The Refugees of Zaatari

Life in a camp for Syrians displaced by war

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Flickr.

The registration room at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has the look and feel of a Turkish members’ club on Kingsland Road in London. Mustached men sit behind desks and smoke all day. A steady stream of refugees files in and out, and the men deal with them with casual indifference. They come in every shape and size. Men, women, children and old people—blondes and brunettes, tall and short—the war doesn’t discriminate. They hold their papers the way one might hold a bomb: with great care. They have to prove that they are Syrian. When they catch the sight of me in the corner of the room, they always smile. I am sitting on a worn-out black leather sofa with an interpreter and my journalist friend, and we are watching the drama that is unfolding before us. 

Two women enter. A strikingly beautiful young woman holds the hand of an older companion who appears to be her guardian. They both look tired and resigned. The older woman pleads with one of the men. At least, I think she is pleading—I speak only a few words of Arabic. The man licks his fingers, then his lips, and begins to talk animatedly. The woman speaks over him. A few minutes later, both women leave. Our interpreter leans over and says: “They want to leave Zataari. She said that whatever happens, she’d rather deal with it in Syria than here.” 

Zaatari, the enormous refugee camp that houses displaced Syrians, is in the north of Jordan, about 70 km from Amman, the Jordanian capital. It is built on a desert and suffers hot days and cold nights. People live in the middle of this punishing weather. It’s the first thing I notice when I get out of the car. It’s windy, and the fine sand bombards my senses. I cough and my eyes hurt. I feel slightly gaudy when I put on my sunglasses—I don’t see many people wearing them. 

Like most people here, I have ended up at Zaatari accidentally. My journalist friend is writing about the camp and the plight of the refugees, and he needs a photographer. The fact that I have a decent camera qualifies me to come along. 

Outside the car, in the hazy, dusty morning, Zaatari stretches out before us like a bleak mirage. The tents and trailers go for miles, and national flags mark different sections of the camps. The Moroccan hospital seems particularly popular. 

Zaatari is essentially a town. For a town to work, people need to settle, invest and build communities. But no one settles here. Zaatari is a transitional town. People come by the hundreds, but hundreds more leave. The constant movement of refugees keeps the camp’s atmosphere critical most of the time, but it also keeps the population stable. On any given day, it’s home to roughly 80,000 refugees, making it one of Jordan’s largest cities. 

Zaatari has grown quickly, yet the worn-looking tents and trailers look as if they’ve been here forever. Few here expected the violence in Syria to escalate as much as it did. Most didn’t plan to emigrate, and their arrival caught aid agencies off guard. As a result, there is tension here: one cannot exist without the other, but there is no bargain between them that they can trust. The resentment is palpable.

• • •

In March of 2011, I wrote to a friend who lived in Damascus, asking whether he was affected by the demonstrations that were taking over Syria. The events unfolding there seemed to be a continuation of the Arab Spring. Another dictator was on the brink. The Assad dynasty had already held on to power in Syria for more than 40 years. Hafez al-Assad’s ruthless rule over Syria kept progress at arm’s length. This period of stagnation was punctuated by the ferocious trampling of any kind of opposition. When his son, Bashar, came into power in 2000, Syrians felt optimistic about what he might bring to Damascus from London, where he had lived and worked for a time. But 11 years later, little had changed, and the Syrian people were giving Bashar al-Assad clear signs that he should pay attention to their plight.

I watched Syrians on television marching on their streets, carrying olive branches and their children in dignified solidarity, asking for democratic reforms and freedom of speech. It seemed to me, from my far-away home in London, that Syria was coming into its own. I saw images of people singing, clapping and cheering. I felt a need to be there so that I could be part of this electric moment in history. But the peaceful demonstrations didn’t last long. Like any other dictator, Bashar al-Assad proved to be stubborn when it came to giving up power. His forces opened fire and began killing protestors. The situation turned especially tragic and horrific when bodies of children turned up castrated and tortured. The optimism of the Arab Spring was crushed under the weight of brutal violence.

