Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan – Dusty, arid and unforgiving: Jordan’s desert that houses the Zaatari refugee camp was previously unoccupied.
As the Syrian war escalated, the camp emerged almost overnight, housing the Syrians fleeing the violence.
The camp is located about 2km from the Syrian border and was initially a cluster of UNHCR-branded white tents that did little to shelter the refugees from the harsh summer.
Today, it has expanded into a world of its own, transformed into a city-like settlement that houses around 80,000 people.
“When we first arrived, we weren’t used to this kind of life. We lived in tents, and people also sold basic necessities in their tents. There were no accessories, only the basics like shampoo. Now, things have developed,” said 16-year-old Tabarak.
Its infamous main market street, Champs-Elysees, has become a renowned symbol of Syrian resourcefulness and entrepreneurship.
Along the market, there exists a vibrant assortment of bird shops, cafes, clothes stores, produce markets, and small restaurants.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes economically. We, the Syrians, improved the camp and opened the market, and it became just like Al-Hamidiya market in Syria,” said another 16-year-old Najat.
The role of NGOs is so integrated into daily life that it is common to hear their names when Syrians discuss their schooling, their training programmes, art hobbies and food centres.
Inside, as many as four generations live under one roof, the youngest knowing nothing other than the camp confinements.
The teenagers growing up in Zaatari occupy a liminal space, where their memories of Syria are distant, but held close, through their families’ stories.
“My mother used to travel around Syria to cities like Aleppo, Idlib and Tartus. She wrote down her stories in a diary. She would tell us about the mills in Hama and what each city was famous for,” Najat said.
Using animations to illustrate their dreams, Dreaming in Zaatari: Stories After Syria, an immersive virtual-reality film, takes viewers into the lives of three Syrian teenagers in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.