to school children to telling fortunes from coffee cups.
Money gets injected into the camp economy from the cash refugees managed to bring with them, sent to them by relatives or from business partnerships with Jordanians.
Another source of money: the camp employs 1,500 cleaners and orderlies, for a dinar an hour. The jobs are rotated every two weeks. Street leaders — put in place by residents — choose who gets them, and many complain of favoritism.
There’s also a thriving business in electricity, land, tents and trailers.
Some 350 refugees with technical skills have illegally diverted electricity from the public lighting system to about 70 percent of the households, charging for hookup and maintenance, Kleinschmidt said. The “electricity ministers,” he calls them, tongue-in-cheek.
The grid is haphazard. Overloaded transformers sometimes explode. In the end, the U.N. foots the electricity bill to the Jordanian government — about $500,000 a month, likely to reach $700,000 in the winter.
No refugee owns the land — but they do sell it, especially spots in the downtown market where shop stalls line what the residents call Main Street and Saudi Street. Businesses there are bought and sold for hundreds of dinars.
Those leaving the camp sell their trailers for 300 to 500 dinars apiece — or up to $700. Kleinschmidt says foreign donors, including Arab Gulf states, suspended trailer distribution three months ago, in part because they wanted reassurances that police prevent their sale outside the camp. He said the distribution was to resume in coming days. With some 4,000 families still in tents and more arriving, demand for the 18,000 trailers already in the camp is high.
Social classes have emerged.
Wealthier merchants live in relative comfort.
Anas Masri, 33, owns a fruit and vegetable stall on Main Street. He said he makes as much as he did with a similar shop in Damascus — enough to buy four trailers in Zaatari for his family of 10.
In contrast, Mariam Bardan, her husband Khaled and their four children still live in a tent, 11 months after arriving. Six people share four mattresses and wash in an annex of corrugated metal. Rats enter the tent.
Khaled, 44, recently got his first camp job as a street cleaner.
The 43-year-old Mariam gets up at 6:30 a.m., picks up the day’s bread and walks her three daughters, aged seven to 13, to school, while her 20-year-old son looks for work. When the girls return at 11:30 a.m., Mariam fixes bread, olives and white cheese. The girls do homework, watch TV or accompany Mariam to visit relatives.
Mariam cooks dinner in a communal kitchen. The day’s dinner is chicken stew, a rare break from the monotony of lentils and bulgur made possible by the food vouchers.
Mariam shudders at the idea of being a refugee for years, like the Palestinians.
“We can’t stand living here forever,” she said. “With God’s will, we won’t stay here more than a year.”
Many Zaatari residents come from conservative rural areas where families are large, conflicts are settled by tribal elders, and girls marry in their mid- to late teens.
The trauma of war and tough camp conditions have strained social ties and raised tensions.
Stabbings and fistfights were frequent a few months ago, Kleinschmidt said, though they have subsided.
Girls seem more vulnerable to being pressured into marriage to ease the financial burden on their families.
Jordanian men sometimes tour the camp, asking for potential brides who would accept a lower dowry than Jordanian women.
They often ask at a bridal shop on Main Street run by Sarah Abu Zeid, 19, and her brother Yousef, 18. “In Jordan, it’s expensive to get married,” said Sarah.
She said she knows of several Jordanian-Syrian marriages that ended in quick divorce, suggesting the Jordanian men exploited the women.
Most in Zaatari no longer agree to such matches, said Sarah. “They think we are sheep,” she said of the prowling men.
White gowns with glittery beads hang from a rack in the bridal shop. Sarah and Yousef charge 30 dinars for hair, makeup and dress rental, sometimes dressing several brides a day. Their low prices have even attracted Jordanians from the nearby town of Mafraq, already dwarfed by Zaatari’s population.
Camp weddings are marked by quiet family gatherings. Celebrations are frowned upon because of the war, said Sarah.
She has rejected several marriage proposals. “I don’t want to raise children in this environment.”
Kleinschmidt, who has been posted previously in Somalia and Pakistan, said Zaatari has been his toughest assignment. When he came in March, “it seemed overwhelming because of the level of violence, which I thought was really shocking,” he said. “That is not the case anymore today.”
He’s trying to balance between enforcing some structure and not imposing too many restrictions.
“The overall approach, also chosen by the Jordanian authorities, is not a full enabling environment but at least not a prohibiting environment,” he said.
Zaatari remains like a favela, or Brazilian slum, he said, often with the “strong prevailing over the others.”
But traditional community leaders are beginning to reassert themselves over thugs, he said.
Kleinschmidt is starting to set up neighborhood councils in the camp’s 12 districts, where Jordanian authorities, community police and refugees would handle local problems. It’s a balancing act, he said, because he doesn’t want to spook his Jordanian partners by suggesting a permanent city is being built. “This is a very fine line we all have to grapple with,” he said. “How do you find that balance between making life comfortable, making people accountable for what they are doing, but also making sure that they will be able to leave.”
The camp boss is working with the Association of Municipalities in the Netherlands on a plan for Zaatari, including self-governance, a proper electricity grid, water and sewage networks, more paved streets and even green areas. At some point, camp residents who have some income would have to start paying for utilities.
“It empowers them to return as responsible people in dignity, and the dependence syndrome is reduced,” he said.