Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan – Hamdan sits on a thin mat in his small, white caravan in the Jordanian desert. His daughter crawls onto his lap, tugging on his sleeve to get his attention, while his wife stirs a pot of coffee, smiling as her children peep inside the room from behind a curtain.
Outside, the sun is beating down on endless rows of caravans cobbled together. Located just 13 kilometres from the Syrian border in northern Jordan, Zaatari is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.
Hamdan is one of the roughly 81,000 Syrians that call the camp home.The family fled from Khirbet Ghazalah, a town in southern Syria, two-and-a-half years ago.
“I thought we were going to stay here for a month – two at most – to wait until things calm down,” Hamdan said. Yet, as the civil war enters its fifth year, thousands of families are losing hope that they will return home anytime soon.
The family of nine now shares a cramped, 19-square-metre space, leaving them with little to no privacy. “I know that things can’t go back to the way they were, but I want my dignity back,” said Hamdan, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals against his remaining family members in Syria.
Although they found safety from the violence raging in Syria, many living in Zaatari feel stuck in limbo, spending their days idly, confined to the camp and uncertain when, if ever, they will be able to return home.
Jordan, a small country of just eight million people, has taken in 628,175 Syrian refugees so far – more than the entire European Union has taken in over last year. “Over time, many realised they will be here for a long time,” said Nasreddine Touaibia, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Zaatari.
Humanitarian organisations are facing funding cuts. Refugees inside camps get food and shelter, whereas refugees living in urban areas face even more dire prospects, as they have to pay for bills with few to no sources of income.
Nasreddine Touaibia, Zaatari's UNHCR spokesperson
What started as a temporary tent settlement for a few hundred Syrian refugees on a barren piece of land in July 2012 has quickly grown into an informal city, with schools, hospitals, playgrounds and mosques.
Schools and clinics were built with funding from Gulf states, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Sturdier caravans have now replaced tents, and the oldest parts of the camp now have streets, a few of which are even paved.
The sprawling camp, which is divided into 12 districts across 13 square kilometres, is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by police and military.
Refugees cannot leave without permission. If they want to move to a city elsewhere in the country, they need a Jordanian sponsor guaranteeing financial support – a condition that leaves many stuck in the camp.
Zaatari’s transformation happened quickly, and the bustling street nicknamed “Champs Elysees” has become the centre of the camp’s economic activity. A man juggles hundreds of eggs on his wheelbarrow as he weaves his way past donkey carts, people and cars on the dusty main road.
Refugees sell vegetables, kebabs, homemade ice cream, mobile phones, bridal gowns and perfumes in small shacks.
“This spirit of entrepreneurialism shows their resilience as they are facing an uncertain future,” said Touaibia of the flourishing markets. Zaatari is home to about 2,500 unauthorised shops, and according to the UNHCR, the camp’s economy generates about 10 million Jordanian dinars ($14.2m) a month.
Refugees also receive 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) per person every month from the World Food Programme (WFP) on debit cards to buy food, giving them more self-determination. “It’s about dignity,” said Touaibia. “It’s not up to us at NGOs to tell refugees what they should eat every day. Giving them debit cards so they can make their own decisions is a step forward to give them more freedom and control.”
Groups of children run across the Champs Elysees on their way home from school, their blue and red backpacks bouncing up and down.
For some, Zaatari is the only home they have ever known. Around 80 children are born in the camp each week, according to UNHCR, and 57 percent of the population is under the age of 18. Zaatari has nine schools, all operating on a double shift basis, with girls studying in the morning and boys in the afternoon.
Two schools were opened on Tuesday, as NGOs are trying to prioritise the need for education for the next generation of Syrians.
Hamdan’s son Ahmed, 12, goes to the Bahraini high school, which was built through funding from the state of Bahrain. There are currently few opportunities beyond secondary education, but NGOs are working to set up scholarships so that high school graduates can attend local universities.
However, one in every three children in Zaatari does not go to school at all, according to the UNHCR. “In the beginning, parents thought there’s no point in sending their kids to school because they thought they were going back to Syria within a few months,” Touaibia said.
“Now, often the choice of working and earning money outweighs the choice of going to school.” According to the UNHCR, 13 percent of Zaatari’s children are engaged in child labour, mostly at the camp’s market.
Over time, Zaatari’s residents have cobbled together their own society and communities. Many families, who know each other from Deraa, Homs or Damascus, are now neighbours in Zaatari.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees living outside of Zaatari are increasingly struggling to make ends meet, and many depend almost entirely on humanitarian assistance to survive. According to the UNHCR, 86 percent of them live below the Jordanian poverty line of $95 per capita per month.
Special Series – Life on Hold
This month, the WFP had to drop 229,000 refugees in Jordan, who live outside the camp, from its food assistance programme because of a funding shortfall.
“For some people, the cuts in food assistance are simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, as refugees have been withstanding significant reductions in all forms of humanitarian assistance this year, not just food,” said Dina el-Kassaby of the WFP.
Conditions for refugees are so dire in some host communities that tens of thousands are considering returning to Syria or fleeing to Europe in search of a better future, the UN has warned. “The refugee camps are only the tip of the iceberg,” warned Touaibia.
“Humanitarian organisations are facing funding cuts. Refugees inside camps get food and shelter, whereas refugees living in urban areas face even more dire prospects, as they have to pay for bills with few to no sources of income.”
“Winter is coming,” he added. “It will be harsh for refugees everywhere, but especially for the most vulnerable ones who live in poverty with no means to support themselves and their families.”
Abdul Hakim al-Refa’e, 30, wants to leave the camp. He fled Deraa with his wife two years ago. They have a nine-month-old boy, who was born inside the camp. “I don’t want my boy to grow up here,” he said. “I want to give him a future. We can’t live here forever, in a place that isn’t our home, waiting for a day that might never come.”
Yet, while he wants to go to Europe, his wife wants to move back to Syria, even though the civil war, in which 220,000 people have lost their lives already, is far from over.
Although they have a small child, she thinks returning to Syria would be less dangerous than risking the perilous journey to Europe, on which thousands of refugees have lost their lives. “The trip is expensive, and in Europe, we’d be even further away from our real home,” Refa’e said.
Every day around 120 people in Zaatari decide to return to Syria, and 120,000 people have done so since the camp was established, according to the UNHCR. Many do so because they want to be with their families and because they do not see a future in Jordan.
To be able to leave the camp, they have to apply with the Jordanian authorities inside Zaatari for an exit permit. Many refugees say that processing their applications often takes more than 10 days.
“The older generation of Syrians are broken because of the war,” said Hamdan. Yet they are all united by one thought: “I hope that one day soon, we can go back to a Syria at peace so that my children can grow up in their home country.”