TOPICS > World

World’s largest Syrian refugee camp has developed its own economy

June 18, 2016 at 5:13 PM EDT
Zataari in Jordan, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world with 80,000 people, was supposed to provide temporary housing when the government and United Nations opened it in 2012. But since residents have not been able to leave, they have started 3,000 businesses and cities nearby have loosened employment restrictions.

AMY GUTTMAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: An hour’s drive from Jordan’s capital of Amman, this family-owned pastry shop, called Farouk Sweets, looks like a typical Middle Eastern bakery. Customers stock up on pastries for the weekend.

In the back, five bakers are busy filling large wedding orders.

What’s unusual is that this shop is inside Zaatari, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, spread over three square miles of desert.

Opened by the Jordanian government and the United Nations in 2012, Zaatari lies just across the border with Syria. Eighty thousand people used to live in tents and now live in shelters made from corrugated metal containers called “caravans.”

Refugees thought they would be here a week, maybe a month. No one imagined that stay would turn into five years and counting. Even though, for many, home is less than ten miles away, refugees have had to recreate their lives here.

That means, for many, opening up small businesses, just like they did back home. The pastry shop is one of three-thousand businesses inside the camp. Many line the main road.

There’s a supermarket, a pizza place, a falafel stand, a gardening shop, and a store to rent bridal gowns. Abuelmena’em Abu Hesenih and his four brothers own Farouk Sweets.

ABUELMENA’EM ABU HESENIH, SYRIAN REFUGEE: There is good opportunity to work here. Thursday, Friday and Monday are busiest, because at that time they’re celebrating weddings.

AMY GUTTMAN: His family abandoned their chain of bakeries when they fled their besieged hometown of Daraa, in southern Syria. Two-thirds of the refugees in Zaatari are from there. Abu Hesenih and some two-dozen relatives have opened four shops inside the camp. Their business is about financial and psychological survival.

ABUELMENA’EM ABU HESENIH: We get up every morning at 6 o’clock to escape the situation we’re in. we have to work.

AMY GUTTMAN: There’s a long history of trade between Jordanians and Syrians, cemented by strong family ties.  Jordanians have partnered with Syrian refugees providing them credit and wholesale supplies to start over.

In addition to whatever funds they brought with them, the UN provides refugees vouchers to pay for cooking and heating gas, as well as 28-dollars a month per person to pay for food which adds up to 140 dollars a month for a family of five.

That money helps refugees buy products from shops in the camp. The most popular, attract local customers from nearby towns. Some Jordanian partners are even exporting goods produced in the camp.

ABU HESENIH, BAKER: Jordanians, they come and buy from here. Taxi drivers pick up sweets to take outside, and all the Syrians that live outside the camp, for weddings, they make orders and pick up their sweets from here.

AMY GUTTMAN: According to the UN, businesses inside Zaatari generate $13 million a month for the refugees and the Jordanians they do business with.

Mohammed Khaer Al Jokadar opened a barber shop in the camp two years ago to support himself and 14 relatives who fled Syria with him.

MOHAMMED KHAER AL-JOKADAR, SYRIAN REFUGEE: Ever since it opened, I’ve had customers. And business has been okay. Nobody can go without a haircut. It’s like water and food.

AMY GUTTMAN: Al Jokadar and his family are from Homs, previously Syria’s third largest city.

MOHAMMED KHAER AL-JOKADAR: Our house was destroyed. so for us, we have nothing left in Syria .

AMY GUTTMAN: Initially, Al Jokader and his family settled in Amman four years ago. But, he couldn’t work legally outside the camp then, so he moved to Zaatari, where there’s free electricity and housing and better opportunities to use his skills.

MOHAMMED KHAER AL-JOKADAR: We need to generate an income in the camp, you can make some money.

AMY GUTTMAN: The UN also pays some refugees to do jobs around the camp. Al Jokader paints murals on caravans.

Beyond the camps, in Jordan’s cities, the government has loosened employment restrictions on refugees and is investing in industries Syrians are skilled in — construction, agriculture, and manufacturing.

And, technology. Oasis 500, a Jordanian company that mentors and invests in tech startups, has recruited Syrian entrepreneurs to come to Jordan and participate in their mentoring program.

Moe Ghashim was one of them. He’s s from Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo, where he ran his own web design agency with a dozen employees. It was successful, until the war.

MOE GHASHIM, CO-FOUNDER, SHOPGO: Things started to become ugly back then in Syria. No electricity, no Internet. I couldn’t work anymore. I searched for incubators in the Arab world. Amman was basically booming – a lot of startups.

AMY GUTTMAN: Five years ago, with seed money from Oasis500, he launched ShopGo, an e-commerce platform helping businesses in the region process payments….something he learned to do in the US, while paying his way through college. He now has 300 clients.

MOE GHASHIM: We’re in Dubai, we’re in Amman, we are now subcontracting others, in the UK, the U.S. Things are moving. A couple of years ago, I just wanted $10,000 to survive. We raised over $3 million in funding, so far.

AMY GUTTMAN: 25 of Ghashim’s employees are Jordanian. Seven are Syrian. The integrated workforce is intentional.

MOE GHASHIM: I’m very proud of how we’re trying to work together as a community. The team that work with me brought their families here. Some of them married Jordanians. We have to survive.

AMY GUTTMAN: Today, Ghashim lives in Amman with an office overlooking an upscale shopping mall, building a future for himself, while Aleppo is ravaged by war.

MOE GHASHIM: I feel I’m jumping between these two lives, two movies that can’t relate. I don’t belong here. But technically, I do. I do belong to that place, but technically, I don’t.

AMY GUTTMAN: Unlike Ghashim, not every Syrian refugee has the skills, the capital, or the connections to support themselves.

Jordan’s government contends refugees are depleting a quarter of its annual budget — draining resources like water and overcrowding hospitals and schools.

In Mafraq, the city closest to the Zaatari refugee camp, the population has doubled to 200,000.

The Hai Al Dubat School for Girls has shortened class times and lengthened school days to accommodate Syrian children.

Jordanian kids come in the morning, and Syrians in the afternoon. Alia Aku Shaydah is the principal.

ALIA AKU SHAYDAH, PRINCIPAL, HAI AL-DUBAT SCHOOL FOR GIRLS: Sometimes the Jordanians feel that the Syrians are coming in and taking their seats, their desks.

AMY GUTTMAN: Nationwide, 50,000 Syrian children are on waiting lists to attend Jordanian schools. In addition to double shifts, Aku Shaydah says she and her staff are dealing with many Syrian kids traumatized by war.

ALIA AKU SHAYDAH: They were very aggressive at first. They were very violent, and they would break things benches, windows. But now they are a lot calmer. We were patient with them.

AMY GUTTMAN: Jordan is committed to educating refugee children, says Imad Fakhoury, Jordan’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation.

IMAD FAKHOURY, JORDANIAN MINISTER OF PLANNING AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION: We in Jordan, for example, very early on believed that we cannot afford to have a lost Syrian generation. Syrian boys and girls that don’t go for schools for 5 6, 7, 10 years. They’ll be left vulnerable to radicalization.

Jordan has received a-billion-and-half dollars from the European Union — with another four billion in international aid pledged to help Syrian refugees. Minister Fakhoury believes the EU is essentially paying Jordan to keep refugees in Jordan.

IMAD FAKHOURY: The reality is we are at a saturation point. We are fatigued as a nation. You can count on a country like Jordan to do this for five years, but this is the sixth year. There’s no end in sight. It will take years before the refugees can go back safely. Enough is enough. The international community needs to do much more. You can’t wait. It costs you ten times when the refugees get into Europe. So why not do more at the host country’s point of view?

AMY GUTTMAN: Fakhoury believes more aid is needed to fulfill the idea that if the lives of Syrian refugees improve in Jordan, they’ll be less likely to migrate to Europe.

IMAD FAKHOURY: We’re very interested that the Syrians remain close to their country. That they will have the chance one day to go back and build it and reconstruct it.

AMY GUTTMAN: That’s exactly what Abuelmena’em Abu Hesenih and his brothers want to do once the war ends.

ABU HESENIH: Right away, we will go back and this place. We’ll sell, but we will not stay here a minute longer.