Tales from Za’atari: Inside the refugee camp that’s becoming the fourth largest city in Jordan

Children make the most of a playground in the Za'atari camp. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

In some ways, the house at the edge of District 8 is a typical Arabian home. A seating area at the heart of the structure features a few threadbare floor cushions, which double as beds at night. There’s a small improvised toilet outside, hidden behind a curtain.

The family living here has managed to purchase a second caravan, which serves as a crude kitchen with buckets full of pans and a small gas stove in the middle of the floor. A canopy, formerly a tent, is slung between the two rooms. It sags in the middle, disguising for a moment the blue logo emblazoned across. The letters underneath read: “UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency”. 

There are more and more makeshift houses like this in Za’atari,the vast camp in northern Jordan, where some 80,000 Syrians have taken refuge from their war-torn country. As the crisis draws on, some, disillusioned with life in the camps, have made the perilous journey back. But many have given up watching for a window to return, and are trying to build a life here in the interim.

Sunrise over the camp. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

Za’atari is testament to this. Initially intended to provide a temporary settlement when the tents went up to meet the first refugees five years ago, it has now become, to some extent, a city in its own right – the fourth largest in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

There’s a strange mixture of permanence and transience here. An increasingly sophisticated urban infrastructure is rapidly evolving as camp organisers look for more efficient and sustainable ways to accommodate demand.

Yet while the Jordanian government has given the go ahead for an expansive new water network, sewage system and solar power station – facilities that surpass some of those in nearby towns and cities – the ban on building proper housing in Za’atari remains firmly in place. With the largest ratio of refugees to civilians in the world, Jordan’s government is wary. Their country has a long history of refugee camps taking root and, increasingly, Za’atari looks set to do the same.

It’s not something anybody wants. “As humanitarian agencies we don’t like to have camps. Rather than creating a synthetic setting, we prefer refugees to be accommodated in host communities, which will usually feature similarities in terms of culture and environment,” says Hovig Etyemezian, Za’atari camp manager for UNHCR.

“When a displacement crisis reaches the point where camps are needed,” he adds, “we prefer to keep them at less than 20,000 people.” Za’atari is four times this size. To date, some 400,000 have passed through the camp, which reached 150,000 at its peak. It is now closed to new arrivals, with the majority of incoming refugees sent to a new facility at Azraq in eastern Jordan.

The war economy

While life inside the camps is difficult, the world beyond the walls is fraught with obstacles. There are some 640,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, though a government census conducted last year places the actual figure at around 1.4m. The vast majority are living among local communities, where a recent study indicates that 9 out of 10 Syrians live below the Jordanian poverty line of $87 per month.

As a small country with a population of just 7m and scarce economic resources to support them, Jordan lacks the capacity to absorb the ongoing flood of asylum seekers into its towns and cities. Already, the number of refugees is outnumbering local populations in areas such as the northern city of Mafraq, 10km from Za’atari, where there are now two Syrians to every one Jordanian.

Home sweet home. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

The imbalance adds to the tension in local communities as Jordan struggles under the strain. Services built for a majority of Jordanians are now stretched beyond capacity. There are long lines outside hospitals, and some schools are operating classes in shifts to accommodate the influx of Syrian students. “We are very clear that the presence of refugees presents a burden on Jordan,” says Etyemezian.

But he adds that the situation could also be turned into an opportunity if the local economy is expanded to accommodate a Syrian workforce. Substantial investment from the international community is being channelled towards facilitating work permits and creating employment opportunities for Syrian refugees, who, until now, have been unable to work in Jordan. However, with too few jobs for Jordanians as it is, the situation requires careful handling.

This was a key topic in discussions at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London last February, where Jordan pledged to improve opportunities for Syrian refugees to work legally in the country. In the Jordan Compact, the government promised to create 200,000 jobs for Syrian refugees; it recently took the first step by introducing measures to help 78,000 Syrians enter the local workforce.

