The Falafel-Makers of the Zaatari Refugee Camp

In the second-largest refugee camp in the world, Syrians are making do by cooking falafel and ful while they wait to return home.

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Feb 25 2016, 5:00pm

Ali lays out a nice flatbread. With a quick, agile hand, he gently places a handful of small discs made of fava beans and chickpeas and flattens them with the tips of his fingers. He sprinkles diced tomatoes, salad, and pickled beets over them. He douses the ensemble with a generous dose of tahini, that oh-so-smooth sesame cream, and then folds the sandwich and hands it over to a young man who is eager to taste his loot.

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TL275_jordanie151119_7108 Ali's little shop in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. All photos by Thomas Louapre.

Ali had to leave his home country of Syria. Today, at 37-years-old, he lives, cooks, and sells falafel in Zaatari, the world's second-largest refugee camp, planted in a desert of dust in the northern part of Jordan. Open since summer 2012, Zaatari has welcomed nearly 80,000 Syrians fleeing civil war. For some time now, its inhabitants have been structuring their exiled existence.

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Abou Achraf, Ali's friend, molds the falafel and fries it in his mobile deep-fryer.

The "Saudi Market," one of the camp's main arteries, is abuzz with activity. Bikes, trucks, and clusters of pedestrians share the road, passing by a long line of small shops set up inside prefabs. You'll find everything here: strollers, fruits, vegetables, socks, light bulbs, perfumes, wedding dresses...Based on estimates from HCR (the UN Refugee Agency), there are around 2,500 such shops inside the Zaatari camp.

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TL275_jordanie151119_7118 Ali always adds a generous dose of tahini on his dishes.

Ali's business is always busy, from early morning to evening, and especially on Fridays. Could these be the best falafel in the district? "Thanks be to God, my falafels are famous!" answers the owner, offering a modest smile. Every morning, he arrives at dawn to prepare his dough, blending chickpeas and fava beans with a skillful mixture of spices, and a few small secrets. There is no refrigerator in the house, so a batch is made fresh every day.

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TL275_jordanie151119_7590 Ali's falafel mold.

In front of the shop, Abou Achraf, 46, his friend and employee, is browning the falafels as fast as he can in his mobile deep-fryer. "This is a well-rehearsed operation," he laughs, his bright, magnetic eyes glistening. Behind the counter, Ali greets customers who have come for ful—well seasoned, slow cooked fava beans—as well as tahini, hummus, falafel sandwiches, or simply a handful of the delicious crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside discs sprinkled with nothing but a little sumac on top. The refugee chef cooks as well he can, sometimes with the help of a generator.

The art of food, and of falafel in particular, was already Ali's profession in Daraa, Syria. In fact, the only thing he was able to take with him when he left was his falafel mold, which sets the size of the dough discs before they are thrown into the hot oil. "Cooking? One day, I got to try it, and I liked it," explains the man who doesn't handle too many pots and pans at home.

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When he arrived at Zaatari nearly two years ago, he bought this "caravan," named it "All That's Good," and received the authorization to leave camp to go buy kitchen supplies. He finds fresh produce in Zaatari's markets, which receive their stock from Jordanian merchant trucks. "Here, on this street, I'm surrounded by Syrians. It's almost like being in Syria...But outside, I feel like a foreigner," says Ali.

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Ali waits for one thing only: to go home with his wife and young daughter, who was born in the camp's maternity ward. "There is no future in Zaatari. We're right at the border, but what kind of live do we have? We hope to go back to our country soon," says the shop owner. In the meantime, he keeps on working in the kitchen, a place that offers small reminders of the life he used to lead. Here, however, "the fava beans and chickpeas aren't as good as in Syria." Ali used to go get his fava beans in Alep, "the best in the country."

Thomas Louapre is an independent photographer based in Nantes and Paris. See more of his photos in his portfolio.