new lives


Laid out neatly on a dressing table, a tiara, hair ornaments, lipsticks, eye shadows and mascara, cigarette lighters and a Quran sit on display at a beautician’s shop in Zaatari Camp’s Sharia Souq (Market Street). Run by twenty-year-old businesswoman Seba, the boutique has helped support her whole family since fleeing the war in Syria. © Alixandra Fazzina | NOOR

Located 12km from the Syrian border, Za’atari, opened with a few hundred refugees in July 2012, and now hosts around 120,000, making it the 2nd largest refugee camp in the world.
NOOR closed off 2013 and kicked off the New Year with a project in Za’atari, which included NOOR photographers Nina Berman, Andrea Bruce, Alixandra Fazzina and Stanley Greene.

In this blog Alixandra Fazzina – the winner of the prestigious UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award in 2010 for her striking coverage of the devastating human consequences of war – shares thoughts about the project and describes how the life in the camp, regardless of the hardship, moves on as babies are being born and weddings are organised.

“We might be here for the next year or maybe ten,” a former schoolteacher told me on the streets of Za’atari, “The Palestinian refugees laid down bricks and built towns. At some point soon that could be us”.

Having covered stories of refugees around the world over nearly two decades, Za’atari 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 Za’atari 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 Za’atari 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 Za’atari 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 Za’atari 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 Za’atari each day. Pregnant women who have fled their homes in Syria, making the difficult journey to safety, deliver their babies at Za’atari’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 Za’atari. If the triplets had been born in Syria then they would be dead; there are no doctors these days or even milk”.

For me, Za’atari 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.

As Noor’s project in Za’atari proved, photography is a great medium for engaging with communities. Aside from all the prints we gave out, I also hope we left as much behind as the stories we took with us.

©Alixandra Fazzina, Jordan, January 2014

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