Inside Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp

Three Syrian entrepreneurs in a burgeoning refugee camp tell Al Jazeera about their lives and struggles.

Zaatari refugee camp
Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is home to about 41,000 refugees from Syria [Reuters]

Al Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan – Ahmed Al Nuaimi comes from the outskirts of Deraa in southern Syria. There, he sold items meant to put people at ease – hookah pipes, coffee, and tea. He rode around on his motorcycle peddling his wares.

This summer, he and his family fled ongoing violence in Syria to neighbouring Jordan, ending up in Al Zaatari camp, 15 kilometres from the border. More than 200,000 other Syrians have made a similar journey across the border since March 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad began.

More Syrians have fled to Jordan than to any other country. Zaatari is now the largest camp for these refugees in the world, and it’s growing by the day.

With winter temperatures dipping and no end in sight to Syria’s civil war, the camp’s population has surpassed 41,000, according to the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation. New tents and prefabricated housing units will soon be occupied by thousands more families.

Shelter is provided to camp residents by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR), the food is donated by the World Food Programme, and other basic needs are supplied by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco, among others. However, basic needs are not always enough, especially for a population accustomed to a more urban lifestyle like that in Deraa, which a majority of the camp’s population calls home.

Few people are able to reclaim a livelihood in this city of tents. The employment schemes put forward by aid agencies struggle to keep even a few hundred people working, let alone tens of thousands.

Yet Ahmed Al Nuaimi arrived in Zaatari and did just that, opening the camp’s first coffee shop.

At Al Nuaimi Café, he has resumed his role as a dispenser of simple pleasures. Customers come into his tarpaulin-lined shop, park themselves on aid-agency-supplied foam mattresses, and order the tea or coffee of their choice.

When the power supply allows it, they have access to satellite TV. He has even managed to wangle a candy floss machine for younger clientele.

He’s not the only one. Over the last four months, with thousands of new camp residents have come dozens of business ventures like his – falafel stands, clothing stores, barbershops and more.

Generally speaking, these camp entrepreneurs are grateful to be in a safe place, and able to make a living when so many others they know aren’t as lucky.

The UN has encouraged the growth of this camp economy, welcoming the sense of community that these ventures provide. As the UNHCR’s representative to Jordan, Andrew Harper, notes, “this is also a sign that people are taking responsibility for their lives. They’re not becoming so dependent on the international community to provide that assistance”.

But not every entrepreneur says they had a choice. Abdel Nasser Al Zoabi is one vendor who would rather not hawk items on the street. He says the poor quality of camp services and food has forced him to sell cleaning supplies and plastic wares.

“I have four children and I’m unable to even afford shoes for them,” Zoabi says.

While a few residents have managed to find some semblance of the life they had before fleeing Syria, the reality for most in the camp is one of poverty.

As it grows, the expansion of this camp economy may begin to create more problems than it solves. Aid agencies want to encourage a sense of community, but not one of permanency. 

Listen to what a café owner, a street vendor, and a shopkeeper told Al Jazeera about their journeys to the camp, and what it takes to operate a business in Zaatari:

Ahmed – cafe owner


Ahmed led his family out of Deraa after their house was burned down. After arriving in Zaatari, he opened a coffee shop which became very popular. The fact that he sells Syrian coffee and accepts various currencies definitely helps.

“I left because of the bombing, because my house was burnt down. Now I’m a wanted man. This was my job in Syria; hookah pipes, coffee and tea. I used to sell them from my motorbike. I decided to open up here. I was the first to open a café in Al Zaatari. I named it ‘Al Nuaimi’ after my family name. Our prices are quite reasonable. We work with Syrian pounds and Jordanian dinars.

“There are many customers in the evening. During the day, it’s pretty quiet. At night things get busy. I have nine hookah pipes and all of them will be in use.”

Nael – clothing seller

Nael lived in Dubai for twenty years before moving back to Syria, just before the uprising began. When he fled the country with his family, they left with few material possessions. Shortly after arriving in the camp, he opened a clothing store to provide additional income for his family.

“We were here from the beginning. The situation in Syria is bad. … We didn’t have any material possessions. So we opened up this shop. It’s better than relying on others. Things got better. We’re working now. We only want for a few things. Housing, heating, products for the children. Hopefully, things will become better still and we will be able to go back to our country very soon and not need anything else.

Abdel Nasser – street vendor

Abdel Nasser sells cleaning supplies and other plastic wares in the souq, but not by choice. He says conditions in the camp are unbearable and he must sell what he can just to supplement the rations he’s given.

“180 states in the United Nations are responsible for us here. Our children are dying of cold. Give everyone a blanket. The dust is killing us. When wintry weather comes along, the ground turns to swamps. In addition to this, the facilities are really bad. We are opening stalls here and this is what we sell. I make two dinars a day with which I buy bread, because the United Nations doesn’t even give me bread for my children. The bread they do give me isn’t even enough for me. I have four children.

“I’ve been here for three and a half months. Ever since I arrived, my children haven’t been well. They’re ill every day. We go to the hospitals. I wait for five hours for my turn to come and at the end of it all they give you medicine that doesn’t work for children. This stall you can all see, I have it to make enough money to buy bread but it’s not enough.”

Follow Andrew Chappelle and Neil Collier on Twitter: @andrewchappelle and @neilcollier

Source: Al Jazeera