North Africa, West Asia

Dreams of return find new meaning on Zaatari's third anniversary

The permanence of the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is not accepted by all, but is a truth that is transforming lives and attitudes inside the informal city.

Nazli Tarzi
3 August 2015
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Image: Nazli Tarzi. All rights reserved.

Zaatari refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan - clusters of new entrants wade through the tropical heat hanging heavily over the desolate plane, where the encampment was founded three years ago.  

On 30 July 2012 the Zaatari camp officially opened its doors to Syrian refugees. Its exponential growth makes it the largest refugee camp in the wider region, and Jordan's fourth largest city.

Long before it was home to an estimated 81,000 displaced persons, the arid desert was a functional Jordanian military airbase. Transformations in Mafraq now speak to a new local history, inseparable from the interminable civil war raging on in Syria.

Since its formation, the site has not only witnessed an unprecedented growth in its inhabitants, it has also blossomed into a city that exudes a disquieting sense of permanency for Syrians longing to return home. What stands in Mafraq today, despite having arisen from fairly modest origins, now boasts an infrastructure no different to that visible across other Jordanian cities.

The pop-up town is not quite a concrete city yet, however, permanent housing, water and electricity structures remain a hotly debated topic. Though it has been rumoured that there is a push towards this, the backlash from local populations make it an undesirable option for King Abdullah of Jordan.

In spite of external funding flooding into the Hashemite Kingdom, the burden weighs heavily on the country's political elite, who can no longer ignore the civilian led movement towards urbanisation.

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Image: Nazli Tarzi. All rights reserved.

Beyond the camp’s dusty gates, newcomers are greeted by a long sandy road, where they pass by an imposing stone wall that offers a narrow strip of shade from the blinding desert sun; adorned by time-worn images of seemingly joyous refugees, and topped-off with coiled barbed wire.

At the end of the tract, refugees enter into a barren desert island, brimming with prefab caravan homes that have long replaced the camp’s original canvas tents. Upon this unfamiliar site, uprooted families have little choice other than to live out their days indefinitely.

Uncertainty may still colour the daily lives and thoughts of residents, but this has not prevented dwellers from carving out new spaces and uses for their camp. Their desperately needed sense of normalcy is the very force that has transformed the campsite into a semi-autonomous oasis—with its own shadow economy, market spaces, and communal leisure areas.

As former camp manager Kleinschmidt remarked, "we design refugee camps; refugees build cities".

Their ability to remake the camp animates a posture of defiance, driven by distaste towards the governance of humanitarian organisations and solidified by a "do-it-yourself" ethos, in rebellion against the old and new power hierarchies characterising political and social order inside the camp.

Frustration is directed not only at humanitarian relief agencies and their self-appointed managers, but 'community' leaders too, who control a corrupt underworld gutted with criminality, corruption and exploitation.

I learnt this during a recent visit to the camp, where I encountered an elderly man venting abuse at what he described as unprincipled Syrians. Pacing up and down the Champs-Élysées, Zaatari's main commercial strip, he screamed, "these dogs have it all, capitalising on the quiet suffering of refugees".

In contrast to power thirsty community leaders, the majority of residents lead a simple life reflected in their principle demand—to live a dignified life that offers stability to their children.

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Image: Nazli Tarzi. All rights reserved.

Twenty-six year old Ahmed, a former Arabic language student at the University of Damascus, described his departure from Syria as necessary to avoid seeing his children becoming additional numbers of Syria's war dead:

"My journey into exile was unplanned; my village became the target of random regime shelling. Even after arriving to the camp, I was sure that it'd be a matter of days before I would be reunited with my family in Deraa. Days soon turned into months, and months turned into years, but we just have to wait a little longer before we can return back home."

Ahmed clearly refused to accept the truth of his protracted stay in Zaatari, giving voice to a social perception quite different to his lived reality.

Return to Syria for thirty year-old Muhannad, an agricultural systems management graduate, held a different meaning. "If it were to happen, we'd be living in hell on earth. We remove Bashar, then what? Would we be able to distinguish the good from the bad? How will we know who's fighting who, who's exploiting who, and who's butchering who?" he asked dejectedly.

During my tour of the camp it became glaringly apparent that the site’s evolution from 'camp' to 'home' stirs varied feelings among residents.

The city oasis in some sense serves as a memory bank where refugees solidify their identities—formulating a political consciousness that keeps them embedded in their past. The camp’s proximity to Deraa, where the majority of Zaatari's refugees are from, acts as a constant reminder of this lost past.

A former Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter, Mohammad, spoke keenly about his short-lived life as a soldier. He joined the FSA at the tender age of seventeen, but as the youngest male in his family his mother forbade him from continuing fighting, urging him to seek refuge in Zaatari.

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Image: Nazli Tarzi. All rights reserved.

Having reluctantly fulfilled his mother’s wishes, Mohammad immerses himself in the past—watching videos of himself in battle and montages dedicated to those he witnessed die at the hands of the Syrian army. This has become a daily ritual for Muhammad, confined to his trailer camp, where he bides his time by teleporting himself back to an unreachable past.

Zaatari's permanency, while not accepted by all, is a truth that is transforming lives and attitudes inside the informal city. As time passes, families feel more settled, while others flee for urban sites in neighbouring Jordanian towns.

In the words of twenty-seven year old Farid, "there is no single case in the entire history of the Arab world where a refugee camp has opened and eventually closed down".

Video: Nazli Tarzi. All rights reserved.

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