The moral imperative for war disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared: violence, foreign meddling and divisive ideologies put an end to any claims of morality. Since they all have a stake in Syria, powerful foreign players have taken sides in the war. Syrians who stood up and demanded a better life for themselves—the early revolutionaries—are either dead or dying. The conflict has outgrown them and their hopes, and yet they continue to suffer its consequences. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than six million refugees have fled the country, and nearly seven million have become internally displaced.

• • •

The Syrian conflict has much in common with Afghanistan, a country that has suffered ongoing conflict for 40 years, driving millions of people out of their homes. In fact, Afghans make up the third-largest refugee population after Syrians and Venezuelans.

They hold their papers the way one might hold a bomb: with great care.

In the spring of 1992, after years of conflict, the people of Afghanistan felt a sense of relief. The USSR had collapsed, taking with it the Afghan government that had been propped up by Moscow since the 1970s. Talk of life after the war dominated conversations at home. My parents began to make plans for our future, encouraging my siblings and me to think about university. By autumn, we were fleeing for our lives. The militants and warlords who had fought the Russians—and, by association, the Afghan government—turned Kabul into an abattoir. Flush with weapons and money from their US, Pakistani and Saudi benefactors, they brought snipers into Kabul streets, killing and maiming men, women and children alike. At the first sound of rockets falling in the neighborhood, my mother would rush us into a room in the back of our house and clutch all five of her children, reciting the Quran in the hope that the holy words would protect us. Terror pervaded even the most ordinary parts of life. Before going to the market, my father and uncle would say their goodbyes, fearing they might not come back. My mother, terrified that we would be killed, persuaded my father to leave the country. We fled without a plan or sense of our future. For a long time, my father still believed that peace would come and we would return home. We never did. 

• • •

The United Nations and a host of charities administer daily life at Zaatari. Talking to aid workers there hasn’t been easy so far. The camp administration has been accused of incompetence and negligence, and they are constantly running low on money. They need the publicity, but they want to avoid finger-pointing from the public. They want to show journalists the photogenic orphan, the erudite father who lost his son and the heartbroken mother. Once you’ve had your fill of the grim stories, they rush you out and recommend restaurants in Amman.

I don’t blame the aid workers. This is messy work. Feeding, clothing, and keeping this many people safe is not an easy task. A frustrated aid worker tells me how difficult it is for workers to do their best for the refugees. He is a WASH man—in charge of water, sanitation and hygiene. He tells me a story about a family that took a WASH station apart for the bricks.

“Why did they want the bricks?” I ask.

“So that they could build a courtyard, like a garden,” he says, wearily. “The way they do it in Damascus.”

A WASH station costs tens of thousands of dollars, and the residents at Zaatari lament that there aren’t enough of them. The WASH man is frustrated as he talks quickly about his work. I can tell that he is under stress. You can spot the aid workers because they often look more weary than the refugees. The residents seem relaxed—some indifferent—because the worst has already happened.

I catch the WASH man’s eye and realize that despite his frustration, he understands why the station was disassembled. Even though the refugees who did it were hurting themselves, they wanted a little bit of home. I try to imagine the man who took it apart. He must have thought about his home—his garden and his life—before it all turned so extraordinarily messy.

• • •

Walking in the labyrinth of tents, I wonder if there is a map for Zaatari. It does have a main street. It is known to the aid workers as the Champs-Élysées and, to the Syrians, Shar-e-al souk—“Market Street” in Arabic. It’s a long strip on the western side of the camp, and you can buy just about anything there. I browse stalls of mobile phones, falafel and china dishes. The shoe stalls are popular. When Zaatari was built, it seemed a good idea to pour tons of gravel on top of the desert sand to protect the refugees from the weather. An unfortunate side effect of this is the demand for shoes. You wear them out quickly if you walk on gravel all day long.

I notice the clothing lines that float from one tent to another. I spot a Manchester United shirt drying in the sun. Strangely, it seems perfectly at home here. Someone took their favorite shirt with them.

