Editorial

Syria's war: Inside Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp

For almost 80,000 Syrians that fled the war, the camp is home. Almost 60 percent of the camp's population is under-24.

At its peak, Zaatari housed around 150,000 Syrian refugees, becoming the fourth-largest city in Jordan. Now, the refugee camp houses around 79,000 Syrians and is divided into 12 districts. The camp is only around 12km from the Syrian border. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR]

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.

Mobile users click here to view the documentary.

The main market road in Zaatari refugee camp is nicknamed the Champs-Elysees after the infamous avenue in Paris, France. Filled with produce markets, small falafel restaurants, and even wedding dress stores, the road has become symbolic of the resilience of Syrian refugees and the entrepreneurship that can be found in the camp. Zaatari’s informal market comprises of approximately 3,000 informal shops and businesses. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Ali, left, and Yousef are brothers. Ali, 20, received training from an NGO to develop his hair-cutting skills, after which he opened his own shop. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Ali at work in his barbershop. He hopes to return to Syria one day, reunite with the rest of his family and open a barbershop. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Nisreen, left, and Najat are best friends who met at the Zaatari refugee camp. Both are 16 years old and do everything together. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Najat laughs with her great-grandfather outside his home. They fled to Zaatari refugee camp from Daraa, Syria, in 2012, when Najat was just 11. Now, nearly six years later, Najat dreams of becoming a pharmacist so she 'can give everything [she has] to making Syria better'. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Tabarak, 16, arrived at the camp almost five years ago. 'When we arrived, we weren’t used to this kind of life. We were living in tents – our old home in Syria had four rooms, a large living room and a balcony. We were happy in our home. But here, we adapted. Now in our caravan, we have two rooms.' [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Tabarak has lunch with her family. 'When my parents told me that we were going to Jordan, I thought we were just moving from building to building. But when we arrived, our home was a big tent with lots of people.' [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] A new generation of Syrians is growing up within the refugee camp. Around 57 percent of the population is under 24 with almost 20 percent under five. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] This is the house of a young Syrian teenager, Mohammed. Many homes inside Zaatari now have gardens and welcoming areas outside of their caravans made through scrap metal and other material. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Yousef, 16, loves football and wants to become a sports journalist. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR] Abu Talal lives with his wife, his children and grandchildren in Zaatari. He has expanded his caravan into a compound that he shares with his family. Over the years, he has grown a vegetable garden, acquired pigeons, multiple geese and a beautiful fountain. [Joi Lee/Contrast VR]