Images usually presented by popular media depicting life in refugee camps are familiar to most people. Depictions of desolate spaces littered with homogenous white tents, long-shots of hopeless inhabitants; powerless victims of some great conflict are abundant on the news and charity adverts. Indeed, the messages these images are often trying to portray are not wholly untrue. Refugee camps can be brutal places for those living in them.The insecurity and infirmity of even the most basic requirements are common problems in these camps. Yet, these realities also coexist with another that is rarely visible to the outside world. This is the reality of everyday life, of refugees recreating society, reclaiming spaces, and reforging identity. Refugee camps are by their nature intermediary spaces, a physical manifestation of the imperative at the core of the refugee experience: to construct a life from the conditions of mere existence. In this sense, Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp is like any other. Hosting more than 76,000 people, Zaatari is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and serves as the perfect example of refugees appropriating the temporary empty spaces allocated to them and turning them into a society interwoven with identity, culture, and hope.
Material Conditions in Refugee Camps
To say the overall material conditions of refugee camps across the world remains subpar, would be an understatement. A World Bank research paper published in 2021 found that 36% of refugees in camps were likely to live below the extreme poverty line, whilst 37% were likely to live in overcrowded shelters.Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that, according to the UN Refugee Agency, approximately 78% of refugees choose to live in cities, rather than in refugee camps.
These conditions of extreme poverty, where resources and opportunities are scarce, constitute a failure to meet one of the most basic of the Seven Fundamental Human Needs. The Seven Fundamental Human Needs highlight the seven core conditions of life that motivates every human, from refugee to royalty, to pursue their goals. The greatest and most essential need is that of security and survival. This includes the need for basic resources, such as access to water, food, healthcare etc. as well as the assurance of safety from any immediate threat to one’s quality of life. It is clear from the statistics above that many refugee camps fail to provide these most basic biological needs.
The Zaatari camp has not been exempt from this pattern of material scarcity. When the camp was established in 2011, the bleak conditions within them came as a shock to many of the refugees arriving from Syria. Abu Amar, a Syrian refugee and father of nine, recalled arriving at the Zataari camp:
“When we arrived at the Zataari camp in February 2013 it was very cold. At first we were all living in a tent that used to leak every time it rained. But there was no option. We either stayed in that tent or took our children to their death”
Amar would go on to state that there was no electricity at the time and expressed concern that if anyone in the camp became sick, they would have to wait in line at the clinic for hours before receiving any treatment. Similar stories from this time are iterated by other Syrian refugees, such as Amira, a 27-year-old Syrian who had just started university before being forced to flee her home-country with her mother, sibling and uncle’s family. Amira claims that, despite being a generally calm person, she was immensely frustrated when she saw the inhospitable conditions of the camp.
Al-Souq: Reclaiming Resource Management
Many would assume that in the face of such resource and structural scarcity, the refugees would simply accept their fates as victims of circumstance and submit themselves to be content with whatever meagre resources they would receive. However, this would not be the case in the Zaatari camp, as inhabitants would seek to assert control over their own survival, by any means necessary.
Social anthropologist Simon Turner asserts that, despite what is the conventional mode of thinking: that life in refugee camps is reduced to the bare bones of survival where inhabitants are stripped of all agency, refugees in camps can and do take back control of their living conditions through their everyday practices, creating new opportunities and social relations among themselves. The response of the inhabitants of Zaatari camp to resource scarcity exemplifies this determination to retrieve agency. In fact, it was this scarcity that inspired the formation of Al-Souq, one of the central markets within the Zaatari refugee camp, run entirely by and for refugees.
According to Sara al Nassir of the University of Dresden’s Institute of Urban and Regional Planning, refugees were initially given debit cards that they could use exclusively at the World Food Programme supermarkets. This system failed to meet the growing expectations of refugees as they became tired of eating the same pre-chosen meals as the months and years rolled onwards. To combat this, refugees would trade or directly sell their aid items to Jordanian workers in return for goods unavailable in Zaatari, such as fresh fruit and vegetable produce, This led to the first shops of Al-Souq, which were makeshift dokkanas (convenience stores) run by refugees selling and trading aid items. Furthermore, as electricity started to arrive in the camp, electrical appliance stores began to appear dotted around Al-Souq. The success of these electronics stores within Al-Souq would pave the way for other commercial enterprises within the market, such as spice merchants, bakeries and even bridal shops.
These markets cannot entirely replicate the societies from which these refugees were accustomed to in their home-country. Yet, the construction of Al-Souq as a refugee-run space of commercial enterprise, social gathering, and even in some cases political protest is emblematic of the process of Zaatari refugees asserting control over their spaces. Social formations like Al-Souq allow Zaatari’s inhabitants to restructure the narratives of their existence from helpless and dependent victims, to active and self-regulating agents in an autonomous refugee society. This corresponds with a number of the Seven Fundamental Human Needs, including the need for esteem and self-determination. The “need to be recognized by other people as competent and capable” is essential to one’s esteem. Through the establishment of their own society of commercial trade and self-sustainability, the inhabitants of Zaatari are able to attain this esteem. Similarly, reducing their reliance on outside aid and predetermined use of resources through the refugee-run Al-Souq is a major step in achieving self-determination.
Another of the key Fundamental Human Needs is that of identity. Identity is a term that is popular in both academic and popular discourse, but when applied to human needs, can be defined as “an awareness or sense of self in relation to others and the rest of the world”. Arriving at a refugee camp seriously challenges one’s concept of self. Forced from their homes, refugees are plunged into these empty spaces, outside of any spatial or temporal realm, outside of nations and cultures, where the inhabitant's only environmental reference for the cultivation of identity is that of the stateless refugee. In spite of this, Zaatari refugees have sought to reappropriate the neutral white sheets of the camp tents and imbue every layer of the camp with a new identity, crafted organically by those who live in Zaatari.
A study which sought to map the physical alterations made to the Zaatari camp documents how inhabitants use their limited resources to create decorations, art, and even makeshift structures, to adorn the otherwise barron spaces that they have been assigned to. Research found that refugees would take old materials from camp facilities that are no longer in use, and recycle them into household appliances, as well as artefacts that were often rooted in Syrian heritage. Refugee inhabitants of the camps would adorn the outside of their caravan with ornate, wall-sized paintings that would contain homages to Syrian culture and history, such as ancient buildings, forts and monuments from the country’s Roman, Mesopotamian, and Islamic eras. Furthermore, Syrian traditions often involve families visiting other families to enjoy shared food and company. Therefore, it is a point of pride for many Zaatari inhabitants to have well-decorated spaces where they can receive guests. These simple acts of decoration allow refugees to escape the binds of being classified by their circumstances and reassert a sense of self and identity that is meaningful to them. To decorate an old caravan so that you may entertain guests, or to paint murals outside of your current living-quarters, are facets of a wholly new identity that draws from the conditions of one’s beloved old existence, and transposes them onto their current reality, creating a link between their lives as both Syrians and refugees.
However, this is not to say that life in Zaatari refugee camp has been made easy or even comfortable for its inhabitants. Many still dream of returning to Syria, or at least moving to a country where they do not have to exist on the peripheries of society. Additionally, the recent COVID-19 pandemic, as well as economic downturn in Jordan, has caused an increase in food prices, whilst humanitarian funding for Syrian refugees in Jordan declined across 2022. Yet, what this article does aim to show is the remarkable resilience of Zaatari’s refugees in their desire to assert their autonomy and identity over the camp’s spaces, even when their lives are rendered so insecure by forces beyond their control.