It will be a long time though, before the benefits of these changes are felt in the camps. In the meantime, refugees in Za’atari do what they can to supplement the aid they receive, which is enough for basic survival but little else.

Some work with aid agencies in volunteer capacities but demand for these roles is huge and opportunities are limited. A number have managed to scrape together sufficient funds to set up stalls and restaurants – even internet cafes and wedding dress shops, along the imaginatively named main thoroughfare, Champs Elysées. There are now more than 2,000 small enterprises of this sort here, none of them sanctioned, but tolerated nonetheless. 

Others leave the camp illegally under the cover of darkness to work on neighbouring farms. Permission is required to enter and exit Zaatari but there are ways around the rules here. At night, aid workers doing the rounds might spot the shadowy figures of farm labourers slipping over the mound of earth that separates the refugee camp from the world outside, but they won’t say anything. The blind eye is necessary in a place this topsy-turvy, where restrictions govern every action but life couldn’t function if the regulations weren’t bent a little.

Fixing the plumbing

Camp managers have discovered this for themselves as they search for ways to make life here more dignified – a word humanitarian workers use often in Za’atari. As a longer-term view of the crisis becomes unavoidable, aid agencies are shifting from an emergency response to a resilience-based approach, resulting in the introduction of sustainable and – a word no one likes to utter here – permanent, solutions.

“Zaatari started out as a temporary settlement that was only supposed to exist for a few months,” explains Andrew Boscoe, Oxfam’s programme manager at Za’atari. “So initially we focused on providing a quick response with communal facilities and shared access to water.”

Inside the classroom. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

 However, as first months, then years, passed, refugees living in Za’atari started to make their own arrangements. More and more, as people accepted that they were going to be here for a longer period of time, they began to invest in their homes.

One of the biggest challenges for camp operators has been meeting the expectations in living standards of the Syrian refugees. “The humanitarian players who responded to the need for Za’atari in the beginning were mainly used to operating in a different context. While the facilities provided were actually much better than you’d find in an average camp in, for example, Africa, it represented a big drop in living conditions for the Syrians, who are used to running water in their homes and private toilets,” Boscoe explains.  

Many set about “privatising” communal facilities and establishing personal connections to water and sewage tanks. “We’d put new taps into the wash blocks one day, taking care to cement them in, only to find that they were gone again by morning, Boscoe continues. “We’ve had doors removed from the wash blocks, street signs taken for tables and even the aggregate from speed bumps melted down and re-used to line outdoor areas by the caravans; they’re very resourceful.”

For a while, this was the pattern across the camp, with materials from communal facilities reappropriated by refugees to enhance the living conditions in their individual homes. Now, the lessons have been learnt and the response from UN agencies and NGO’s operating in Za’atari is increasingly to accommodate the standards the Syrians are setting. This is partly to ensure changes are made properly, and partly because they have little choice. As Etyemezian points out, “If the population here doesn’t like the way something is done, they will change it themselves – so we listen to the population.”

Funding, used for an emergency response in the beginning, is now being channelled towards supporting a more long-term approach. This includes building a water and sewage network that reaches each dwelling, and supplying private toilet facilities to the more vulnerable households that haven’t managed to secure them by other means.

The alternative is botched DIY connections where refugees plumb into the pipes themselves and establish private sources of water. This increases the threat of contamination to the whole system, making it difficult to protect the quality of the supply.

Meanwhile, hacking into the electricity grid, which is what almost every household in Za’atari has done, brings another set of problems. In one instance, a septic tank exploded after coming into contact with an electric wire, and there have been tragic cases of children dying when walking over live cables touching wet ground.

For now, electricity in Za’atari is rationed – a necessary cut back after the monthly bill, paid for by UNHCR, topped $1m. A $20m solar power plant due for completion at the end of the year will go some way towards alleviating this problem but, for now, refugees must adapt yet again.

