HORSE SHOE, North Carolina — With ongoing political discord displacing nearly 9.5 million Syrians and violent protests forcing thousands to flee Burundi, the public eye has recently been directed toward refugee camps. Though wrongly viewed as temporary settlements, these makeshift towns often develop into thriving urban centers with intricate economic systems.
On the mud-caked outskirts of Zaatari camp in Jordan, Manal Ahmad Ibrahim purchases mascara for $1.50. The vending tent, run by a former hotel manager from Daraa, offers Syrian refugees anything from second hand clothes to rentable wedding dresses.
“I am buying make-up to look beautiful for my husband,” Ibrahim said.
Steps away is Freedom Café, a makeshift coffee and tea house owned by Omar Siran. His set up, a stove and gas burner bought for $70, serves hundreds of customers. The benches, pieces of plywood wrapped in wool blankets, suggest the lack of regulation in the pseudo free-market.
Though most in Zaatari earn only $8.50 a day through agency run programs, the camp’s economy has an air of sophistication. Interacting with humanitarian assistance and the unique needs of families, many residents are refugees turned entrepreneurs.
As a report published by Eric Werker of Harvard Business School summarizes, “Refugee settlements may be more like cities than camps for settlement economies tend to be rich and varied. The primary economic actors are the refugees, many of whom come with productive capabilities, access to commercial networks and capital of some sort.”
Werker goes on to suggest that relationships with the surrounding host community are commonplace, as seen in Kakuma, Kenya.
In Swahili, Kakuma means “nowhere.” And perhaps the flat, scorching and arid land at the crossroads of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda deserves such a title. Since 1991 however, Kakuma has hosted 180,000 refugees from 15 countries, making it one of the largest and longest-lasting camps in the world.
Avoiding the “not in my backyard” philosophy, local non-refugees work and trade in the iron-roofed shops, purchasing or providing anything from medicine to electronic repairs. Heavily reliant on the camp, Turkanas strongly protested talk of closing Kakuma in 2000.
A relocation of refugees from Dadaab to Kakuma in 2009 was even met with relief.
Jane, a Burundian shop owner, sells a random assortment of goods. A generator even hums in the backroom, cooling drinks for customers battling the heat. She attributes her success to the vibrant and far-reaching economy.
“I have a family and without my husband who died in the war, so I had to think of what to do,” Jane said.
Back in Zaatari, a young man named Atef runs a wedding dress rental shop out of a metal shipping container. His business sits among others on Champs Elysees, a street nicknamed by aid workers.
“Women used to come here and say they had weddings but they couldn’t find dresses. So we bought two dresses for rent and it worked out well,” Atef said. “We have two weddings a day.”
Atef goes on to say that many outsiders come to his store, searching for more affordable options.
Closer to the camp entrance, 20-year old Ammar Kinani has just opened his barbershop. Though the sixth barber in the area, he still serves over 20 customers a day.
“I had never expected to own my own business this young,” he says. “I was driven to it by the circumstances.”
– Lauren Stepp