Ben Homer visited the Za’artari Refugee Camp in Jordan in August 2013.
The media has seized on Za’atari Refugee camp as a focal point of the Syrian refugee crisis. Aerial photographs show the massive scale of the camp which today hosts more than 120,000 people. Its location in Jordan has made it a relatively safe destination for journalists seeking to cover the war in Syria. Most stories from the camp have predictably focused on the massive logistical effort of operating a camp the size of a city, or on individual stories of refugees living there as a sad reality representative of the larger humanitarian crisis, but Za’atari has taken on an identity of its own. The majority of camp residents are from the region of Dara’a, where the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad began and their livelihoods revolve around news of the Syrian conflict. Most stayed in their homes as long as they could, managing with their family and neighbors, until intense fighting or bombing forced them to flee for the safety of themselves and their families. Today, they live vicariously through cell phone updates with their brothers, husbands, fathers, relatives, and friends who are fighting. The camp itself serves as a de facto base camp for Free Syrian Army fighters and other groups that are aligned against Assad. This makes it very different from so many other refugee camps, including those in Jordan that have housed Palestinians for more than sixty years. It is hot in the summer and frigid in the winter. Residents complain of scorpions and snakes. For Za’atari residents this is only temporary, a place they must live until Assad is gone. Until then, it is a sacrifice they are willing to make.
The entrance to Za’atari camp is guarded by Jordanian police and gendarmerie. A permit is required for media access and the entrance to the camp is specifically prohibited to be photographed. Moments after this was taken plainclothes security personnel converged on us, insisting we could not photograph outside the gates.
A wide shot of the camp — the rapid growth of the camp has led to many distinct neighborhoods inside, some of which are hostile to the NGOs. UN leadership in the camp recently began working with leaders in each area to improve cooperation between aid workers and residents.
A truck delivers water to one of many elevated tanks in the camp. Behind it, an electricity pole with many additional lines coming off of it. Enterprising refugees charge five Jordanian Dollars to connect tents to the power grid.
Seventy percent of refugees in Za’atari are women and children. Many of the men who in Za’atari spent time fighting in Syria, or plan to, once they are sure their family members are safe.
Kids outside tents in Za’atari. An estimated 40 percent of Za’atari residents are under the age of 16. Nearly every tent and caravan has electricity and satellite dish.
Children chase after a water truck. More than one million litres of water are delivered to the camp each day by trucks, which are constantly in motion throughout the camp. While the UN and other NGOs have begun to build capacity for schooling, there is little for kids in the camp to do.
A truck delivers caravans to the camp. Caravans are highly desirable as compared to tents and there is a black market for these housing units. Flags on the outside of the caravan indicate the country which donated them.
Desert sand storms are a regular occurrence across the camp. Tents and caravans provide little comfort from harsh conditions.
Children selling vegetables at a family-run stand inside Za’atari. An internal economy has developed in the camp. Nearly anything can be purchased with Syrian money.
Aid workers outside the cafeteria in the secure base camp area which houses NGOs .
Kilian Kleinschmidt has decades of experience managing the largest refugee camps in the world. When he was brought in to oversee Za’atari, protests were occurring nearly every night by refugees unhappy with conditions. Today, he is working to establish a stronger relationship between the aid workers and camp residents. Za’atari, he says, is one of the most complex places he has ever worked.
Refugees wait for buses to make the return trip to Syria. Each day several hundred people return from Za’atari to Syria.
Children pose for the camera holding up the “V” for victory with their fingers.
Ben Homer is a graduate student studying international affairs at The New School.