Karim has it all on his phone: a helicopter tail whipping through one corner of the screen, a roar that comes from everywhere, the wall crumbling down onto his lens. In December 2013, his house in the Free Syrian Army-controlled region of Daar’a was destroyed by government helicopters, and by the new year, the shrapnel-injured 37-year-old mason and his wife decided to leave Syria, setting off on a 17-day walk with their four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. They paid 50,000 Syrian pounds (US$350) to be smuggled across the border by Bedouins and arrived at night in Jordan’s eighth-largest city: Zaatari Refugee Camp.
All dust and sand, it’s “the shittiest land you could build a refugee camp on,” according to one worker from the United Nations Refugee Agency, which runs Zaatari with the Jordanian government. Nonetheless, this knot of donated tents and caravans has quadrupled in size over only one and a half years. By January 2014, about 85,000 Syrians inhabited this booming DIY metropolis, consuming 50,000 chickens a month, producing 91 newborns every week, and building new communities to accommodate the 2,000 new refugees who arrive each night. Zaatari’s Omejmal neighborhood is reputed to be low class, with fewer services, restaurants and electrical connections than others, while the Saudi area – named after the national insignia on caravans donated by Saudi Arabia – is sought after. An essential service is provided by home movers, whose rolling trailers of rebar and car tires help residents relocate anywhere across the camp’s three square kilometers: it costs about $7 to have your tent or caravan moved a short distance and $14 to hire a team of four for longer distances.
But in every neighborhood, you can still hear and feel mortars fall across the border, a regular reminder that, after four years of bloodshed, the 2.5 million Syrian refugees scattered across the world aren’t safe to go home anytime soon. So nine out of 10 families in Zaatari have added private toilets to their temporary homes. Seven out of 10 have added electricity, thanks to the 350-strong task force of “electricity ministers” who will hack the camp’s grid for a small price. And refugees-turned-real-estate-agents help the well-to-do keep comfortable by buying ID cards from departing residents in order to request extra United Nations housing caravans and turn them around. Worth about $1,600, each caravan flipped on the black market sells for about $300, and can be bought four or five at a time for assembly into “mansions.”
Upgrading your home in Zaatari, like applying for permanent residency abroad or demanding Syrian schools for camp children, suggests resignation to exile. Karim began asking around for a second tent for his wife as soon as they arrived in Zaatari. But his was resignation of a different sort. With divorce stigmatized back in Syria, Karim’s wife Amani has taken leaving home as an opportunity to leave her husband.