Unsure of when they will be able to return as the conflict continues, the Syrian refugees who have found sanctuary at Jordan’s Zataari Camp are making new lives. In the sprawling city of tents and containers in the desert, children are born and marriages cemented every single day. For a population stranded away from home, these are small seeds of hope in a time of war.
Having covered stories of refugees around the world over nearly two decades, Zaatari Camp in Jordan puts a different face on what a crisis should look like. Far from languishing in the desert to wait out the ongoing conflict, the 120,000 Syrian refugees at Zaatari have mobilised themselves. Facing up to what is a protracted situation, they are getting by day to day in what has become a new temporary city across the frontier. These threads of new lives that are weaving together the community in Zaatari compelled me to look beyond the surface, to try and tell a more sensitive and positive narrative of the people I came to meet.
The infrastructure that props up what has in effect become one of Jordan’s biggest cities is vast but in some ways under-whelming, simply because the refugees have made it work for them. Although the ubiquitous UNHCR canvas tents fragment the landscape, “caravans” dominate much of the site. Flat-pack homes, re-assembled and craned in, get quickly repositioned lending a more settled look. Cobbled together into units for extended families, they are adorned with porticos and artwork. Curtains are being put up, flooring down and even in some cases, indoor kitchens and bathrooms are being installed.
The main Sharia Souq (Market Street) throngs with activity. Tailors are back at work, stitching the window dressings and bedcovers for a population making the best of what they have. Amid the falafel stalls and supermarkets, a handful of colourful coiffures and boutiques cater for the burgeoning number of weddings at the camp.
On my first day in Zaatari I met Seba, a dynamic twenty-year-old mother and businesswoman at her shop who has revitalised and expanded the salon she ran in Syria and now supports her entire family. “At first we thought that we would just be in Jordan for a month or so but things in Syria are falling apart and now it looks as if we will be here for a long time. We came with only a little money and so after a month, I decided to invest everything into my new business. I bought a caravan and fifteen dresses and now I cater to around five to ten weddings a week in the camp. It costs twelve dinars for bridal hair and make-up and fifteen dinars to rent a dress”.
Weddings in refugee camps should not be a surprise; the Afghans in Pakistan have been displaced for thirty years and of course life moves on. In Zaatari however, the numbers of young couples looking to cement their lives together in the desert was overwhelming. Covered in glitter in backless dresses with muddy hems, the brides stood out as roses but their pared back celebrations were tinged with distant memories. As a group of women and young girls danced around in a tent to music from a battery powered cassette player, matriarch Hanin sat shedding tears, “The people from Syria are strong; we are survivors. Six men in our family have died in the fighting and the bride’s brother Mustafa was recently killed. This wedding is not just a marriage but a day to remove some of sadness that is in our hearts”.
Along with the hundreds of new arrivals who register at the camp’s gates every morning, new lives come into the world in Zaatari each day. Pregnant women who have fled their homes in Syria, making the difficult journey to safety, deliver their babies at Zaatari’s small women’s clinic with a huge sense of relief. Despite being born as refugees, for them, their children are survivors. Overjoyed at the birth of her triplet girls, Zainab saw no other choice but to escape for the sake of her family’s future, “It is a miracle to have three babies born here in Zataari. If the triplets had been born in Syria then they would be dead; there are no doctors these days or even milk”.
For me, Zaatari was also hopefully a beginning. Cameras are viewed with great suspicion by the Syrian refugees. Fear of being identified by the regime, being used by the media or seen as a tool that can bring disrespect, making images cannot be taken for granted. I never walked with my camera; perhaps something which five years in culturally sensitive Pakistan has taught me. I worked quietly making friends along the way and for a brief time, shared intimate moments with the very resilient people I met.
© Alixandra Fazzina, Jordan, January 2014