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: