Jordan's Grassroots, Black-Market, DIY City

A dispatch from the Zaatari refugee camp


Michael Kimmelman reports from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan:

I'm using this illustration because of the "Do It Yourself Housing," not the "1984."
Freedom Press

Syria is only a few miles away. From the camp one can feel the shelling. A farmer back home and jack-of-all-trades, Mr. Bidawi arrived here with his wife and children a year ago, only to have his youngest daughter die in the camp, overwhelmed by tear gas fired when guards struggled to quell a riot. Everyone in Zaatari has horror stories about homes destroyed, family members lost and bad times in the camp.

But now, at a pace stunning to see, Zaatari is becoming an informal city: a sudden, do-it-yourself metropolis of roughly 85,000 with the emergence of neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.

The change, accelerated by regional chaos and enterprising Syrians, illustrates a basic civilizing push toward urbanization that clearly happens even in desperate places—people leaving their stamp wherever they live, making spaces they occupy their own.

Kimmelman contrasts this informal order with a more tightly controlled camp elsewhere in the country:

Azraq (artist's rendition).
Freedom Press

Azraq, located miles from anywhere, is strictly policed, with fixed, corrugated metal shelters in military order, dirt floors and shameful public toilets, and it has no electricity. So far about 11,000 Syrians are marooned there. The camp is planned to house more than 100,000.

Refugees at Azraq, families with small children, terrified at night without electricity to light the shelters, unprotected against the scorpions, mice and snakes, say they escaped one nightmare to arrive at another.

The oldest parts of Zaatari, by contrast, now have streets, one or two paved, some lined with electric poles, the most elaborate houses cobbled together from shelters, tents, cinder blocks and shipping containers, with interior courtyards, private toilets and jerry-built sewers. Clusters of satellite dishes and water tanks on the skyline can bring to mind favelas in Rio de Janeiro or slums in Cairo. Like favelas, the camp has grown according to its own ad hoc, populist urban logic, which includes a degree of social mobility.

Kimmelman credits Kilian Kleinschmidt, the U.N.'s man in Zaatari, with accepting the emerging city and "slowly formalizing the camp's economy." But don't think for a moment that he has tamed the place:

An empty police station disappeared from near the camp entrance one night, its trailers repurposed as homes and shops two days later.

Bonus links: "Transforming a Tower," "DIY Infrastructure in Egypt," "Illegal Cities."