Refugee Camp for Syrians in Jordan Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City

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Refugee Camp for Syrians in Jordan Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City
The Zaatari camp has about 85,000 Syrian refugees. The changes there reflect a basic civilizing push toward urbanization that happens even in desperate places — people leaving their stamp. // Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
Refugee Camp for Syrians in Jordan Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City
The Zaatari camp has about 85,000 Syrian refugees. The changes there reflect a basic civilizing push toward urbanization that happens even in desperate places — people leaving their stamp. // Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

A young Syrian salesman stopped into Ahmad Bidawi’s barbershop for a shave the other day. Music wafted on fan-cooled air. Outside, on what has become the main commercial strip here in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, workers steered handcarts packed with lumber and kitchen appliances through sunbaked crowds hanging out in front of shops.

The scene could hardly have felt further from the mayhem across the border that Mr. Bidawi, like the other refugees, fled. Syria is only a few miles away. From the camp one can feel the shelling. A farmer back home and jack-of-all-trades, Mr. Bidawi arrived here with his wife and children a year ago, only to have his youngest daughter die in the camp, overwhelmed by tear gas fired when guards struggled to quell a riot. Everyone in Zaatari has horror stories about homes destroyed, family members lost and bad times in the camp.

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.

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