Life inside the Zaatari refugee camp

As the Syrian refugee crisis threatens to become one of the worst humanitarian disasters of this century, a rare behind the scenes documentary has been released online to highlight the everyday struggles faced by refugees and those trying to help.

Zaatari camp as seen through the lens of a television crew who spent 30 days documenting the work of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for the online documentary series Zaatari: A Day in the Life. Courtesy: Yahoo News
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As the Syrian refugee crisis threatens to become one of the worst humanitarian disasters of this century, a rare behind the scenes documentary has been released online to highlight the everyday struggles and challenges faced by the refugees and those trying to help them.

Filmed over a 30-day period, the 15 episode documentary captures life inside the Zaatari refugee camp on the border of Jordan and Syria borders. Aired on Yahoo, it gives the public a raw and painful look inside a tented city that is home to more than 120,000 Syrian refugees, and whose numbers rise every day as the conflict in Syria rages on.

The reality series Zaatari: A Day in the life captures the efforts of the UN Refugee Agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and what it takes to build and then manage “a city” built from scratch for residents fleeing with often nothing more than the clothes on their back and pain of loss and danger as their luggage.

Besides the battle to deliver the simple demands for shelter, electricity, water, and health care, humanitarian workers also struggle to provide education for the 60,000 children under 18.

Despite the great challenges and tragic stories across the camp, there are glimpses of optimism as entrepreneurial camp citizens create the ‘Champs Elysees’ — a high street to match that of any bustling Middle Eastern town selling mobile phones, slush puppies and even haircuts.

The camp manager from UNHCR, Kilian Kleinschmidt, a German who calls himself the Mayor of Zaatari — “or simply, the Boss”, says in the documentary that: “We are building a city while people are coming. It takes 20 years to set up a new city somewhere. We did it in months but it is now coming to real life.”

Here, exclusively for The National, he answers more questions about life in Zaatari Camp.

Q. Zaatari Camp is called “city” in the documentary, why was the term city applied to the camp? Is it the biggest refugee camp in the world?

A. Zaatari is the world’s third largest refugee camp at present — after Daadab and Kakuma in Kenya. The Jordanian authorities introduce the camp as the 5th largest city in Jordan or population centre. While over only a span of one year the camp residents have developed economic and social structures which resemble urban systems, Zaatari remains a refugee camp and a temporary settlement. This does not exclude us to look at and learn from best practice from urban service delivery, infrastructure and governance.

Q. What are the biggest issues facing the refugees and what are their worries? Is the camp built to last or was the set up temporary? What will you do if ten years later, the camp is still there?

A. The camp was set up to save lives and provide basic assistance and services. As we all can see the crisis is continuing and we are entering the second winter it is necessary to develop sustainable and more cost effective service delivery. This is regardless of the lifespan of the camp. The worry is now to develop these systems in time to move on and reduce the overall costs, while improving the lives. The main challenge is to ensure that enough resources are available to develop skills, provide education and deal with individual vulnerabilities. Security which was the main worry until some 4 months ago is no longer the main issue. As for the most vulnerable groups like children and women, like rape victims, there are individual counselling, help desks, family police available.

Q. What the biggest misconceptions about Syrian refugees?

A. The biggest misconception is that Syrians have no skills and are only a burden. They have incredible energies and can be self-reliant if supported while in Jordan.

Q. Are more still coming to the camp? What are the latest figures in the camp?

A. We have about 300-350 persons arriving from Syria every night; some 80.000 in the camp at present — but with many coming back to the camp from urban centres for the winter.

Nick Petche, the senior editor at Yahoo News UK answers more questions about the documentary

Q. Who directed and produced the series and what was the goal behind the series?

A. The documentary is a creative partnership between Yahoo UK News and UNHCR. The refugee crisis in Syria in an continuing issue and there is growing confusion and fatigue as far as users are concerned with the situation. UNHCR wanted to reignite interest by telling the story through the eyes of its workers and we worked together to bring Yahoo’s scale and storytelling capabilities to bring the project to life.

For my part I went to Zaatari for four days to write articles, talk to refugees and workers on the ground. Working with a photographer we took stills and filmed video clips that add context to the series. This content now all sits within a specially created hub page on Yahoo News.

Q. Why the online format instead of TV channels?

A. By telling a complicated story online, on Yahoo, we are giving users the space and time to explore the subject from a variety of viewpoints.

Q. What do you feel was the most tragic moment for you on the ground? And what was the most inspiring moment?

A. Talking to a ten-year-old girl and her family about how their home was destroyed. How her father was shot at in their street — and survived. Hearing how children were targeted by snipers.

I have children of similar age and it is just plain wrong for children to go through these truly awful experiences.

It was also seeing her mother’s shock as her daughter drew images of what had happened and the realisation of the extent to which these experiences had scarred her.

The most inspiring moment was seeing the people setting up stalls and small businesses in the camp. The innovation. The relentless drive to carve some degree of normality out of their difficult surroundings.