Photos: In The World's Second-Largest Refugee Camp, Syrians 'Live Day By Day'

Feb 1, 2017

About 8 miles from the Syrian border in Jordan is the world's second-largest refugee camp. The sprawling temporary city is home to about 80,000 Syrians who fled their country’s civil war.

Hastily erected in 2012 to take in the massive wave of men, women and children from the north, the Zaatari refugee camp, which covers about 2 square miles, has evolved and morphed into a quasi-temporary city.

It's also become Jordan’s fourth-largest city.

Mohammed Al-Taher, a liaison officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stands in front of a colorful map of the camp on his office wall.

“Over here is the oldest part of the camp,” he says, pointing to a much more densely-populated section where tents were first put up. “Over here are the newer areas." Less mud, he says, and the families have more room.

While Zaatari was initially a tent city, today refugees live in what are called caravans – one-room, prefabricated housing units that measure 16 feet by 9.5 feet. Newer models have a small kitchen and toilet and measure 23 feet by 11 feet, and families with more children get more caravans.

While families do have access to water, there’s only cold water. Portable gas or propane heaters are used in the winter. Electricity costs are so high that power only comes on from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The Zaatari camp is home to about 80,000 Syrians (nearly double the population of Burlington, Vt.) living in one-room, prefabricated buildings with limited access to electricity.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

One woman, a mother of five, invited me into her home for coffee and sweets and showed me her kitchen. She remarked how much she missed the modern appliances of her former life.

“I cook all my meals here,” she told me through an interpreter, pointing to a propane burner on the floor and a sink with a small single faucet. Red fringed curtains hung over the single window.

Leaving her small dwelling, I made my way through the mud to the main market street — a sensory overload of bicycles, small trucks, donkey carts, foot traffic and kids, everywhere clusters of kids. Many ran up to me asking to have their pictures taken.

Nearly 80 children are born every week in the Zaatari refugee camp, and children take classes at one of the camp's 16 schools.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Zaatari has 16 schools, most operating in double shifts. There are 27 community centers, two grocery stores and six sports fields, not to mention two field hospitals, nine primary health centers and a delivery unit.

“That’s important,” says Al-Taher, “because about 80 babies are born at the camp every week.”

"About 80 babies are born at the camp every week." — Mohammed Al-Taher, UNHCR liaison officer

To provide all the services required to support so many people, Al-Taher says the UNHCR works with 47 different nongovernmental organizations and agencies.

But, he says, shrugging his shoulders, “it’s not enough.”

After almost five years, it’s getting harder to find funding. Governments and aid agencies are feeling tapped out, and Jordan’s economy – like many in the region – is struggling, hurt by the years of war, conflict and closed borders.

Mohammed Al-Taher, a liaison officer with the UNHCR, points to a map of the camp on his office wall. While Zaatari was initially a tent city, today refugees live in one-room, prefabricated housing units called caravans.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Al-Taher wouldn’t estimate how much it cost to run the camp, saying those figures are very hard to quantify. The nongovernmental groups that help them don’t like to share their financial data, he says, and the number and needs of refugees have fluctuated over the last several years.

In 2013, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office in Amman estimated the cost of running Zaatari at $500,000 a day. But in the years since, that’s likely ballooned.

What the facts and figures don’t tell you is that Ayman Alshouly found love in the camp. A farmer in Syria, he fled the violence four years ago and met his wife in Zaatari. They now have two children, and he sells shoes at a small shop in the camp.

Ayman Alshouly sells shoes at a small shop in the camp. A farmer in Syria, he fled the violence four years ago and met his wife in Zaatari camp.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Two doors down, Aminay Alhassal, a 31-year-old mother of three, may have found peace at Zaatari. She runs a shop that sells children's and baby clothes. Her 2-year-old son sits on a large cushion behind the counter.

Speaking through an interpreter, she says that she fled Syria to protect her children.

“I work, I go home,” she says. “Every day, same thing.”

But she says her children are with her most days, and they’re safe: "It’s enough for now.”

"I work, I go home. Every day, same thing ... It’s enough for now." — Aminay Alhassal, 31-year-old mother of three

I hear something similar from Mohammed Kenawy.

He’s lived in Zaatari for four years and has a bustling vegetable and fruit stand. It’s the same line of work he was in back in Syria, and he talks to me as he rings up sales of apples, oranges and cauliflower.

Mohammed Kenawy, who has lived in Zaatari for four years, stands in front of his bustling vegetable and fruit stand.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

He waves to a fellow refugee who’s driving a donkey cart past his shop loaded with produce. Others who pass by call out greetings.

Kenawy lives in the camp with his wife and three children. He’s lucky, he says: Business is good. But he admits he no longer dreams about tomorrow. He says that’s too hard for a refugee.

Speaking through an interpreter, he says, “We live day-by-day. God be praised, we are safe. That is all I can ask for today.”

Laundry on a clothes line dries in the wind at the Zaatari refugee camp.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

In one of the oldest parts of the camp, Mohammed Alahmed invites me into his home to meet his family. I take off my shoes, which are caked with mud and leave them in an entryway. Laundry hangs from a line overhead and the floor is ice cold under my feet.

Inside one of his caravans, we sit on flat cushions. His wife smiles and serves strong coffee in tiny cups while his children quietly watch as I get out my recording equipment.

A look inside the kitchen area of Mohammed Alahmed's caravan. Ahahmed shares the caravan with his wife and five children.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Alahmed is a former police officer and a father of five. He tells me he fled to Jordan after the Free Syrian Army kidnapped him and threatened to kill him if he stayed.

While we talk his youngest daughter, who is about 2 years old, crawls onto his lap. He looks down at her and smiles. The safety of the refugee camp is everything, he says, but he admits it’s taken years to come to grips with living in limbo.

Laundry hangs out to dry inside Mohammed Alhamed's caravan. When he and his family first arrived at the Zaatari refugee camp in 2012, people lived in tents.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

“When we first came here, the situation was tragic,” Alahmed says. “I came here on the sixth of November 2012, and everything was tents. And I would sit by myself in the tent and cry away from my family. But the situation has started to develop. We’ve gotten caravans and services and thank God, the situation today is not bad.”

"We've gotten caravans and services and thank God, the situation today is not bad." — Mohammed Alahmed, a former police officer and father of five

Back on the main market street, Khaleel Al Harery sees my microphone and invites me into his friend’s shop. He’s a singer who fled Syria four years ago.

“I do weddings and parties for kids,” he says through an interpreter. “Dress up as a clown — whatever it takes to make people smile.” He launches into song, and asks me if I can help him find work in America. He tells me about his five kids and lets me take his picture outside on his bicycle.

Khaleel Al Harery, a father of five, says he left Syria four years ago. Now, he works as a singer and entertainer in the Zaatari refugee camp.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

As I thank him and start to leave, he reaches out to stop me.

I want to thank you for following up on our stories and listening to us, he says. It’s important for people to understand.

Updated 2/8/2017 11:30 a.m. to include more stories and photos from the refugee camp.

Support for this coverage is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.