Behind the fences of Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp

Fenced off with barbed wire and a low brick barricade, the camp reflects the severity of the ongoing Syrian conflict, that has caused millions to flee

Rua’a Alameri
Rua’a Alameri - Al Arabiya English, Zaatari, Jordan
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In the early hours of the morning, the one-hour-long journey to Zaatari refugee camp from Jordan’s capital Amman began.

Unlike other greener, more scenic parts of Jordan, Zaatari, located around 30 miles south of the Syrian border, is surrounded by barren desert.

A Jordanian army tank guarded by a soldier is seen by the gate of the camp as we drive into the first checkpoint, where the car is inspected.

As we continue to drive to the second checkpoint and the main entrance to the camp, we begin to see the grand scale of the refugee settlement, as thousands of off-white tents appear in the distance.

Fenced off with barbed wire and a low brick barricade, the camp reflects the severity of the ongoing Syrian conflict, which has caused close to 5 million to flee the country.


One of many, the camp was opened in 2012 in response to the high influx of Syrians who fled the violence and trauma of their country’s conflict, which began in March 2011.

Gradually evolving into a permanent settlement, the Zaatari camp, home to over 79,000 refugees, can be likened to a fully-fledged city.

Driving past the second checkpoint, we were greeted by the bustle of a bazaar, with children running around in between men and women walking past the market stands along the narrow road.

The market spreads along the main road of the camp, which some Syrians call the Champs-Elysees, a reference to the famous Paris street.

The refugees, mostly from Daraa, the southwestern city where the uprising began, seem to have come to terms with reality. There is no sign of the war at home ending anytime soon.


After living in the camp for four years, and with very little opportunity for work, many have resorted to opening their own market stalls using the money their brought with them from home to buy stock from local Jordanians.

Yet it is not always easy for refugees to escape the walls of the camp. According to Danijel Cuturic, a worker for non-profit group Relief International in Zaatari, going outside the camp’s borders involves a rigorous application process. Those who do manage to leave are allowed to stay only five days outside.

Over the years, 10 schools have opened in Zaatari, yet as we drove past the market stands that seemed to sell everything from clothes to household items, several young children could be seen hard at work.

Khaled Almesslaman, a Syrian refugee teacher who escaped when the revolution began, told Al Arabiya English: “Some students say to me ‘why should I study, we live in a refugee camp so why should I study?’ And some would prefer to work in the shops with their parents in the camp.’”

In some instances, girls in particular are prevented from going to school.

“Some parents don’t want their daughter to go to school because they want her to stay at home or get married,” said Alaa al-Masalmeh, a Syrian refugee teacher who lives in the camp with her husband and son.

During the conference, Rima, a bouncy 10-year-old Syrian girl told Al Arabiya English that she went to school because she understood that education is “very important” for her future.

Rima said that she has been living in the camp since she left Syria three years ago. She said that she hopes to one day return to Syria. “Who doesn’t want to go back to their home country?” she told me.


For many children in the camp, life has changed drastically since leaving Syria. Like many other children, for Rima, watching television is one of her favorite pastimes, but due to a shortage of electricity, she is only able to watch only for a few hours in the evening.

“I really like watching TV, but I only get watch at night. I’m really hoping that we will get more TV time when we get more electricity,” she said, with a cheeky smile.

Requests to talk to the children in the camp were consistently turned down by my hosts, the British Council staff, who said that authorities - at least at the time - did not allow journalists the freedom to walk around. Quite why was not so clear.

As we continued around Zaatari, I saw several small, scruffy buildings which were pointed out to me as some of the camp’s few hospitals. Several NGOs have set up health clinics, yet it’s clear that the health facilities are in need of improvement.

Malek al-Baradan, who left Syria two years ago and works as a hygiene promoter in the camp said due to overcrowding hygiene and the spread of disease becomes a major problem. “We live in small spaces, which is dangerous due to health issues.”

In this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 photo, Syrian refugees stroll on the main street of the U.N.-run Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, northern Jordan. AP
In this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 photo, Syrian refugees stroll on the main street of the U.N.-run Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, northern Jordan. AP

“The camp is gradually becoming better, before for example the toilets were communal, but now we have individual toilets in the caravans, and we are hoping for the installation of a water system soon,” Baradan explained.

Future of refugees

“I look at my situation in two ways, either I am here for a period of my life and I will at some point go back to my home country, or I will go to Europe,” Baradan added.

“There is no future here in the camp - life here doesn’t give you the same opportunities as you had back home.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a camp and not have opportunities - I want to give her opportunities if I have a chance.”

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