By ARDD-Legal Aid intern Guido Takkenberg
Wednesday the 19th of December was the day I went to visit Zaatari Camp and a day I will not soon forget. After a short briefing by my colleagues about the camp, what to expect, and what I can and cannot photograph, we headed for the infamous camp an hour or so drive away from the capital Amman. With more than 120,000 Syrian refugees and many more coming in each night it was hard to get my head around the idea of Zaatari being the second largest refugee camp in the world, after Dadaab camp in Kenya.
From a distance the camp with its tents and caravans looks like white sand in the empty plains of the northern Jordanian landscape. I entered the camp excited to observe through the eye of my lens but ended up facing the hard truths and hearing the devastating stories of the refugees themselves. I left thankfully aware of the situation yet with a completely new perspective of issues I had originally not even noticed and not respected at all. I was once again humbled and charmed by the hospitality of Syrians who welcomed me with open arms into their homes.
Driving up to the main gate, my first impressions matched my expectations of a large overpopulated camp. As we drove up to a second gate we passed countless young males and school-aged boys walking alongside the road who strolled aimlessly with wheelchairs playing around. I was told they use them to move around goods around the camp for a small fee. At first I was cheered up by the eye of my camera’s lens, but I was quickly met with sharp eyes as people fiercely looked at the camera. Then I recalled that it’s better not to take photos from inside the car and proceeded to hide my camera.
There are large numbers of Syrians entering into Jordan over the Syrian-Jordanian border, which stretches nearly 400 km. They face a tough journey to get any aid at all. Some people with contacts or relatives in Jordan leave the camp in hope of a better life but many also stay in Zaatari even when they have a choice as life outside the camp requires an income which they cannot attain. The majority of Syrians have witnessed a lot of violence and trauma and some were even subject to torture or were wounded. The refugees were transported into Zaatari camp and received food and services, but only after they made the long journey to the border safely.
The main entrance into the camp leads into the market street of Zaatari which I later found out is referred to as “Champs-Elysées”. Driving down this street it was hard to comprehend that I was in a refugee camp. It reminded me of the Souq in Damascus. You get to see so many businesses; restaurants, barber shops, clothing shops, food and vegetables, mobile phone shops, internet cafes, even bridal shops and billiard clubs, where refugees play pool and young men gather. All of which were set up by the refugees to create a living breathing community. There are over 700 shops that UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) is aware of at this moment in time.
But is it only the refugees’ trading skills that drive these changes and these developments in the camp? The impression you get in the camp is that people also want to make the place feel more like home. They don’t only need the money, but the job as well, and that’s because they don’t want to feel displaced and really just want to go on with their lives.
With refugees starting to realize that the conflict in Syria is far from being over and their wish of returning far from coming true, they are at the same time starting to develop their shelters in the camp as if they were living at home, as frankly this is their new home. I was surprised by the huge difference between the people that had been living in the camp for a few months and those that had been there since the camp opened; almost a year and a half ago. The refugees who had arrived most recently were crowded in tents housing 10 people, whereas those who had been there longer had caravans and even electricity that they connected themselves from the camp’s main electricity lines.
I was happy to see that no snow had fallen in the camp but could not imagine how the people in tents and people in the camp got through the terrible rain last week and the extreme temperatures. There were clearly still some parts of the camp completely muddy from the rain.
All in all my experience at Zaatari camp was breathtaking and one I shall hold with me for a long time to come. I feel lucky to have been able to visit the camp and the people living there, and have this eye opening experience at such a young age.