Most refugees arrive at Zaatari with household items and groceries. They carry blankets, pots, bags of rice and oil. Few take their most precious things. After all, the safest place, psychologically, is still home. Their photos will be safe there.

My mother left all her most precious things in Kabul: her collection of postcards, a leather satchel that her father had made for her, her diaries. She took a handful of photos. She worried that we might lose them on the way; better to keep them at home, she thought. On the morning of our departure, she turned to my aunt and grandmother, who were staying behind, and pleaded with them to keep everything safe. She sobbed and held her mother. We couldn’t take her mother with us. Years later, we found out that my grandmother threw the photo albums down the well when the Taliban overran our house. Something more than our things was lost in our experience of war. We lost our bearings for a long time.

On the edge of the camp, white, shiny trailers are lined up, ready for new arrivals. I see a horde of young people standing around, seemingly bored. There is little to do here. It’s just dust and grime and confusion. Time is strange for refugees. Long stretches of boredom are punctuated by fearful events. When you look back, time is sliced into weird happenings. For a long time, my memories were divided this way. To my mind, the day that we had to leave Afghanistan was over in a flash, as if we were teleported in an instant to another planet. The first month away from home still seems like years. I had to unlearn so much in that month.

A little further down, younger children are standing around and chatting merrily. This is their childhood. These are their childhood friends. They probably have crushes on each other. They definitely have hopes and dreams. Most of them will believe that they can hope for the best. That’s what children do even in circumstances where, to adults, hope becomes a liability. One day, they will recount their time in Zaatari. They will tell stories about their mischief around the camp, and they will smile.

• • •

For a species with an apparent propensity for conflict, we are fantastically ill-equipped to deal with war’s aftereffects. Only a handful of people thrive in violence. The rest of us, caught in the throes of that wonderful human instinct—survival—end up broken, jaded and with very little dignity.

Walking down the main street of Zaatari refugee camp. Russell Watkins/Department for International Development. Wikimedia Commons.

War tests ordinary people in a way that is not useful for everyday life. Very few skills learned when trying to survive a conflict such as those in Afghanistan or Syria add value to your life if you make it out alive and end up working in a foreign city. Normal life has little space for ruthless pragmatism, detachment and sporadic bursts of extreme emotion. It demands a degree of nuance that is pointless in wartime.

Before I came to Zataari, the stories that I read about the camp and its residents were sprinkled with phrases like “human spirit,” “amazing human resilience” and “human capacity for survival.” These clichés are not entirely devoid of meaning, but they miss the larger point about what happens to people at war. The real picture, if you can be bothered to take a closer look, is much more complicated than the romantic notions of human survival. Trauma affects people in elaborate and intricate ways. For a long time after arriving safely in the UK, I had to unlearn anxiety that had become the norm for me and my family.

I want to leave Zaatari acknowledging the possibilities that exist for the refugees here. It’s easy to feel only pity when you see this much suffering, but it feels condescending and wrong. Most people will take understanding over pity. If you close your eyes on the Champs-Élysées at Zaatari, it sounds, smells and feels like any other town. I can hear the sound of children running around, shouting, arguing, and laughing. I can smell falafel and liver frying with onions and black pepper. I can smell Arabic coffee, rich and sweet with cardamom, and I can smell cheap cologne and cigarettes. I can hear girls giggle. I can hear the sweet ripples of Fairouz’s voice blaring from one stall. I can almost hear the sound of dice rolling on a backgammon board. I open my eyes, and all these things are true. Everything I sensed is happening around me. It strikes me that if I made it out—and can sit here at this moment and type my thoughts—then each one of these women, men and children can, too. This thought rings as true to my mind as the thought that some will inevitably perish in the darkness of war.


Zarlasht Halaimzai

Zarlasht Halaimzai is an Afghan-British writer and the co-founder of Refugee Trauma Initiative which works to heal the trauma of violence and displacement. She is a fellow of the Obama Foundation.

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