Ten years on Step inside Zaatari camp

This July, many of the 80,000 Syrian residents of Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp marked a bittersweet milestone. It’d been a decade of living within the roughly five square-kilometre displacement site.

Zaatari, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, opened in 2012 to host Syrians fleeing war.

A decade on, we invite you to step inside the camp to meet the resilient people who call it home. What are their dreams, and what does their future hold?

Resilient as daylilies

Gardening enthusiasts favour daylilies because of their resilient nature. Able to thrive independently, daylilies can survive harsh droughts, low-quality soil, and high temperatures. Even in unfavourable conditions, they flower abundantly and in glittering colours.   

The Syrian refugees living in Zaatari refugee camp have lived through events crueller than most can imagine. Yet they continue to bloom, flourish, and prove to the world that they are more than what their circumstances dictate. The amount of potential, talent, and creativity that exists in the camp is unfathomable.

Finding purpose in a paintbrush

In Zaatari, ingenuity is everywhere. For Emad, 33, discarded refugee tents serve as perfect canvases for his paintings.  

Emad’s late father was a painter and an artist, and Emad harbours the same talent. Nearly a decade ago, he was pursuing a degree in Small and Medium-Enterprise Management at the University of Aleppo. Once the crisis in Syria erupted, he was forced to abandon his studies and flee with his family to Jordan.

Life in the camp has not been easy. Emad’s father suffered from cancer during his stay and passed away shortly after, leaving him as his family’s sole provider. Emad looked for relief in his paintbrush but could not find the necessary art equipment in the barren camp. Remarkably, the tents in which he and many others had lived in during their stay in Zaatari held the answer. Emad cut up old tents and stretched the fabric on wooden frames, and his journey to artistry began anew.  

“This is the achievement I’m most proud of,” he says. “I am able to deliver a message to the world by using a refugee tent.” 

Today, Emad generates an income for his family through his art.  

Creativity at every corner

Rama is starting eleventh grade. She was only eight when her family fled the war in Syria.

Her aspirations for the future include completing a university degree, displaying her paintings at a dedicated exhibition, and travelling the world.  But she struggles to envision her dreams materialising, given her current reality:   

The freedom to dream

Within the past ten years, over 20,000 children have been born away from home in the arid desert camp of Zaatari. These children have rarely experienced life beyond the camp’s borders. Some have never even seen stairs or picked an apple from a tree.  

At GHFT, we have written many stories about Zaatari’s children. We have gotten to know them over the years. We have asked them about their dreams, their hopes, what burdens them, and what they wish would change.

It was in 2019 that we first met Omar, Abdelhameed, Shadi, and Abdelhameed (pictured above). The four boys are cousins born in Zaatari camp to parents who fled the crisis in Syria. Only seven years old at the time, they told us about their dreams for the future. They celebrate their tenth birthday this year.  

We revisited the children this July and spoke to them again about what they would like to be when they’re older.

They remain unwavering in their aspirations.

A lawyer, a policeman, a judge, a dentist

Shadi, clad in denim and running a hand through his trusses of red hair, dreams of one day traveling to America and visiting his uncle. He wants to be a lawyer. Abdelhameed, the tallest of the group, does not hesitate for a moment about what he would like to become. “A policeman!” he declares. “So I can protect the community.”  

Omar, smiling a mischievous, dimpled smile at his cousins, tells us that he would like to be a judge. The other child named Abdelhameed sits with his cap turned at a 45-degree angle. He confidently talks about his wish to become a dentist.  

For most, dreams often evolve from directionless ambitions to achievable goals. For refugees, dreams come with a lot more uncertainty.  

Ten years of transformation

GHFT has been operating in the camp since its establishment in 2012. We have witnessed its transformation from a place of temporary refuge to a breeding ground for creativity.

Pre-fabricated shelters with a lifespan of six years stand in a disorganised array, all featuring their inhabitants’ distinctive touches. Some residents have built fountains from recyclable materials, planted edible gardens, assembled hand-made kitchens, and created homes from basic caravans. 

The weather tends to be predictable, with August temperatures reaching a searing 40C and January showers, frequent in the rainy season, splattering mud on pedestrians’ clothes.

The market road that cuts through the camp has grown noticeably over the past decade. Stories heard through the grapevine say that the first trading kiosk opened just seven days after refugees settled in the camp in 2012. Today, the marketplace features about 1,800 shops, many strikingly unique and creative.

Finding identity and purpose

Despite Zaatari’s transformation into a creative, bustling place, navigating the camp and finding one’s “place” within it can be difficult. This was the case for Ikhlas.

“If we can imagine life as a piece of paper, I remained at its margins when I first came to Zaatari,” says Ikhlas, a mother of five.  

In 2013, Ikhlas fled to Jordan with her children, the eldest ten years old at the time. Having lived her entire life in Syria’s Hauran region until she fled, she was used to waking up to greenery outside her window. Though she was grateful for the safety in Jordan, it took her a while to adjust to the stark desert landscape of Zaatari.  

“It was difficult for me to leave my children alone in the caravan for an hour or two every day. But I had to create a new life in the camp.”  

Ikhlas stopped herself from falling further into isolation in the camp. With four children to care for and no relatives or family in the camp, she forced herself out of the routine of daily survival and began to explore her community.  

“It was difficult for me to leave my children alone in the caravan for an hour or two every day,” she says. “But I had to create a new life in the camp.”  

Overcoming the cultural expectations surrounding her was also a challenge. She was raised to believe that a woman stays at home and cares for her children, with all her needs accounted for by her husband, family, or relatives. In Zaatari, she was on her own, and her children counted on her.   

“Everything changed here,” she says. “It was as if we were dreaming back home in Syria and woke up to reality in Jordan.” 

Through sheer willpower, Ikhlas developed her skills and secured roles with various organisations in the camp. She is currently working with GHFT as a tailoring facilitator. Work gave Ikhlas a purpose, an identity, and a community.  

“People now seek me out by name,” she says. “They know who Ikhlas is. On that same piece of paper, I am now at the centre.”

The next chapter

Over the last ten years, each refugee in Zaatari has found their own way to overcome the challenges of displacement and shown resilience in the face of crisis.

GHFT has provided refugees in the camp with services such as remedial education, essential shelter support, and youth skills training. We are inspired by the people of Zaatari, and will continue to support them in planning for the future and reaching for their goals.

But the urgent question is: what will the next ten years look like for Zaatari’s refugees? 

What you can do to help

Without global support for long-term solutions for refugees, better futures for people in Zaatari will not be secured – and the world will miss out on their talents. 

We can’t let that happen. Donate to our work today and share this story to raise awareness.

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