Zaatari: Jordan’s Fourth Largest City

Bustling bazaars, schools, hospitals, clothing stores and coffee shops. Sounds like the average Middle Eastern city, however this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jordan’s fourth largest populated city is actually a refugee camp established by the Jordanian government.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Zaatari is a temporary home to 81,000 Syrian refugees, who are trying to find a sense of normalcy, with one third of the children attending school and most others taking up work. Most documentaries providing an insight into the lives of Syrian refugees tend to be about Zaatari as it is the largest Syrian refugee camp and because its inhabitants are amazing people trying to do amazing things.

A bustling business in Zaatari. Photo via Wilson Fache

Safwan Harb came to Zaatari four years ago and found that it was difficult to navigate around the camp due to his disabilities. In a clip recorded by the BBC, he conveyed that he has to be intuitive and creative if he wants to have a good life, particularly in his current situation. His ingenuity led him to create a vehicle made from a bike and other spare parts he found, giving freedom of movement to those with disabilities.

A group of children have taken to documenting their lives in the camp through photography. Mohammad Nour, 16, says that he wants to show people’s lives “in the camp in the morning and in the evening”. However, this isn’t the only project that occupies his time. He loves to play football and although he acknowledges that his dream to play professionally is an almost impossible one, he continues to play within the camp. Other children have painted scenes on the prefab buildings and tents: bright blue skies, multi-coloured hand prints, trees, flowers and peace signs — symbols for hope, freedom and peace; an escape from the unforgiving realities of war.

Photo via European Commission DG ECHO

Women are increasingly gaining a voice in the camp via women’s issues columns in the newly created Zaatari magazine, The Road. Khaldieh Ali, 18, writes articles to show the world that Syrians have dreams and ambitions. She also said that the magazine has helped to combat complicated disagreements in her community, including child marriage and harassment. This teenage girl, and many others like her, are deprived of their education and so try their best to make changes within their mini-society. The magazine itself has provided many opportunities for aspiring journalists, writers and broadcasters within the camp and is believed to be a step closer to conquering the massive disputes in Syria.

Another way in which the Zaatari locals are coping with their situation is by preserving their traditions. Weddings are an effective way of doing this. Musa and Muntaha are two youngsters who are determined to prove that life goes on, despite their situation, by getting married. They met in the camp and didn’t know each other in Syria. Theirs is a heart-warming story of finding love in tragic circumstances: Musa liked Muntaha’s personality and asked her father for her hand. His family bought Muntaha a wedding dress and Musa even built a dressing-table for her in his prefab to help welcome her into his home. Staying true to Syrian customs, Musa celebrated with his friends and family whilst his bride enjoyed her last day at home, painting henna and spending time with her family. It goes to show that their time in this camp, although hoped to be temporary, is actually a means to continue with life before returning to their homeland.

Keeping up traditions. Photo via Josep Pons i Busquet

These are just a few short yet powerful stories of the Zaatari camp refugees. They are all very aware that this is not their home, but there is something awe-inspiring about their determination to create a sense of stability and constancy for themselves in this makeshift city.

Featured image via Dustin Mennie