These stunning photographs show a rare insight into Syria’s largest refugee camp, Za’atari, in Jordan.
In just 18 months the camp’s population has grown from 30,000 to over 130,000, making it the second largest refugee camp in the world after Dadaab in north-east Kenya.
Set in the desolate Jordanian desert, the Za’atari camp has been the subject of a number of negative news reports focussing on its rising levels of crime. Last year, Vice called the camp: “A disturbing reflection of just how bad the civil war in Syria has become.”
But these images taken by photographer Toufic Beyhum show a different side to the refugee camp, capturing its bustling, entrepreneurial spirit.
After entering the camp earlier this year, Beyhum was surprised by the number of small businesses cropping up in Za’atari, and took these photos to document the amount of trading taking place among the Syrian refugees.
The other side of the Syrian crisis
At the heart of the camp lies the Champs-Elysées, a mile-long ‘high street’ originally named by French UN workers that boasts 700 shops including hairdressers, cafes, perfumeries, wedding dress shops, phone stalls and a bureau de change.
“The street took me by surprise, I didn’t realise how buzzing it would be,” says Beyhum. “At 7am it would be open and by the afternoon it’s nearly as busy as Oxford Street.”
The entrepreneurial spirit has been passed onto young boys who make money by charging refugees to wheelbarrow their goods across the camp, or selling used UN blankets and tents.
Rashed, 14, goes outside the camp to buy furniture in neighbouring Jordanian towns to bring back to trade.
“Instead of sitting around playing football all day, the kids are trying to make a living. One young boy I met sells three trays of toffee apples everyday on his own,” says Beyhum.
Refugees whose trade cannot be used inside the camp have had to learn new skills to make money. Former policeman Abdul Mansoor now runs a falafel shop on the Champs-Elysées with the help of his wife who prepares the chickpea mixture.
Women have also set up their own businesses, offering wedding dresses to rent for 25 Euros a night from shops on the Champse-Elysées.
Rent to run a shop is free, and food, electricity and accommodation are all provided for by the UN, meaning some refugees are making quite a good living, Beyhum says.
Some families who are provided with a free make-shift home sell them on for 500 Euros when they decide to go back to Syria, while other refugees have even set up businesses transporting the temporary homes on trailers around the camp.
Although the situation is not ideal, refugees are making the most of what they have, for now.
“The people in the camp are self-sufficient. Just like Damascus, it’s buzzing, everyone is making things right there. They don’t export things that are made from China. That’s the Syrian survival culture.”
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