Just two years ago, what is now Jordan’s fourth largest city was nothing more than an empty stretch of desert.
It was hastily built in less than two weeks by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to accommodate a monumental exodus of refugees fleeing the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Within months, it had grown into the world’s second largest refugee camp — after Dadaab, in Kenya. Since it opened, over 3,000 babies have been born to mothers from the camp, making the number of children half of the camp’s population of more than 120,000.
Syrian refugees arrived in Zaatari, in northeastern Jordan, hoping for a short stay. But as the raging conflict next door entered its fourth year, many of them have traded their tents for trailer homes, and their hopes for a quick return for the realization that they are here for the foreseeable future.
“I think we’ll stay in the camp for a long time. We have maybe five or ten years before we can go back to Syria now,” Manal, who has lived in Zaatari for 16 months, told VICE News. “Even if Assad leaves Syria, I think they will fight each other, the Nusra [Front] and the army. They will fight each other for who will be the next president of Syria.”
Manal left her village near Deraa with her husband and four small children after the army raided their home. She told VICE News that she wants to go back — but that she is getting used to the idea that that won’t happen anytime soon.
“We want to go back to Syria, to our home, our house,” she said. “But we cannot go back now. I heard from some villagers that are still there and they said there are snipers, mortars. You know, it’s not safe. ”
More than 2.6 million refugees have fled Syria since the beginning of the conflict, according to UN figures, and nearly 600,000 of them have resettled in Jordan, which is also home to Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. An additional 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria. In the video below, UNHCR’s commissioner Antonio Guterres discusses the impact of Syria’s refugee crisis after visiting Zaatari on May 4.
"It is a must for the international community to give massive support to Jordan, to Lebanon, to the other countries," Guterres said. "In order to allow them to cope with this challenge."
As the situation in Syria worsened and more refugees arrived, Zaatari kept growing — to dangerous levels of overcrowding, observers said.
“At its high point it was 120,000 people, and then it shrunk to 75,000, and now it’s apparently up to more than 100,000 again,” Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), told VICE News. “The Jordanians think that the camp is safer when it’s less crowded. As it shrunk, it got a little bit more manageable.”
Zaatari's population has fluctuated, as some families have escaped or bribed their way out of the camp, and as Jordanian authorities have varied their responses to the influx of refugees.
Camp residents are not supposed to leave the premises without a permit — a constant cause of anger and frustration for many of them.
But despite strict controls, “people get out of the camp all the time,” Coogle said.
Last month, a confrontation between refugees and the Jordanian riot police that patrols Zaatari — reportedly over the detention of a man who was caught trying to smuggle a family out of the camp — turned violent. One man was killed in the riots that followed, and several tents were set on fire.
The incident was reminiscent of Zaatari’s early, chaotic days.
“It’s the only major incident in the last year. Before that, when Zaatari had just been set up, incidents like this were fairly common, altercations between anti-riot police and Syrians, and attacks on UN staff,” Coogle said. “Zaatari in those days was a pretty dangerous place. Once people started to settle down a little bit, and become a little more permanent, it got safer. But in the fall of 2012 it was a pretty rowdy place.”
As the months went by, Zaatari, as refugee camps often do, started to look more and more permanent. Trailer homes donated by Gulf countries started to substitute some of the tents, and the camp's social and commercial life grew around its main thoroughfare — Zaatari’s own “Champs Elysees,” as residents dubbed it.
Some of the camp's wealthier families were even able to move two or three trailer homes together, recreating social distinctions within the equalizer of refugee life. Soon a black market for food coupons and other aid supplies marked another sign of the camp’s permanence.
Manal’s family upgraded to a trailer home — a welcome change, she said, that was also a reminder they would be here for a while.
“Now I have my own bathroom, I don’t have to go to the public bathroom, it’s not so bad,” Manal said. “The public bathrooms are dirty. They are too much.”
Manal’s children — aged 4 to 10 — also got used to living in the camp, she said, though they often talk about the lives they left behind.
“They talk about Syria too much. Sometimes they talk about when the army entered our village, when they searched our house. They remember everything,” she said. “Sometimes they talk about their friends that are still in Syria, and ask to see them.”
But overall, the children have been adapting well, Manal said. They’ve now made friends in the camp, and they attend a school run by UNHCR, “with 150 students in each class.”
Manal, who used to be a teacher in Syria, said she sent them to school from day one, but that many other families in the camp let their children drop out of school, hoping the interruption wouldn’t last too long.
“They just wanted them to learn in Syria,” she said. “But now they send them to school too, because they don’t have any hope to go back.”
The adults have often had a harder time adjusting to the camp — and the restrictions that come with their refugee status.
“In Zaatari, there’s no freedom,” Manal said.
After a few months at Zaatari, her husband started to look for work outside — one of many residents finding their way out of the camp hoping for a better deal in Jordan’s cities and towns. But he had no luck.
“My husband couldn’t find a job outside, we didn’t have enough money for rent, and food there,” Manal said. “So we came back to the camp.”
As Syrians in the camp dreamed of leaving Zaatari, some of those who had been struggling to get by in Jordanian towns and villages — where they are free to move around but have to pay for food and housing — dreamed of making the opposite move. Manal’s own brother, who settled in Irbid, has been thinking about moving his family to Zaatari, she said.
“They can’t find money for rent,” she said. “Now they think Zaatari is better, they want to come here.”
Many refugees frustrated with life in the camp even made it back, but many didn’t last long.
“Some people went back to Syria and then returned to the camp,” Manal said. “But some young boys, they went there to fight.”
Last week, Jordanian authorities and the UN opened Azraq refugee camp — a brand new, $63.5 million camp, with a capacity of 130,000 people. The camp, which some aid workers complained is extremely isolated, "out in the desert and not near a major town," welcomed its first 1,133 refugees last Friday, including many who were resettled there from Zaatari. Like at Zaatari, half of them are children, UN officials said.
While its harsh location is unpopular with refugees and aid workers alike, the camp was built keeping in mind lessons learned in Zaatari, where problems ranged from overcrowding to a shortage of blankets in the middle of the winter.
Though still largely empty, Azraq already feels permanent: it has two hospitals, two schools, mosques, community centers, and even a supermarket.
"Over a year's worth of planning, development and construction has gone into the refugee camp, which is an unusual set of circumstances in refugee response," Andy Needham, UNHCR's external relation officers, said in a Q&A with the online portal Syria Deeply. "The Azraq camp was designed to look and function like a real city, as opposed to an emergency camp."
While that might make the refugees' stay more comfortable, it is also a recognition of the fact that Syria's refugees need a lot more than a temporary solution.
"I hope this is the last refugee community," Waddah Lihmoud, director of Syrian refugee affairs in Jordan, said at the camp's official openings.
He was not alone in his hope.
"They have to really help the Syrian people, not just watch us dying," Manal said, referring to a war with no end in sight.
“It’s not just me, everyone here in the camp talks about how we’ll stay here for more than five years,” she added. “We don’t have any hope to go back to Syria.”