Camp for Syrian refugees starts to look more like home

A Syrian refugee browses the aisles of the first supermarket to opened in Zaatari camp Browsing the aisles for the day's necessities as the first supermarket opens in Zaatari camp

At the new Safeway store in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, the Syrian cashiers wear bright blue tabards that read "here to help you".

Buying groceries at this supermarket is giving refugees here a taste of normal life.

Families push shiny new shopping trolleys as they walk up and down aisles stacked high with food.

"We opened in January and offer a special service for the refugees," says Nahed al-Abed, Safeway's operations manager in Jordan. "Customers are happy with the prices and variety. They can find everything under one roof."

There is no need for cash. The shop accepts World Food Programme (WFP) food vouchers and will soon switch to pre-paid debit cards.

Start Quote

At first it was a life of hell... Now, thank God, it's getting better”

End Quote Um Adham Syrian refugee

"Syrians are among the gourmets of the region and like a diverse, sophisticated diet that we can't provide through regular food distribution," says the WFP's Jonathan Campbell.

"Giving them the vouchers gives a sense of normality and allows them to make choices. People tell us they're looking forward to cooking their favourite dishes."

Um Adham has just returned from the supermarket to her cabin, off the main road through the refugee camp, jokingly referred to as "the Champs Elysees".

As she stores her shopping she tells us there have been many improvements since she moved in more than a year ago.

A cash register at the camp's first supermarket Shoppers do not pay with cash, using WFP food vouchers instead
Syrian refugees shop at the first supermarket to open in Zaatari camp, on 6 February The supermarket offers a sense of normality to refugees used to desperate conditions
Syrian children stand in front of a UNICEF centre with a smiley face woven into the fence in front of them Not quite all smiles, but the camp is certainly a happier place than when the first refugees arrived

"At first it was a life of hell. Now, thank God, it's getting better," she says. "Before they used to give us food parcels and they were so bad we actually threw them away."

"Now we have choices at the supermarket. With the vouchers I can go and shop for my home and get what I want."

Call for intervention

Like many of the almost 600,000 Syrian refugees now living in Jordan, Um Adham and her neighbours come from the southern Syrian province of Deraa.

The city of Deraa is where the Syrian uprising began three years ago, with large anti-government protests. It is often called "the cradle of the revolution".

But most residents never imagined the conflict would escalate into a full-scale civil war, forcing them to flee their homes.

"We took to the streets peacefully, calling for freedom, but the Syrian government responded with bullets," says Mahmoud.

"We thought [the unrest] would last for a month or two, a year maximum, but it still continues until now," adds his friend, Jalaa.

Many believe that without international military intervention to help the rebels fighting Syrian government forces, they will not be able to go back.

A Syrian refugee stands on top of a water tank behind a tent at the Zaatari refugee camp A Syrian refugee stands on top of a water tank: some homes are now connected to a sewerage network
An aerial view taken in July 2013 shows the Zaatari refugee camp, home to some 130,000 Syrians, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq The Zaatari camp is now so huge that a new camp is being built at Azraq to house more refugees

Fighting continues to rage in Deraa. Sometimes at night, people in the camp can hear artillery fire from across the border, some 12km (7 miles) away.

"There's not one square metre in Deraa that's not dangerous," says Free Syrian Army Brig Gen Assad a-Zoubi, speaking from elsewhere in northern Jordan

"The areas under rebel control are bombarded daily with barrel-bombs, missiles or tank shells. Then there is the risk of arrest. The areas under the regime's control are also attacked daily."

Longer-term planning

At Zaatari, the refugees are starting to adapt to their new environment. They constantly upgrade their makeshift homes.

Start Quote

The Syrians themselves have understood that unfortunately they will have to stay a little longer... That means changing the way that we look at a crisis”

End Quote Killian Kleinschmidt Camp manager, Zaatari

According to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, about 75% of the camp's 100,000 residents are illegally connected to the electricity grid and 70% have private toilets.

Some are independently connecting to the water and sewage network.

"This crisis is now going into its fourth year. The Syrians themselves have understood that unfortunately they will have to stay a little longer," says camp manager Killian Kleinschmidt.

"So have we, and the authorities receiving and assisting people. That means changing the way that we look at a crisis. It's been quite dramatic."

Aid agencies at Zaatari are no longer focusing just on providing emergency services, but are looking to the longer term.

There are now established clinics, schools, playgrounds and even football stadiums in the camp, and new infrastructure is planned.

The private economy is also flourishing, with more than 2,500 small businesses in the camp. Syrian shops sell all manner of goods from falafel and Arabic sweets to electrical appliances and caged birds.

As work and living conditions have improved, community relations have developed and there are far fewer security problems.

And with no end in sight for the crisis in Syria - or the flood of refugees fleeing it - a new refugee camp, Azraq, is due to open in Jordan at the end of next month.

Built as an emergency response to an immediate need, the camps are starting to look more long-term by the day.

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