Zaatari refugee camp: Rebuilding lives in the desert

Two million people have fled over Syria's borders to escape the bloody internal battle engulfing the country, the latest UN figures show. One million of them are children.

Many of those forced to leave their homes have taken refuge in neighbouring countries, but 130,000 of them are now living in a three-square-mile piece of the desolate Jordanian desert - home to the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp.

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  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Distribution centres
  • Common spaces
  • Administrative buildings
  • About

    Take a tour of Zaatari camp and meet residents Mahmood, Abu Shadi and Omaran.

    They are among the thousands of Syrians trying to live their lives in the makeshift desert city while dreaming of their return home.

    UN camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt also explains the challenges of supporting families left traumatised by conflict.

  • Mahmood

    Mahmood Mahamid, who lives with his wife and six children in Zaatari, oversees a neighbourhood of 80 shelters and its facilities.

    Back at his own tent, Mahmood's youngest son, Ali, has a pet tortoise, which his father says helps him to feel at home.

    "My hopes for the future are to return to our home in Syria and for all our brothers in Zaatari to do the same because we have had enough," Mahmood says.

    holderMahmood's story..
  • Abu Shadi

    Abu Shadi, who works as a waiter in one of Zaatari’s many food outlets, says he left Syria to protect his family.

    He now lives in a tent with his two children and pregnant wife.

    He works 12 hours a day and tries to keep his spirits up by having a laugh and a joke with fellow staff and customers.

    “People come here for a better atmosphere - to get away from life in the camp,” he says.

    holderAbu Shadi's story..
  • Omaran

    Omaran Al Masri, his wife and five children were some of Zaatari’s first residents. They have been living in a temporary shelter in the camp’s oldest street since fleeing Syria last year.

    From Deraa in southern Syria, Omaran, 39, says life in Zaatari remains hard. With no source of income, the family sells some dry food rations to buy fresh food and vegetables.

    "I wish I had enough courage to leave this camp,” says Omaran. “One day I want to smell fresh air outside of here."

    holderOmaran's story..
  • The ‘mayor’

    Kilian Kleinschmidt, who oversees the camp for the UN much like a mayor, says running a temporary city of 25,000 households is "an amazingly complex job".

    Providing food, water, shelter and healthcare to thousands of people every day is a challenge, but it is important that people are given back their dignity and offered a future, he says.

    "Everybody here is traumatised to a certain extent. There are too many families where an entire generation has been wiped out."

    holderThe mayor's story..

Image: Google/DigitalGlobe; Data: UNHCR/Unicef/Reach

About 13 children are born every day in the camp

  • 21% Under 5

    55% Under 18

Source: UNHCR

The dusty tent city, about 12km (eight miles) from the Syrian border, is the world's second-largest refugee camp - behind Dadaab in eastern Kenya - and has become the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Opening in July a year ago with some 100 refugee families, the original camp was built in nine days.

It now welcomes 2,000 new residents each day and is made up of 30,000 shelters and administration buildings.

It costs about $500,000 (£320,000) a day to run, with half a million pieces of bread and 4.2 million litres of water distributed daily.

How the camp grew: July 2012-July 2013

Select the thumbnails to view satellite images throughout the year


Distributed daily

  • Half a million pieces of bread

  • 4.2 million litres of water

Source: Unicef, UNHCR

This makeshift piece of Syria has three hospitals - meaning that healthcare and mortality rates are significantly better inside the camp than outside - and there are a number of schools, although attendance is low. Just a quarter go to classes.

Entrepreneurial residents have also set up more than 3,000 different shops and businesses along the camp's main roads - including the humorously named "Champs Elysee" - selling a wide range of goods and services, from groceries and fresh bread to wedding dresses and mobile phones.

There are also taxi services, children's playgrounds and football pitches.

A trip round Zaatari's 8km (five-mile) perimeter road, would take 20 minutes by car.

Take a tour of the camp in 41 seconds

Structures (as of 10th of July)

  • 27,101 shelters

    1,724 administration

  • 3,000 shops

    850 food outlets

Source: UNHCR

But, the camp is no longer just a temporary haven for many of its residents and has become, instead, a more permanent settlement.

And life inside can be harsh. Residents, mostly hailing from the Daraa governorate of Syria, face a number of challenges - the biggest being security.

Gangs are known to operate across the camp and women are particularly vulnerable to violence.

But the camp authorities - a partnership between the Jordanian government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - are trying to tackle the internal problems.

Residents are to be given more power over their lives, with representatives appointed from the camp's 12 districts.

Azraq: the new Zaatari

But, with the flow of refugees continuing daily, a second overflow camp - Azraq - is under construction in the desert to meet demand. It too will have the capacity to host up to 130,000 people.

Lessons have been learned from Zaatari - and the new site has already been divided into five "villages" containing 1,000 family compounds. The authorities hope this will help build communities.

The running of sanitation facilities will be handed over to residents quickly, encouraging a sense of ownership.

Satellite image of Azraq refugee camp, Jordan

Life in exile

Yet, the vast majority of Syria's refugees do not live in Jordan's desert camps, but are instead spread across the region. Most are in Lebanon, followed by Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

This is not forgetting the 4.25 million internally displaced people within Syria itself.

Statistics on Syrian refugees

Produced by Lucy Rodgers, Gerry Fletcher, Helene Sears, Christopher Ashton, Tian Yuan and Steven Atherton. Zaatari tour footage by Howard Johnson.

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