Syrian refugees in Jordan do deals in the desert

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A booming market selling goods from spices to electronics has sprouted in a desolate desert camp where Syrian refugees are trying to survive the war tearing their country apart.

In the seven-square-kilometer Zaatari camp, many of the more than 62,000 Syrian refugees, who live on charity handouts and meager savings, have turned their tents into restaurants, bakeries, groceries and barber shops.

Other refugees sell mobile phones, satellite receivers and clothes, braving tough living conditions but breathing new life into the six-month-old desert camp, 15 kilometers from the kingdom’s northern city of Mafraq.

“My friend was the first to turn a tent into a coffee shop months ago. I bought it from him for 270 dinars ($380) when he returned to Syria,” Mohammad, 28, told AFP, as he served his customers.

“People come here to smoke water pipes and drink coffee and tea, trying to kill time and forget their misery. At the same time I make some money. It is not bad, thank God.”

Some shops in Zaatari carry names like “The Revolution” and “Freedom,” inspired by Syria’s anti-regime uprising which started in March 2011 and has killed at least 60,000 people, according to UN figures.

“Today I am selling vegetables. Sometimes I sell fruit,” Wael Jaber, 26, told AFP as he sat in his tent near crates of tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and onions.

“I had to do something to spend my time and earn some money. Nobody likes to live in this miserable place, but there was no other choice. I could not just sit and wait for the unknown,” said Jaber, who fled his village south of Damascus two months ago.

Since it opened in July, Zaatari has seen several protests by refugees against poor living conditions, including a lack of electricity.

But such conditions do not prevent children from working to support their families.

“I sell smuggled cigarettes from Syria,” Diab, 12, told AFP as he carried a box full of various brands.

“I stopped going to school because it was useless. My father doesn’t work and I want to make money. Today I have earned 1,000 Syrian pounds ($14),” said the boy, adding that his 16-year-old bother also works in the same business.

Diab’s friend Ahmad sells mobile phone top-up cards.

“At the end of the day I give what I make to my father to buy things for us. We are a seven-member family, including my grandparents,” said the 15-year-old, busily on the lookout for potential customers.

Hundreds of Syrians cross the border daily into Jordan, fleeing the fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels.

Anmar Hmud, a government spokesman for Syrian refugee affairs, said on Sunday that since January 1, some 8,835 people have fled to the kingdom from the neighboring country.

“There is randomness to these camp businesses, as well as violations of the law and child labour problems. But such issues will be organized in time,” Hmud told AFP.

“Many of the refugees are selling things provided to them by charities.”

Nevertheless, these shops have made a difference to the lives of many refugees.

“The market at the camp amuses me,” said Bashir Suleiman, a government employee from Damascus who fled Syria with his family three months ago.

“I spend most of my time walking around, looking at the shops and what they sell as well as at the shoppers.

“It reminds me in a way of the busy streets of Damascus, which sometimes makes me sad. But no doubt these shops are breathing new life into this desert camp.”