This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post: http://www.theatlanticpost.com/middle-east/jordan-middle-east/zaatari-jordans-new-city-syrians-6160.html
By Justin Salhani
ZAATARI, Jordan – Countless tents scattered over a plot in the northern Jordanian desert are being replaced with caravans, as this camp built for displaced Syrians continues to evolve into a city in its own right.
Zaatari refugee camp, located 10 km east of the northern Jordanian city Mafraq, was opened on June 28, 2012 to host a small portion of the thousands of refugees flowing over Syria’s southern border due to the increasing intensity of the civil war. To date, more than 120,000 people have been killed in the vicious conflict and millions have become displaced. Nearly 570,000 Syrians have sought sanctuary in Jordan.
While the number of refugees in Zaatari is currently around 80,000 according to UNHCR officials who run the camp, their data-keeping website puts the figure at over 117,300. Ninety percent of the refugees hail from Daraa in southwest Syria. The figures are unlikely to grow by much as the Jordanian government has began limiting the number of refugees it allows across its borders to around 200-250 each day, a stark decrease from the daily thousand. The previously uninhabited stretch of desert has grown so massive that it is now Jordan’s fifth largest city and even appears on Google Maps.
“We are doing more planning and looking to connect with the local government to find ways to provide services,” said Killian Kleinschmidt, UNHCR’s senior field coordinator at Zaatari. Kleinschmidt, a veteran in dealing with refugees from many of the world’s hot zones over the last two decades, says that current plans for the camp are more akin to city planning – something he is experiencing for the first time.
One way UNHCR is trying to expand in Zaatari involves looking into more effective ways to distribute water and electricity. Currently, Kleinschmidt says 73 percent of the refugees have illegally connected electricity which costs UNHCR half a million dollars each month. Kleinschmidt and UNHCR are looking into ways to empower the refugees so they earn their own money and can afford to pay for such services. They are also contemplating a camp-wide plumbing system.
“We need to do more than just keep them alive,” said Kleinschmidt, adding that he believes by empowering refugees they can regain some of the dignity that has been lost by losing their homes and being forced to live off handouts. The strategy seems to be working, says Kleinschmidt.
“People used to get angry when the electricity collapsed,” he said about the electrical grid’s inability to support all the illegally wired tents using electrical heaters during colder nights. “Now they understand that a proper connection is needed.”
Kleinschmidt said that one thing UNHCR is trying to instill in the refugees in Zaatari is a sense of order.
“We are putting a frame because there is a rejection of governance and they don’t respect administration or rules. We bring that frame back otherwise there is chaos… [This frame is] important for the future of Syria,” he said.
Kleinschmidt says one example of the progress made is apparent from parents’ reaction to their children’s’ actions. “Children lost their bearings because adults used to laugh when they’d throw stones but now the adults get angry at the kids.”
But with the progress also comes potential problems. “The Jordanian government is nervous,” said Kleinschmidt. The Jordanians will remember back to the civil war in 1970, in what is known as Black September, between Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and King Hussein’s Jordanian Armed Forces. The refugee Palestinians and Hashemite Kindgom’s forces engaged in a ten-month conflict that killed thousands, mostly Palestinians, and resulted in the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon.
The situation is made all the more worrying for the Jordanians considering developments in Syria, where a nearly three year long war shows no signs of abating. Refugees initially set up in Zaatari’s tents with an aim to return to Syria in the short term but that notion has recently changed.
“At first I wanted to go back quickly but now we know we’ll be here a long time,” said an imam called Abu Walid from Daraa’s Sanamayn region.
Many of the refugees in Zaatari have accepted their circumstances and started trying to make their plots of land more homey by constructing gardens, hanging birdcages, and planting trees outside their tents or caravans. Abu Walid’s neighbors have laid the ground for gardens that will sprout vegetables after winter and built large handmade fountains that will add a bit of blue to the dusty, rock-strewn Jordanian countryside. Kleinschmidt says that 70-90 percent of homes in Zaatari have also recently erected private toilets.
The Tareeq al-Souq (Shop Street), which has alternately been labeled the Champs Élysées of Zaatari after Paris’s famous strip, has sprouted 685 shops that may bring in an income of anywhere between $5,000-15,000 each month, according to Kleinschmidt. Here residents can find a plethora of offerings, including Syrian delicacies like the deep fried chickpea patties called falafel, chicken or meat kabob called shawarma, or roasted chicken. Other shops sell mobile phones, rugs, furniture, shoes, teddy bears, and a wide collection of other accoutrements. The street also boasts such luxuries as butchers and computer shops, where the camp’s youth play video games.
Despite the urbanization of the area, there will come a day when the war subsides and many Syrians decide to return home. But some refugees who have established themselves economically may decide not to uproot their lives once again.
“They are keen and eager to go back but some business people might stay and contribute to Jordan’s economy,” said Kleinschmidt. With infrastructure already in place and some businesses established, a handful of Syrians may choose to continue residing in Zaatari, while Jordanians in lower economic classes potentially could vacate lots left by the returning Syrians. Even if the Syrian war were to end there is a high chance that Zaatari, the city, could live on.
“Syrians who directly invest in Jordan will have a positive impact,” said Kleinschmidt. “Most will go, some will stay.”
Justin Salhani is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon Correspondent, based in Beirut.