Syrian refugee camp becoming 'home from home'

Jo Biddle
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An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013 near the Jordanian city of Mafraq

An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013 near the Jordanian city of Mafraq. Camp Zaatari is home to thousands of Syrian refugees and fast turning into a small city

From the air, lines of trailers and tents stretch across the Jordanian desert. Welcome to Camp Zaatari, home to thousands of Syrian refugees and fast turning into a small city.

The camp was opened just a year ago as Jordan faced the nightmarish task of caring for and sheltering an exodus of people from Syria, traumatised by long months of war, and fleeing for their lives.

Now it houses around 115,000 dispossessed, who are resiliently determined to get back on their feet, even as the sound of artillery fire from just across the border echoes around the camp at night.

Tents are mostly being replaced by container homes made of plastic and aluminium. Each costs about $2,500 and the camp holds 16,500 of them, with hopes that soon there will be 30,000.

"Home sweet home," camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt of the UN refugee agency told US Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit on Thursday with no hint of irony.

He highlighted the stark fact that, with no end to the 28-month-old conflict in sight, camp residents are increasingly resigning themselves to a protracted stay and are trying to pick up the pieces of their disrupted lives.

Many come from the border province of Daraa, cradle of the March 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule that escalated into armed rebellion,

"People of Daraa are traders. They have it in their blood," said Kleinschmidt, an aid worker who is a veteran of world hotspots from Bosnia to Rwanda to Somalia.

"It's incredible what they will trade, they'll trade anything," he told journalists.

Front courtyards are being cemented to keep out the mud, some families are even putting up little fountains outside their doors -- "a symbol of home," said Kleinschmidt.

The ever resourceful refugees are even tapping into the camp's electricity network, leaving Kleinschmidt with a monthly bill approaching $500,000.

Most of the stolen power goes to run some 3,000 shops and 580 restaurants and food stalls which now dot the few asphalted roads -- earning them the nickname the "Champs Elysee", after Paris's most famous street.

Here refugees can sip tea, buy shoes, or haggle for an air conditioning unit for their home, many of which now bristle with satellite dishes. And 10 taxis charge high prices to ferry people around.

Some of the money is carried out with the refugees. More comes from remittances from relatives working in Gulf or the West.

Others, including the children, scavenge for work. Smuggling is a problem, and every possession is for sale. Even the container homes are rented out or sold or used in schemes not sanctioned by the UN refugee agency.

There are three hospitals, a couple of schools, a main food distribution point and others just for bread, handing out some 5,000 loaves a day. There are also five football pitches and playgrounds with slides and swings.

"It's important to keep some 60,000 children busy," said Kleinschmidt, lamenting however that out of 30,000 of school age, just 5,000 have resumed their lessons.

Twelve to 15 babies are born into this no-man's land every day, and 70% of the population are either women or children.

After months of initial violence -- a so-called "dark period" when aid workers would routinely be pelted with stones by refugees angered by their plight and despairing that the world had forgotten them -- Kleinschmidt believes there is a new understanding, even though tensions remain.

"I'm not managing a camp, I'm managing a temporary city, and that's why I see it's beginning to settle. That's because we're starting to have dialogue, we're starting to have ways in finding a vision, we're helping people to get out of this mood of total desperation," he said.

His vision, though, is at odds with that of the authorities in Jordan, where Palestinian refugees already make up a significant proportion of the population.

"We always say that we are looking forward to celebrating the closure of the camp, with all the people going back to their homes, to their livelihoods, their security," said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

"The Syrian people are a very, very proud people with a rich history and an amazing contribution to civilisation throughout the ages and this is temporary."

Part of Kleinschmidt's vision is to start asking those who can to pay for energy and the water, in a bid to alleviate tensions with Jordanians who are feeling the strain of hosting so many people.

Zaatari alone costs some $1 million a day to run.

"It's ultimately more acceptable to the Jordanian public and the Jordanian politicians if this place is not just a money dump," said Kleinschmidt.

Asked how long the camp would remain open, he replied: "Three days, 30 years, who knows?"