How pirated electricity transforms life for refugees

186 miles of tiny wires criss-cross the two square mile camp, providing basic comforts and a link to home

With remarkable skill a refugee ‘walks’ straight up the light pole to begin work attaching another home-made cable. (Photo by Jared J. Kohler)

Look up, and wrapped around the streetlights dotted throughout Zaatari you see spaghetti-style bundles of wires.

Look down, and you will see those same slender wires cascading to the ground and then running off in a myriad of directions.

Welcome to the electrical grid – the unofficial version – of the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.

There are an estimated 10,000 illegal connections which feed off Zaatari’s power supply – or 300km (186miles) of tiny threads criss-crossing the camp.

Located eight miles south of the Syrian border in Jordan, Zaatari houses 120,000 people in an area of just two square miles.

93 per cent come from the neighbouring Da’ara region - the majority of refugees know people still caught up in the conflict.

With the border so close, shelling - particularly at night - can be heard in the camp. It is a constant reminder of the reason they left and what awaits them if they return.

Access to electricity is a constant challenge. The UN supplies power for the street lights, which the refugees have tapped into for power fans, lights and TVs.

[Witnesses to war: The shattered lives of Zaatari's children]

News, as well as children’s programmes, is the main TV diet. For parents fearful about their children’s welfare it is simply a way of keeping them close by.

The man charged with the unenviable task of trying to keep track of all the camp’s power needs is UN contractor John Simpson, 48, an electrical engineer from Sydney, Australia.

Six weeks into a six-month stint at the camp he was checking in on the installation of a new 250KW transformer in the south of the camp. It was replacing a 100KW one which was regularly being overloaded by 160 per cent – because of the illegal connections.

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‘You can do that in the short term but in the long term it will destroy it,’ said John, a veteran of aid projects in Haiti and West Africa.

‘It trips every day and people are sick of seeing the supply drop off.’

Most families in the tents are estimated to be using 200W a day - four per cent of the amount an average Western home would use (5,000W). The monthly electricity bill for the camp is £310,000 ($500,000).

He added: ‘I have not had to deal with illegal connections on this scale before.’

Most of the cables feed off streetlights installed to make the camp safer at night. Men will shin up the metal posts in their bare feet, carry out the rudimentary wiring and descend.

However there are things they won’t tap into, namely the transformers powering the two water bores as well as those supplying schools and hospitals.

Pressure by UN staff on community leaders to rein in the illegal tapping competes with the pressure the leaders are under to improve the quality of life in the camp.

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Access to electricity as part of their daily lives is a natural expectation when building up a community, according to John. ‘They are always struggling to improve their lot,’ he added.

A normal electric cable has a sheath around it, containing three other sheathed wires. The lines the refugees run have just one sheath and if scratched the copper inside is exposed. This, understandably, raises concerns about what will happen when winter comes and rain gathers in puddles around the cables.

Camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt is also clear that businesses in the camp should contribute towards the cost of running the camp. He would like to charge them for use of the electricity which they take by illegally attaching cables to the lighting grid.

‘It’s not because you are a refugee that you cannot care for your own business. It is not because you are a refugee you should be getting everything for free. If you can pay, you must pay,’ he said.

[Syria: Its history, its culture and why the civil war erupted]

The prospect of a new transformer being installed that day had drawn a crowd of children and adults.

As it was hoisted into position I spoke with one of the men taking a keen interest in the illegal connections and whether they were being altered by the installation.

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A former vegetable farmer, who fled Syria a year ago, he said he learned his rudimentary electrician skills simply ‘because someone had to’.

Having access to electricity meant being able to watch the news reports about the area his village is in.

‘We have families being shelled,’ he said simply.

[The trauma of being a refugee]

A father of three and former lorry driver standing next to him listed the various reasons why the power supply - official and unofficial - was so important to those inside the camp.

‘If there is no electricity, there is no life,’ he shrugged.

A remarkable video series depicting the extraordinary challenges faced by aid workers and refugees in Zaatari will be shown exclusively on Yahoo UK starting on Tuesday November 12. See the trailer for the series here.

To find out more about the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees click on the link below