Of the 11 million Syrians displaced from their homes, 4.8 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries. The vast majority are absorbed into urban cities or unofficial rural communities, leaving one in ten Syrians in camps. Refugee camps, especially those that are unofficial, lack proper sanitation, medical care, or educational opportunities for youth. Classes, infrequent and informal, are second to working for many children, who often find themselves as the main breadwinners of their families.
At a Greek camp of nine hundred people, refugees make stoves out of mud and use nearby power lines to charge their phones. Each person is given a meal, bread, plasticware, and a bottle of water – if they ask for it. Another camp in Calais, France, possesses even more abominable conditions; rats, water contaminated with feces, and tuberculosis.
At the Zaatari camp in Jordan, over half of the 80,000 residents are under the age of eighteen. The camp once went nine months without electricity when UNHCR could not pay Jordan. Yet Zaatari is the largest and best camp for Syrian refugees, stretching across three square miles of desert near the Syrian border. Many camps do not allow commerce or businesses, but Zaatari boasts 3,000 shops, most hugging the main road. Foreign aid brought dozens of mosques, twenty-seven community centers, five schools, two hospitals, and nine healthcare clinics to the camp.
Jordanians have given Syrian refugees credit and wholesale items to ease their predicament. Combined with the monthly $28 and cooking and heating vouchers given to each person by the U.N., refugees have enough spending money to sustain an economy in Zaatari. Camp storefronts are frequented by Jordanians and Syrians alike, with the former even exporting certain goods. In total, the U.N. estimates that these shops generate $13 million each month.
Some refugees are beginning to find work in construction, agriculture, and manufacturing in Jordan, which recently loosened restrictions on refugee employment. Nevertheless, the Jordanian government claims the Syrians account for a quarter of its annual budget and are consuming much of the country’s water while overcrowding hospitals and schools. Yet fifty thousand Syrian children are still on waitlists for enrollment. If left uneducated, the government fears they will be vulnerable to radicalization.
Despite their images of destitution and despair, certain aspects of normal life thrive in refugee camps. Weddings remain a celebrated part of Syrian culture, with hundreds of guests in attendance each week. Larger camps typically have several stores dedicated to such parties, where young brides and their entourage flock for makeovers and dresses. Beauticians will spend hours meticulously applying makeup on these girls lest it melt off in the desert heat. The festivities are not only a means of preserving Syrian culture, they are an escape for the young and old alike.