That means making do without electricity during daylight hours, a source of much frustration in a place where there is already too little to occupy people during the day. With work opportunities scarce, many rely on television to endure long, aimless hours. In Azraq, the new purpose-designed and in many ways more comfortable refugee camp further south, electricity will not be available for a few more months and relies heavily on promised aid coming through.

“The lack of electricity here is one of the main reasons that refugees have preferred in the past to go to Za’atari,” explains Jameel Dababneh, team leader at Azraq refugee camp for CARE International in Jordan. The organisation has distributed solar lights around the camp, which some refugees have tactically re-wired and placed on their roofs to increase supply. However this still won’t generate sufficient power for something as simple as running a fan during the stifling summer months.

Yaseen Khalaf, a 43-year-old from Aleppo who has been living in Azraq for almost two years, describes the lack of electricity as the “greatest day-to-day challenge of life in the camp”.

The domestic front

That, and finding ways to fill the time. “For men like me, if they can’t find a job, boredom is one of the biggest problems,” Khalaf says, adding: “My hope in this life is just to go back to my country and live in peace.”

In the close, chaotic environment of the camps, boredom translates easily into frustration. Anger quickly follows, all too often manifested in the form of domestic violence – an ongoing issue among refugee communities in the camps.


Domestic life. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

It’s a problem that men have raised themselves. In a recent report by UN Women on Restoring Dignity and Building Resilience, the situation is explained by one refugee man: “When we stay at home and don’t know what to do with ourselves, all this turns into anger: At ourselves for failing. At our families for needing things. They tell you that family violence is increasing. Why do you think that is? When the pocket is full, everything is fine.”

UN Women’s cash-for-work programme provides economic empowerment opportunities and skills training for women in Za’atari. This is paired with protection referral services, life skills and counselling – not just for women but, crucially, for men too. The organisation’s #HeforShe dialogues engage men on issues of camp stress and tensions, over time looking at gender equality and domestic violence.

“While behavioural change is a long-term process, our monitoring has demonstrated the difference made through engaging men on issues of violence and equality,” says Rachel Dore-Weeks, recovery specialist, UN Women. She points to a recent impact assessment report by the organisation, which showed at least a 20 percent reduction in gender-based violence among its beneficiary population.

Manal Ahmad, an English teacher in her former life in Syria, has recently completed a cash-for-work cycle with UN Women. The past year has seen an abrupt role reversal in her household, with her husband taking care of the children while she goes off to work.

It’s an increasingly common scenario in Za’atari and many men have struggled to come to terms with the concept of their wives and daughters going out to work – but in these desperate times, deep-rooted customs must make way for survival. “The women go off to do things and the men just stay in the house. Sometimes I’ll be late back and come home to find him cooking with my eldest daughter (aged 12) helping him. That’s not normal in Syria.”

Little about life in Za’atari can be described as normal. Only the children born here, some of them now five years old, who have never known life outside the camp, are spared the unsettling sense of living in an endless limbo. For them, this world of caravans, eating and sleeping in one, going to school in another, is life as usual – though it’s hard to imagine they can have formed a very favourable impression of it. As aid trickles in and the makeshift city slots into place around them – a private water supply here, a new electricity connection there – conditions improve, but the world inside remains upside down.

Life goes on. Image: Christopher Herwig/UN Women.

Ahmad is luckier than most. Speaking English has allowed her to supplement her cash-for-work income with more lucrative translation work for visiting media. She’s been able to purchase additional caravans on the proceeds, building a kitchen and private bathroom.

The veneer of normality doesn’t fool her children though. “I am always telling them to study, study, as that’s the only way they’ll get out of the camp. I have tried my best to give them a sense of security, to recreate a stable life for them here - but sometimes, when we watch television, they point at the screen and ask why we don’t have a real house, with proper walls and furniture and rooms like everyone else.”

Olivia Cuthbert visited Za’atari with the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, which supports women in times of war and conflict.

All images courtesy of Christopher Herwig/UN Women.


Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.


The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.


The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.

So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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