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I Watched a Refugee Camp Become a City

Mike Niconchuk works for an international organization in Jordan and works frequently from Zaatari. He’s a graduate of Tufts University.

Written by Mike Niconchuk Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

I remember August 2012, when Zaatari’s main street ended about 500 meters into the camp. Along the road were clinics, a few trailers, and a few thousand tents housing the city of Daraa’s most destitute. Beyond that, the road was empty on both sides. Desert.

I walked with an aid worker who insisted that “one day soon, land will be the most valuable thing in this camp.”

This morning I drove the same road that I drove in August, thinking just how much Zaatari has changed. The car nudged along at five miles per hour, swerving as porters, wheelchairs, trucks, pedestrians and aid workers made their way through the main market.

Today we hit three people with our car’s side mirrors, as the crowd doesn’t always part enough to let a car pass. Two kids tried jumping in the back seat, hoping we were going towards their destination. In every direction, refugee hawkers sold subsidized items, from blankets to shoes to vegetables to sleeping bags in olive-colored cases that read “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Humanity.”

Now, as far as you can see, the sun glitters off the sheet metal walls that form coffee shops and stores. Free Syria flags perch on top of most shop roofs, and teenage boys cluster, wearing Free Syria scarves.

Many boys of that age come and go between the camp and Syria, fighting with the Free Syrian Army for a few days and then returning to Zaatari when the fighting gets too intense, too close, or too boring.

Inside the cold coffee shops women sew clothes, men watch the news, and some fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons work for the FSA uploading videos, tracking movements and giving orders. (Though their pirated electrical wires only can power a few men’s devices at a time.)

Two weeks ago, a 10-minute drive down Zaatari’s main street would lead you straight to our organization’s little piece of land — no questions, no blocking of the car. No sleeping bag vendors and no protests against what some refugees have taken to calling “the death camp.”

But just five days ago, I drove around in a circle, unable to find our little piece of land at all. The six-foot fence we put up a month ago was blocked on all sides by shops made of that sheet metal, a shawarma stall running off the energy from a car battery and a patchwork mess of tents that completely blocked all but one of our small gates.

In that short span of time, 100 Syrians now lived on all sides of us. I parked the car where I could find space, and walked towards the gate, key in hand.

A small boy stopped me.”This is our home area. You’re not supposed to come this way. Where are you trying to go?”

“This is also my gate area,” I said, showing him the key. “Let’s get to know each other. We should be friends. This way we can maybe walk through your yard, and you can still feel comfortable.”

This is the only way forward in Zaatari. In a city of cloth, dust and metal, a relationship is a means of survival. The city of Zaatari has spread wide.

From the hills outside Mafraq you can look down into the vast Houran Plains, and see in their center a veritable lake of white tents and gray gravel. In that ‘lake,’ there are more than 100,000 Syrians. The number of protests against the harsh conditions are increasing.

Moving forward, agencies will continue to have to deal with families shacking up against their fences, against their clinics and invading space. Moving forward, how can we calm the growing storm?

The only way I have known how to deal with it is to talk with the refugees, with each other. To patiently consume more coffee and tea than the stomach can handle, and to hope that you find good people, and that they find you. Zaatari is full of rumors and fear, and like landmines these untruths explode. Every day, more Syrians arrive in this minefield, entirely uncertain about tomorrow.

This morning when I arrived at work, that little boy’s tent was still there, snug against the gate that I need to access to get in and out of our little patch of office space. He was hanging his family’s clothes. We exchanged nods.

It is a start to a relationship that is an example of the trust workers and residents must build in the face of the mistrust and fear that mark daily life in this camp. This is the new Zaatari City, a fast-paced, high-risk world dancing on the rim of a slow and sad conflict.

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