Za’atari Refugee Camp: How to be an Entrepreneur in Hell

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Last week, Professor Helen Storey visited Za’atari Refugee Camp, where the tent that is now Dress for our Time came from to learn more about the refugee crisis. Here are her reflections…  

These are the experiences that make you question the purpose of your life.

As we drove along the surrounding camp wall of Za’atari Refugee Camp, in 40 degree heat, people squatted in the width of its narrow shadow, their torsos hugging the perimeter – they were surfing on the edge of the base camp Wifi in order to text and find relatives they can no longer be with.

Our first meeting with Za’atari’s camp manager was enlightening – nothing you can previously imagine is how things actually are. He told us how the refugees have taught them the conditions for dignified living. The camp is built, day, by day, by the refugees themselves, and the UNHCR are in service to them.

Perhaps expressing both the abundance of skills the refugees have (engineers, teachers, scientists, farmers, economists, athletes, tailors, barbers, chefs) and the conditions for their lives, one of his opening lines was to tell us ‘how to be an entrepreneur in Hell.’

The facts are unprecedented in modern times – home for now, to over 79,264,000 persons of concern, living off 35 litres of water, per person, per day (1% of USA consumption) with 20 weddings a week, 3,000 ‘pop up’ shops, 5 hospitals, 24 schools, 55,000 loaves of bread baked each night, 60 -70 children born a week and a daily running cost, met by the UNHCR and the Jordanian Government of £300,000 and all in 5 years.

What the Jordanian Government do for refugees will put the UK to shame, most likely, forever.

Jordan has made a commitment to rebuild Syria through its investment in its people now; every refugee wants to go home and Jordan wants to help them create the possibility of that happening one day.

Key also to the current work of the UNHCR and all the other agencies present is that there are almost as many urban refugees living outside the camps as within them, and they also need our help. We spent our first days at Azraq, now the camp that has taken over receiving refugees, as Za’atari is at capacity.

The biggest challenge, however, is the attempt to connect life inside the camps to the life outside them, to not create an unbreakable dependency and to find a way to help Syrians rebuild both their inner and outer worlds, following the horrors which ignited their mass fleeing.

We visited community centers, the places where our own offers of imagination, help and solutions may be best delivered, met with the President of the closest University, Al- al -Bayt, visited families in their homes (notable for the absence of husbands and immense generosity of tea and cakes), vocational training centres, the UNICEF engineers who supply energy and water, wedding shops, and groups of women who sew and make.

We wanted to know what they needed, what had worked and failed so far and what the main challenges going forward were for everyone.

Two particular moments sparked what our future work with the UNHCR and the camps would look like. The first triggered was by being shown around the Norwegian tent and supplies depot. Once covered in tents, almost everyone in Za’atari is now housed in ‘caravans’, so there is a vast landscape of metal housings which each hold well sorted, packed and stored components of everything that make them up. And alongside, sprawled on the scorched desert floor outside, are the remains of the tents and what have now been recreated out of these past textile shelters: prams, swings, slides, baby walkers, storage covers and a ‘Spongebob’!

The second was sitting in on a maths lesson with The Tiger Girls. The group is made up of 1,200 young girls who are being loved back into education. In part, to help address a problem of marriages at very young ages, as well as to allow them to experience how what they know and discover together can shape who they are and become. They had prepared a short play in English and spoke about their love of recycling and what they had found, gathered and repurposed- all this despite there being no recycling initiatives in Jordan.

We came away with a series of ideas to work upon that range from ingenious technological fixes, to the slower work of healing through collaboration across cultures, making and friendship.

In a place full of people for whom geography and circumstance has dealt a blow none of us here can imagine, there is much to be inspired by.

Out of the black shatter of war and the cruelest equality, in the trauma that unites them, they show us how to live in a way where every single action matters, and everything in a lived day is an utter achievement.

Dress for our Time is coming to London later this month- you can find it at the Science Museum, more info here