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Syrian refugees build city in the desert

Bethan Staton, Azraq, Jordan
July 7, 2016

In a remote location in northern Jordan, Azraq refugee camp has seen its population double in a matter of months. Now, it must transform from a sparse barracks into a thriving community, reports Bethan Staton.

Osama's hardware store in the souk in Azraq Camp
Image: DW/B. Staton

Osama Agayl's hardware store in Azraq refugee camp (photo above) is stacked to the rafters with tools, paint cans and brushes. In the dim light, the staff sit and drink coffee, chatting about business and gossip, the politics of the camp and of home.

"Business is going well," Osama says, gesturing around his shop. "It's a good opportunity here."

A Jordanian from the nearby town that gives the camp its name, Osama is the founder of one of 100 new businesses in Azraq. In two of the camp's neighborhoods, ordered souks of blue-and-white shacks, oddly reminiscent of beach huts in the desert, have been opened to a carefully selected group of Jordanian and Syrian entrepreneurs who've set up falafel joints, barber shops and convenience stores.

Most refugees have high hopes for the marketplace. Until recently the only place to buy goods in Azraq was a cavernous supermarket, a blisteringly hot two-kilometer walk from many shelters. Its monopoly drove up food prices; despite stamps from the World Food Program, food insecurity among refugees in Azraq is high. Residents hope freer markets will increase competition, lowering prices, creating opportunities and community in the camp.

There is, however, a problem with the plan.

"No one has any money," Basel, a Syrian refugee who works at the store says. "People can't buy anything."

Osama nods. "For people to spend they need to have an income, work. But there's not much here in the camp," His optimism visibly flags.

A different approach to refugee camps

The uncertainty of Osama's venture is typical of Azraq's challenges. The camp's been standing for more than two years, but there's still no electricity. Movement of people and goods in and out of the camp is heavily restricted, and much of the economy is based on limited work opportunities provided by NGOs.

And more recently a buildup of refugees at Jordan's border has brought tens of thousands of extremely vulnerable people to Azraq, more than doubling the camp's total population. Today it must develop not just to accommodate the 50,000 people now living there, but to become a home for them too.

Refugees who live in Azraq Camp walk between residential areas and the supermarket
Residents cross desert to get from the living quarters to Azraq Camp's supermarketImage: DW/B. Staton

The slow growth of Azraq comes thanks, in part, to a carefully planned humanitarian vision, designed in contrast to its predecessor Zaatari. There, the daily arrival of thousands of refugees at the beginning of the crisis meant the camp grew chaotically, guided not by authorities but the residents' own efforts to establish trade and community. Business and life flourished, but so did criminality and chaos. Riots were commonplace and the UN itself reported that organized crime, gangs and people trafficking was rampant.

In Azraq, with the luxury of time and planning, authorities pursued an opposite approach. Smaller "villages" of fixed shelters were established around infrastructure like clinics and community centers, a system that sought to promote a feeling of ownership and easy access to the basics.

To some extent it's made Azraq a success, says UNHCR Mass Information Officer Olga Sarrado Mur. "There have been no riots. There have been no serious complaints about people being frightened to go outside," she explained. "The thing that always comes up when you ask people about Azraq is they say they feel safe here. Coming from the situations these people have been in, that's very important."

Finding purpose in the desert

According to Carlo Gherardi, head of operations at the Norwegian Refugee Council, Azraq's architects hoped that decentralized, ready-to-go facilities - like clinics, children's spaces and job centers - would enable new residents to contribute to the organic growth of their own communities. But external factors, including the remote location and daily arrival rate of just 60-70 refugees, thwarted success. "There was never really a critical mass, and that stifled the ability of the community to develop," he explained.

A camp resident prepares falafel in his family's store in the marketplace
Those at the camp who have work are fortunateImage: DW/B. Staton

People's ability to express themselves through trade, break monopolies and develop markets is lacking in contrast to Zaatari, where a bustling high street provides almost everything residents might need. "There's been no competition," Gherardi continued. "The markets need to open - you need to let people trade."

Among Azraq's refugees there's broad agreement. Residents are angry about the lack of choice and high prices at the supermarket, frustrated by the dearth of opportunities and eager to create their own initiatives. Numbers show the level of need: Even before the recent influx 7,000 people applied for 450 volunteering posts, according to the UNHCR, and 500 applications were submitted for 100 slots in the marketplace.

Refugees like Basel who have taken up work in the camp say it's changed their lives immeasurably. Not far from the marketplace Ahmed, who's been in the camp for two years, is volunteering in a community center, work, he says, that gave him purpose where he once felt depressed and lost. He's been impressed with his fellow Syrians' ability to work together to create something out of nothing in this barren desert landscape. "We have to make it work, and we do," he says.

Accommodation blocks in Azraq camp, painted with murals
Living conditions are basic, with no electricity or running waterImage: DW/B. Staton

Still, the chances for work and direction don't lighten the anxiety of refugees who feel trapped. Despite the positive signs Ahmed feels bleak about Azraq and worried about the thousands of young men stuck with nothing to do, denied agency over their own futures and dependent on the opportunities and limitations of camp life.

"Back home, I know I'm responsible for my life. But here, there's a higher authority working for us, making our decisions," he said. "We're not controlling our own lives anymore."