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Bonjour, Za'atari


Bonjour, Za'atari

They call it the Champs-Élysees. But we're a long way from Paris.
27 August 2013
At Jordan's largest refugee camp, tents are giving way to prefabricated shelters known as "caravans."

It's late afternoon and I'm strolling down the Champs-Élysées. I'm just one among many, sweating in the busiest part of town on what feels like one of the hottest days in summer.

Around me are infinite shops selling clothes, jewellery, smartphones and makeup. As I navigate the crowd, I spy a young couple, eyes wide and in love, who smile as they duck into a wedding dress shop. A teenage boy sheepishly hands me an ice-cream cone that soon drips down my arm in the summer heat. An old man in a wheelchair offers a napkin; I thank him and continue my walk, distracted by the smell of rotisserie chicken and cinnamon pastries.

This is life on the Champs-Élysées. But I'm a long way from Paris, France.

I'm in Za'atari, in the north of Jordan, a stone's throw from the Syrian border. I'm walking down the dusty tarmac market road that bisects the world's second-largest refugee camp. Named after the Parisian shopping destination, this market is the thriving core of what is now Jordan's fourth-largest population centre.

Entrepreneurial refugees have opened hundreds of shops in Jordan's Za'atari camp. Ismail and his uncle buy kitchen goods from a wholesaler and resell them at a profit.

I'm a newcomer here, still trying to wrap my head around the complexities, the anomalies and the truths that are Za'atari.

A year ago nobody could have ever imagined that this uninhabited desert expanse would become home to some 120,000 Syrians. And every day that number grows. Today, the camp is a chaotic sprawl of indistinguishable tents and prefab containers housing Syrians who didn't come here by choice, but rather in search of safety from the conflict that continues to ravage their country.

With the war in Syria now in its third year, Za'atari represents a fraction of the total number of Syrians who've fled their country, a figure that currently stands at more than 1.9 million. The statistics are staggering, the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis impossible to grasp – even as I walk through the pumping heart of a market in the largest camp in the region.

I'm a newcomer here, still trying to wrap my head around the complexities, the anomalies and the truths that are Za'atari. A place that to me right now characterizes the harsh reality of the indiscriminate nature of war, and its effects on innocent civilians.

For the next few weeks, I'll be sharing stories from Jordan. Stories of anguish and resilience, of hardship and hope. Stories from Syrians who have offered me a glimpse of their flight and their lives over endless cups of sweet and spicy tea. An attempt to bear witness, to listen to these voices, and perhaps, even, to amplify them. Whether I meet with Syrians who are now refugees living alongside the bustle of the Champs-Élysées in Za'atari, or others who have found home elsewhere in Jordan, I'll seek to put a human face on this crisis and provide a glimpse into life across the Syrian border.