Zaatari Syrian refugee camp fertile ground for small businesses

By Dale Gavlak
Zaatari camp, Jordan

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image copyrightAFP
image captionZaatari opened in July 2012 in response to the growing Syria refugee population

Wheelchair-bound Mohamed Harib does not let his infirmity get in the way of a chance for business.

He has joined hundreds of compatriots setting up shops in Zaatari camp, Jordan's largest facility for Syrian refugees.

"I opened the shop to try to support my family because there are eight of us here," Mr Harib said of his tiny mobile phone stall sandwiched along Zaatari's bustling main drag, nicknamed the Champs-Elysees, after the famous Parisian street - a wink at Syrian humour.

The entrepreneurial acumen of Syrians, like Mr Harib, championing their own grassroots businesses have helped to transform the camp of 85,000 into Jordan's fifth biggest city, while turning a profit for many as well.

"Back in Syria, I had a car and a lovely home. We were used to a certain level of income," the businessman explained. "It's different here. I'm living in a caravan and my shop is in one too. We need money to survive."

image copyrightAP
image captionRecently the businesses staged camp-wide strikes protesting against the Syrian presidential elections
image copyrightReuters
image captionThe majority of refugees in Zaatari are from Deraa province in Syria, close to the border with Jordan
image copyrightAP
image captionZaatari is the largest Syrian refugee settlement in the region, with some 85,000 residents

The United Nations official in charge of Zaatari, Kilian Kleinschmidt, attributes the refugees' background as "traditionally traders, smugglers" to the camp's rapid evolution into an informal city in just two years.

Although sprawling and slum-like, the lively camp boasts of home-grown barber shops, wedding rentals, vegetable stalls and even a travel agency and pizza delivery service.

"With businesses sprouting up quickly and people making money, I knew this was the place we had to be," said 19-year-old Mahmoud, who along with his 10 brothers has forged a thriving mid-sized supermarket business at a strategic crossroads in the camp.

Unlike most refugees hoping to escape Zaatari, Mahmoud and his refugee family went the opposite route. They left life in a Jordanian town in order to live and work inside the camp - because of the business potential they saw there.

'Dynamic and innovative'

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe rapid growth of Zaatari has led to the creation of a second UNHCR camp in Jordan, the Azraq camp

Aid officials say Zaatari has also spurred new ways humanitarians assist Syrian refugees in Jordan by seeking creative, sometimes private enterprise solutions.

Jordan hosts some 600,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN, but authorities says their numbers could top one million.

"The whole crisis is pushing the humanitarian community further and faster than they've been before because the Syrian refugees themselves are extremely dynamic and innovative," said the World Food Programme's Jonathan Campbell .

"Also, we're in Jordan, which is a country fairly advanced in terms of its own infrastructure and internet capacity, so we can do things that we couldn't do in some other countries," Mr Campbell said.

"So a lot of the things that we always dreamt about, but were never really able to do before are actually happening here."

image copyrightAP
image captionUNHCR says that it needs $3.7bn in aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt

One of those innovations has allowed private supermarket chains, such as Safeway, to set up shop in Zaatari to try to give Syrian refugees more freedom of food choice.

The refugees use UN-issued debit cards, provided gratis from a Jordanian bank, containing their monthly food allowance to pay for their groceries both inside and outside the camp.

The debit cards will eventually be linked with the refugees' biometric data and could be soon used to buy medicine, clothing, and cooking gas refills.

"It's the first time ever in the world that this will be done in the retail environment," said Jonathan Campbell.

'Potential for profit'

image copyrightAP
image captionThere are about three million Syrian refugees in the region, with 100,000 registered each month

Kilian Kleinschmidt says with international funding low for aid, he and others are turning to the private sector for help - not for funds, but creative ideas and innovative technologies to assist the refugees.

Mr Kleinschmidt is working with municipal engineers in Marseilles for solutions to the camp's water and sewage problems, while the head of transport for Amsterdam -Zaatari's twin city - is drawing up proposals from the private sector to put in proper transportation.

Meanwhile, he is speaking with companies about how to recycle and produce energy out of solid waste from the camp and the surrounding municipalities. Discussions are also under way for a solar power plant.

There is a "new breed of corporate involvement in humanitarian work targeting refugees where they realise there is a real potential for profit," said Overseas Development Institute's Steve Zyck.

He said refugees meanwhile are "clearly benefiting by gaining access to a valuable service" such as mobile phones and cash transfers.

"It is not that the private sector will replace the traditional humanitarian community. It is about the two sectors complementing each other," Mr Zyck said.

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