MAFRAQ, Jordan — Since 2011, Syrian refugees have sought sanctuary wherever they can find it. In Jordan, home is a three-square-mile piece of desert called Zaatari. The largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, Zaatari houses about 80,000 people, half of whom are children. Zaatari is the fourth-largest city in Jordan.
Although it is a temporary home, the protracted stay of such a large number of people in the Zaatari refugee camp presents economic, infrastructural and educational challenges. Strangely, addressing these issues renders life in the camp somehow normal.
The semi-permanent city just north of Jordan’s capital, Amman, requires a functioning economy as well as humanitarian aid. An informal market has blossomed in the Zaatari refugee camp. About 2,500 Syrian shops and businesses operate as they would in a more conventional city. Many refugees reestablish the kinds of businesses they left behind in Syria, like bakeries, bridal dress rentals, supermarkets and pizza shops, to name a few.
About 60 percent of working-age refugees in Zaatari earn some kind of income, which provides not only financial wellbeing, but a certain comfort as well. One refugee, Abu Hesenih, spoke of going to work every day as a way to “escape the situation we’re in”.
In an effort to organize the camp like a city and establish leadership, which can effectively implement this new infrastructure, Zaatari is divided into twelve districts, each of which chooses a representative leader. Many of these district representatives were involved community leaders in Syria, and this community leadership in the camp is reminiscent of home. These district heads work together with humanitarian organizations, like UNHCR and OXFAM, to provide water and energy, and disposal of sewage and solid waste throughout the camp.
Currently, 3.2 million liters of water are distributed by 82 trucks to communal water tanks throughout these districts, and households can access electricity for up to nine hours per day. A solar power plant is opening at the end of 2017 to cover all of the energy needs. Sewage and solid wastes are transported by fleets of trucks every day to facilities outside the camp, while district representatives encourage reduction and recycling of solid wastes in their respective communities. All these implementations, while not ideal, have become routine and keep the camp going day in and day out.
Normalcy and predictability are especially critical for children. With about half of Zaatari’s population being school-age children, and an average of 80 births per week, the need for a school system is critical. Nine schools, in which 20,000 children are enrolled, are dispersed throughout Zaatari’s 12 districts. Zaatari adopted the Jordanian public school system, and integrated Syrian students into its curriculum with the help of summer, remedial and informal courses.
The unique challenge of teaching students who are suffering from conflict-related trauma is being addressed by supplemental teacher training, through UNICEF, UNESCO and others. Likewise, 27 community centers provide psychosocial support, and recreational activities for the children. The return to this type of regularity is crucial to the continued development of these childhoods that have been interrupted by war.
Following disaster, communities attempt to return to what is ordinary, and healing comes through the familiar. Through work, the community and systems of living, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is a space for Syrians to find a temporary, new normal while they wait to go home.
– Robin Lee