The Champs-Élysées of Za’atari

Nathalie Van Edom

Shopping in Paris is so last year; real innovation is to be found in Za’atari refugee camp. The people here have created a shopping street out of nothing. Fresh vegetables, bikes, candies, shoes or bathrooms—you can buy it all at the Champs-Élysées of Za’atari.

View on the Champs-Élysées of Za’atari, a shopping street that Syrian refugees have built from scratch. By Baptiste Collard.

View on the Champs-Élysées of Za’atari, a shopping street that Syrian refugees have built from scratch. Picture by Baptiste Collard.

Numbers don’t tell the full story, but in this case we have some remarkable ones to share. 461,701 people have been in Za’atari camp since it started in 2012. Some of them just passing by, others have been living here for four years.

Today the camp is at its full capacity with 79,551 Syrian refugees. All these people had their own house in Syria, a decent education and a good job. They had the same level of comfort and living standards as we have in Belgium. And now they need to start over in a container in the sand, with very limited privacy and means.

Overview of the Za’atari refugee camps where almost 80,000 people have their new homes.  Picture by Baptiste Collard.

Overview of the Za’atari refugee camps where almost 80,000 people have their new homes. Picture by Baptiste Collard.

Today, we get to see some extraordinary organisation skills. The way UNHCR and the other 46 NGOs run Za’atari camp is impressive. There are nine schools, 12 hospitals and the camp is divided in several districts. The different organisations try to involve the Syrian people as much as possible: those who were electricians before now get a training to help with the electricity network in the camp. Others with a good level of English work as interpreters, and every district community centre is run by local volunteers.

In these district community centres, people can learn English, follow computer or sewing classes, and there is also an art class. The visit to the small art gallery really touches me. On the one side you see many artworks showing the beautiful landmarks of Syria: the citadel of Aleppo, the water mills of Hama and the Omajjad mosque in Damascus. The artworks are made with such love and precision that you can feel people’s pride for their homeland. But there are also other creations that reflect the Syrian trauma. Art is clearly used as a way to deal with the harsh reality, and I hope it works.

Nathalie talking to one of the Syrian volunteers of the art class. You can see a miniature of Palmyra, the amphitheatre of Bosra, and also a traumatic painting.  Picture by Ann Luyckx.

Nathalie talking to one of the Syrian volunteers of the art class. You can see a miniature of Palmyra, the amphitheatre of Bosra, and also a traumatic painting. Picture by Ann Luyckx.

Just like a phoenix rises from its ashes, the Syrian refugees are finding a way to start up a new life in these harsh circumstances: they only get a few hours of electricity per day and have limited access to water. With a current temperature of 40°C, the heat in the containers is very unpleasant. I’m impressed by the power and positive thinking of these people and I think we, from the comfortable west, can learn a lot from them!

Jordan is known for its wonder of the world at Petra. I think, however, the country’s real wonder is a bit up north in Za’atari. The strength with which these refugees build up their lives out of nothing is a real miracle.

One of the families we visited in their container. Despite the poor circumstances, they still try to create a homely feeling.  By Baptiste Collard.

One of the families we visited in their container. Despite the poor circumstances, they still try to create a homely feeling. By Baptiste Collard.

 

 

 

 

Nathalie Van Edom

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nathalie Van Edom

I am a 28-year-old Sales BAM for Bed and Bathroom at IKEA Hasselt. I love backpacking in lesser-known destinations and I have a passion for interior decoration. During IWitness, I hope to meet interesting people who live in refugee camps as well as to know more about the people who work there. I went to Syria and Jordan just before the civil war, so I wonder how those countries have evolved since. When I come back, I look forward to sharing all my experiences with you.

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