How Za’atari became a city

“They’re Syrians, after all. What did you expect?”

This is the mantra being passed around among humanitarian aid specialists, NGO representatives, UN personnel and other people working with Syrian refugees in Jordan. It’s the reason given to explain that the largest, and for all intents and purposes only, refugee camp in Jordan looks more like a city than the destitute camp in the middle of the desert that it actually is.

Zaatari… from The Levant Post – Jordan

Zaatari Overview:

  • Population: 70,000 ish. Everyone has a different figure, but that’s about the average.
  • Main industry: Trade in subsidised commodities (for example, a blanket that cost 12 JD – equivalent of USD$16 – outside the camp was distributed to refugees for free and is now being sold at an enormous profit for 2 JD – i.e. USD$3).
  • Central thoroughfare: A row of tents with little shops set up in front of them, now the ubiquitous Arab souq, or market. There is little you can not procure.
  • Social issues: No one is quite sure exactly how bad domestic violence and sexual harassment has become inside the camp, but chances are that it’s pretty bad; hundreds of restless unemployed teenage boys adds potential for delinquency.
  • Tourist attractions: Women’s sewing groups set up by NGOs which are now producing beautiful pieces of embroidery; the local school which was occupied by refugees when their tents flooded; children walking around in tattered clothing.
  • How to get there: Actually, you’re better off not trying. I never got to Zaatari: I went to the nearest town, about 8 km from the camp, but was told that you can’t get into the camp if you don’t have permission or a fantastically flirtatious smile. My odds were better with permission, but those odds weren’t high.

Well, countless people have found ways around the system. Fake permissions? Men with flirtatious smiles? Or perhaps men find that money does what a smile does for a woman… Anyway, Jordanian merchants come and go, trading in commodities. They bring in the products that are not being distributed in the camps: spices for cooking, battery-operated electronics, makeup for the girls. And they leave with ridiculously cheap blankets and gas for space heaters, no doubt with UN or NGO emblems still plastered in visible places.

I think it’s fantastic (except for the very worrying social issues mentioned above), and if Syrians refugees are going to be stereotyped, I’m glad their reputation is of entrepreneurial folk who make the best out of a bad situation.

a veggie shop in Zaatari, from article at

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