Champs-Élysées (Za’atari Refugee Camp)

Everyone in Zaatari has horror stories about homes destroyed, family members lost and bad times in the camp. Syria is only a few miles away; from the camp one can feel the shelling. But now, at a pace stunning to see, Zaatari is becoming an informal city: a sudden, do-it-yourself metropolis of roughly 85,000 with the emergence of neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 10.39.26 AM.pngThe change, accelerated by regional chaos and enterprising Syrians, illustrates a basic civilizing push toward urbanization that clearly happens even in desperate places — people leaving their stamp wherever they live, making spaces they occupy their own. At the same time, Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.In June 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of refugees worldwide in 2014 topped 50 million, the most since World War II, a figure substantially increased by the Syrian conflict and  the millions of Iraqis displaced by ISIS.These vast forced migrations have accelerated discussions about the need to treat camps as more than transitional population centers, more than human holding pens with tents for transients.

You can call a place like Zaatari impermanent and not build adequate infrastructure but organic development, driven by refugees, is unstoppable. Impermanence costs more in the long run. Whether you encourage growth in the right ways or you fight it, it’s going to happen anyway.The oldest parts of Zaatari now have streets, one or two paved, some lined with electric poles, the most elaborate houses cobbled together from shelters, tents, cinder blocks and shipping containers, with interior courtyards, private toilets and jerry-built sewers. The numbers in Zaatari are astounding: 14,000 households, 10,000 sewage pots and private toilets, 3,000 washing machines, 150 private gardens, 3,500 new businesses and shops, including a pet store, a flower shop and a homemade ice cream business. Refugees tote rotisserie chickens from a takeout joint on the main street, called the Champs-Élysées.Clusters of satellite dishes and water tanks on the skyline can bring to mind favelas in Rio de Janeiro or slums in Cairo. Like favelas, the camp has grown according to its own ad hoc, populist urban logic, which includes a degree of social mobility.

This is all black market. Smugglers traffic in camp vouchers and goods, undermining legitimate Jordanian businesses, profiting criminal gangs in and out of the camp. This black money is used within the camp for goods, but also in the buying and selling property on Champs-Élysées. A shadow real estate market is a sign of permanence.

Zaatari’s and Champs-Élysées’ success can in part be attributed to Kilian Kleinschmidt, UN officer responsible for the camp. He neutralized the Mafia-like groups that had seized control of the camp, and at the same time he worked to enlist allies among refugees, encouraging grass-roots initiatives. His motto: We design refugee camps; refugees build cities.

Zaatari stands in stark contrast to Azraq, which Jordan and the United Nations refugee agency opened to Syrians recently, or camps in Turkey, run by the Turkish government, that have state-of-the-art facilities but are designed to suppress the sort of ground-up urbanism that has altered Zaatari.  Azraq, located miles from anywhere, is strictly policed, with fixed, corrugated metal shelters in military order, dirt floors and shameful public toilets, and it has no electricity. So far about 11,000 Syrians are marooned there. The camp is planned to house more than 100,000. Refugees at Azraq, families with small children, terrified at night without electricity to light the shelters, unprotected against the scorpions, mice and snakes, say they escaped one nightmare to arrive at another.



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Champs-Élysées/Zaatari’s success is astounding and inspirational. It is the ultimate proof of the organic nature of the built environment – that we must build and adapt to respond to people, rather than dropping infrastructure from another world.

Champs-Élysées/Zaatari’s organic nature is essential to its high rating – it stemmed from need, and stemmed from demand; hence, it came about in a physical location that was central to the camp, its functions were those that were deemed necessary, and its benefits covered the spectrum of tangible and intangible benefits.

Given its new, and makeshift, nature, as a refugee camp,  Champs-Élysées/Zaatari lacks a history/tourism, places to sit and enjoy the ‘public space’ and a celebratory functionality. Yet, while these more traditional types of interaction do not occur on Champs-Élysées/Zaatari, a different sort of model of the public square us being created.

The creation of Champs-Élysées/Zaatari has spurred tremendous entrepreneurship across the camp. Refugees have begun to open shops, services, take out food joints; they invest in the property – buying spots on the Champs-Élysées or buying physical trailers themselves. Investment has seeped in from outside entities, seeing the success of the camp – Google providing internet, the Amsterdam government donating 10,000 bicycles. A ripple effect of tangible benefits has emerged from the original investments of the community into transforming their makeshift camp into a resilient city.

The tangible changes have impacted the atmosphere of the camp as well. There is a sense of civic pride, of feeling at home, rather than being in a permanent state of transience. A stronger, happier, more resilient community has emerged. While democracy and democratic participation is far off – given the refugee status – the ability of the refugees to organize around the cohesive economy and culture of Champs-Élysées/Zaatari is giving them considerable leverage.


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