Refugee camps are notorious for their poverty, crime and deprivation, so it is refreshing to hear of attempts to establish a sense of normality for the people who call these camps home. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is home to more than 100,000 Syrians who have fled their homeland due to the danger that exists there. To create an atmosphere that feels more like a home away from home rather than a prison, camp organisers are encouraging its inhabitants to start trade and service endeavours.
The refugees living in the Zaatari camp have experienced an enormous upheaval that has meant leaving their way of life behind them. Yet the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is working closely with those in the camp to ensure a sense of peace and stability can prevail through cooperation and initiative. A wedding dress hire ‘shop’ that is operating from inside a metal cargo container is a perfect example of the solution-focused attitude of those living in the camp; it exists to show that everyday occurrences such as marriages and romance can still exist amidst the chaos and turbulence the refugees face.
Atef, who runs the hire shop, told the BBC that “the profit is not that much, but we are doing okay. We rent the dress for ten dinars [around $14] whether it’s to people inside or outside the camp. Sometimes we even take just five dinars from people…” This demonstration of generosity and a desire to establish a feeling of normality is important in explaining why Zaatari is unlike other refugee camps. Many of the settlers are trying to work together to ensure living in such a place still enables them to experience the way of life they were used to before. It is believed that looking after a shop, and in turn generating a profit, can eventually lead to peace and stability being established.
The power of cooperation is undeniable, and even though the self-dubbed ‘Champs-Élysées’ strip within the camp is a far cry from its namesake in the lavish Parisian quarters, it is proof that even in times of hardship there is always the ability to turn things around if you are willing to try hard enough.
Promoting businesses to flourish in such an environment presents challenges; a black market has established itself and smugglers wait in the veil of darkness to take away supplies provided by the UNHCR. However, with the help of the hard-working camp inhabitants, it is hoped that an end can be put to these illegal dealings and instead an environment unlike the rest of the outside world can be established.
Further evidence of a sense of normality can be seen in homes that are being built with amenities seen in a regular house; cement floors, water, toilets, showers and kitchens all convey the fact that the camp is becoming more permanent, but also that those living there are trying their best to return to normal after the upheaval of having to leave their country.
The Zaatari refugee camp is, therefore, an example of how even in the most dire situations, when people look on life with a positive attitude anything is possible.