At Zaatari refugee camp, Syrians build a makeshift city in the desert

Syrian refugees hang their clothes to dry at the Zaatari camp in Jordan.
(Mohammad Hannon / Associated Press)

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan — The action is frenzied along the “Champs Elysees,” the euphemistically named main drag of this bustling settlement, the world’s largest concentration of Syrian refugees. Children jump and cling to the sides of pickup trucks slowly navigating the busy artery, while young men push wheelbarrows laden with goods bearing the emblems of the many aid agencies working here.

In 18 months, Zaatari has been transformed from a lunar-like stretch of uninhabited and forbidding desert into Jordan’s fourth-most populous city, a pop-up community of roughly 120,000 people 50 miles north of Amman, the capital.

Makeshift stalls, cobbled together from scavenged materials, line the thoroughfare, unrecognizable from its days as a forlorn dirt track. Today, resilient residents hawk used electronics and cellphones, fresh fruits and vegetables, even bridal gown rentals, in a jumbled assemblage of shops emblazoned with colorful hand-drawn signs bearing names running the gamut from wry (Better Than Nothing) to wistful (Back in Syria).


Ingenuity is abundant as the displaced multitudes in Zaatari struggle to maintain some semblance of normal life in a habitat devoid of permanent dwellings, 24-hour electricity and other basic amenities. The camp has become somewhat infamous for its shortcomings: the muddy tracks and chill of winter, the unrelenting heat of summer, the periodic violent confrontations with Jordanian authorities.

But on display everywhere is a sense of resourcefulness and indomitable will. It’s particularly evident in the thriving commercial sector, especially the many eateries that have sprung up.

When the camp opened last year, residents were served ready-made meals, the source of much grumbling. Administrators then switched to providing two-week supplies for communal kitchens or for bartering in the nascent marketplace. Soon came the restaurants and cafes, where Syrian cooks justifiably proud of their cuisine ply their wares.

Today, the humble falafel takes pride of place in Zaatari, where the aroma of deep-fried patties made of fava beans and chickpeas is ubiquitous.

“If one is going to wait for handouts, you won’t be able to do anything,” explains Abu Ayoub, whose eatery is the undisputed champion of the many stalls offering the Syrian vegetarian staple.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, Abu Ayoub’s is half-full, its patrons wolfing down the pita-wrapped falafel as they gaze at a television tuned to one of the many government-opposition channels on offer. Zaatari’s population overwhelmingly supports the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, and many rebel fighters and their families reside here, often traveling back and forth across the border.


“If it was a normal workday, you wouldn’t find a seat in the place,” says Abu Ayoub, 47, resting his wiry frame on a plastic chair as he gestures with his cigarette to the spacious (by Zaatari standards) 60-square-foot lounge, the size of two of the prefabricated huts that now make up the bulk of the camp’s housing units.

An 11-month resident of Zaatari, Abu Ayoub (who, like others interviewed, preferred to be identified by a nickname for security reasons) had a similar business in the nearby southern Syrian province of Dara before he fled the war. Most of Zaatari’s residents come from Dara, known as the birthplace of the rebellion, which began almost three years ago.

Anxious patrons await their servings from Imad, 30, an energetic falafel artisan who swiftly crushes piping-hot patties onto freshly baked flatbread, before adding salad and a pinch of salt. A ribbon of tahini dashed off with a theatrical arc of the arm completes the process before a quick toasting on a nearby grill.

“We make 300 sandwiches a day,” Imad says, a smile on his face.

Carnivores, too, are well-served in Zaatari. Syrians, especially those from the northern province of Aleppo, are renowned for being the regional equivalent of Texas barbecue pit masters.

Meat lovers find bliss at Arabi-Turki, a smoky emporium that serves up kebab, shawarma and chicken platters piled high with chile-dusted fries. Arabi-Turki even has an expansive seating area within its compound, adorned with dangling plastic vines and orange chairs.

Behind one of the counters, Abu Mazen never stops moving. He’s not from Aleppo, he says, but worked as a butcher for more than 30 years in his village in Dara province. It shows: His hands expertly feel the texture of each chunk of meat before he works it deftly under the lightning-fast onslaught of his knife. Spices, onions and parsley are added before the mix is sculpted onto a skewer and put over coals. The result, a juicy kebab redolent of the coal on which it was cooked, redefines refugee camp fare.


And no Syrian meal would be complete without dessert. Syrians are celebrated in the Arab world for their embarrassment of sugary riches, from delectable candies to honey-soaked baklava.

One of the many candy workshops is tucked in a hut down a mud-caked track off the Champs Elysees, where a boy with a wheelbarrow waits patiently outside a small door, his nose quivering. Trays laden with pastries materialize and are quickly stacked, five high, to be whisked to nearby establishments.

A peek inside the searingly hot kitchen reveals a flour-dusted floor, cans of ghee (clarified butter, essential to the sweet-maker’s trade), and, in the midst of all this, Abu Hol Hariri, Zaatari’s candy king. His nickname, referring to the inscrutable Sphinx in Egypt and meaning “Father of Horror,” belies his benevolent nature and brimming pride.

“We make harissah, basboussah, halawet al jibn, uqal al shayeb, warbat, assab, shafayef,” he says.

He turns to the multi-tiered gas oven, beads of sweat blotting out the flour dust on his wide forehead as he rotates three pastry-filled trays. From within emerges a faint sizzling: the crackle from the heart-clogging portions of ghee.

“You have to fry them,” explains Abu Hol Hariri with a faint shrug. “It’s the way it is.”

His regular clientele includes shops throughout the camp as well as organizers of special events, such as engagements and weddings. Everything is handmade, by necessity.

“If we had machines we could make even more,” Abu Hol Hariri says, his eyes constantly scanning the shop. “But why get machines when you don’t get electricity all the time?”


In an adjoining room, a worker kneads an unwieldy mass of sweet cheese, his hands glistening with melted ghee, while another performs the delicate surgery of fashioning gnocchi-esque pastry pouches. It’s a well-choreographed ballet in the cramped confines of the hut, yet all unfolds with a seamless rhythm, Abu Hol Hariri the deft conductor calling out a staccato beat of new orders as they come in.

“God gives everyone something to do,” he declares, pointing toward a visiting reporter while offering some of the harissah honey cake. “Some make a living with writing. I do it with baking.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.