What life is really like for women inside Zaatari refugee camp

A story of the Jordanian camp told in three parts, via the daily lives of the seamstress, the wedding planners and the matriarch.

A Jordanian refugee camp the size of a city
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A short drive from the small, unassuming town of Zaatari in dusty, northern Jordan is Zaatari refugee camp, a location which is now home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees and Jordan’s fourth largest city.

The camp has changed dramatically since it was first erected around five years ago.

Rather than witnessing the makeshift UNHCR tents you’d expect to see in a refugee camp, visitors inside Zaatari will recognise more permanent dwellings and infrastructure. There are water and sewerage systems and even two main shopping streets - the euphemistically named Champs-Élysées and the Saudi Market, where you can purchase anything from falafel to bicycles to children’s toys.

“I will die before I go back."

As part of my PhD research and ongoing projects in the Middle East, photographer Darrian Traynor and I visited Zaatari in early 2017. When we spoke to residents of the camp, there seemed to be a growing sense of resignation among many that this was now their home.

“I will die before I go back”, Um Yaman, a 21-year-old Syrian mother of three small children tells SBS. But rather than being melancholy, the sense of permanence seemed to offer many women of the camp (one in five households in Zaatari are headed by women) an opportunity to sustain their families and their traditions in innovative and inspiring ways. 

The seamstress
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Even from a young age, Um Riad had business acumen. Her mother wanted her to get married and raise children but at age six she would sneak away to sew. By 13, she was designing and making clothes for herself and her sister. She tells us that when her father saw what she was doing, he encouraged her to keep going.

“When I first came to Zaatari, I worked for UN Women making baby carriers”, Um Riad explains. When that work ended about a year ago, through family and friends still in Syria, she managed to sell the goods she had left behind in her house when she had fled - her fridge, the television. She used the money she got from the sale and the savings from her UN job to finance a small business as a seamstress in a shopfront in Zaatari’s bustling Saudi market. Every month or so, she queues for two or three days in order to get a 14-day pass out of the camp so she can go to Amman to buy the fabric she needs to complete her orders.

While each refugee registered in Zaatari receives accommodation and a monthly allowance of 20 Jordanian Dinars (around $35AUD) from the UNHCR, the amount is rarely enough to cover all their needs. Um Riad rents her shop for about 50JOD a month and by designing and hand making traditional abayas and summer dresses for the women of Zaatari, which she sells for around 8JOD each, she manages to cover the rent for the shop and support her family. She even has enough left over to send to two of her daughters that remain inside Syria.

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The wedding planners
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Um Mohamad is the proud owner of a wedding planning business also located in the Saudi Market. Before the war, she ran a similar business in Syria for about 20 years renting out bridal gowns and doing hair and makeup packages for brides-to-be. “It was a great business then”, she recalls, smiling a little. Here, in Zaatari, it is “better than putting the hand out”, she says referring to begging, or doing nothing.

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Her trainee, Um Ala'a, a veritable Arab Dawn French, has a hearty laugh and a wicked sense of humour. Wedding planning is a competitive business in Zaatari with similar shops scattered throughout the camp but the pair generate business through word of mouth and good, reliable service. Both ladies giggle as they recount a story of one imminent bride who came to them with hair like ‘steel wool’ and another whose hair had completely fallen out because of the mistakes of another salon. In the case of the now bald bride Um Mohamad and Um Ala’a gave her a wig to wear for the wedding and Um Ala’a laughs heartily describing how they “cheated the husband” about her looks on his wedding night.

The matriarch
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Um Ala’a’s house is the focal point for a community of around half a dozen families that all hail from the same area of southern Syrian. Um Ala’a alone has 10 other family members in her household – a trailer donated by the UNHCR provides the main living area. A kitchen and wash area have been built off to one side.

The women come together at Um Ala’a’s to drink coffee, share stories, do puzzles and riddles and most importantly discuss cooking arrangements. “Here we would do anything just to not be bored,” says her friend Um Yaman. Many in the community eat lunch at Um Ala’a’s and today, she is cooking malfouf, cabbage leaves stuffed with spiced rice and mince meat. It takes time to prepare, cook, boil and roll the malfouf but the other women pitch in to get the job done. “We’re still following culture and tradition here,” Um Ala’a says.

All the women agree that they have a great community in Zaatari but that they miss relatives that are still in Syria or have fled elsewhere. The women occasionally allow themselves to dream that the war may end and they can return to Syria. ”But if I went back to Syria, I would miss everyone here”, sighs Um Yaman.

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