Zaatari Refugee Camp – Jordan

“Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.” – Kofi Annan


Children of ZaatariOf the 2 million Syrian refugees, who have escaped conflict in their home nation, 1 million are children. According to the UNHCR, refugees in what it terms “protracted situations” can expect an average camp residency of 17 years. One would hope that this would not be the case in the Syrian crisis but what is certain is that many of the families and children currently residing in camp will be there for a number of years. This is in addition to the nearly 5 million people who have been displaced within Syria itself. These numbers are set to increase in the event of an escalation in conflict or one that spreads into neighbouring countries. And this is the tip of the iceberg, there are many other refugee camps in different parts of the world with a total population of some 10.5 million people that are of concern to the UNHCR. On average, 850 children are born every day in the worlds refugee camps. So it’s not hard to join the dots here, there are an awful lot of children spending a large part of their lives growing up in these camps.


I’ve been interested in what happens in regards to education provision for child refugees since a chance meeting with a friend from my entertainment industry days, Alek Wek, British supermodel, former refugee and goodwill ambassador for UNHCR when she attended last years WISE Summit to help launch the Educate A Child initiative.


kids in zaatariThe provision of education in the form of schooling within refugee camps is not only an on-going investment in the children’s future well-being but also provides a sense of normalcy in otherwise challenging conditions. Statistically children who are attending school within camps are less likely to be taken into military service and are less at risk of sexual abuse, violence, crime and disease. Few people would deny that basic schooling is a humanitarian right like water, shelter, food, security and sanitation. Yet education programmes for child refugees has longer term political significance as well as immediate humanitarian consequences. Education pushes humanitarian action beyond an endeavour to save lives to a project that also shapes futures. Therein lies a tension of what kind of education is provided, what is taught and what is its purpose.


School in ZaatariThe fact is that I am not yet in a position to answer the thousand or more questions that I have about education provision in refugee camps but my journey began in Jordan where on successful approval of visiting passes I and the Learning {RE}imagined team were granted permission to visit the refugee camp in Zaatari which lies on Jordan’s border with Syria.


The camp is the now the 2nd largest refugee camp in the world with a population approaching 150,000. It opened just over a year ago with just 100 families so the rapid growth and expansion has been intense. With many thousands more expected to arrive in Jordan a new camp for a similar capacity to Zaatari is being prepared in Azraq. This interactive article from BBC News presents some startling statistics for Zaatari


After receiving our permissions we travelled 90 minutes out of Ammam towards the Syrian border. Arriving at the camp we were ushered through several checkpoints where our paperwork and passports were verified before arriving at the administrative and police compound for an interview with the site commander who would have the final say on whether we could access the camp. Explaining our mission we were granted approval and provided with a guide who would take us to points of interest and to meet families on the camp.


mother & child zaatariArriving in the afternoon it was too late to visit the schools whilst they were in session but it was possible to see from the buildings and inside that there had been considerable effort from organisations such as Unicef with supporting nations to provide a good schooling infrastructure. Although that said, given the rapid expansion of Zaatari it has been reported that two-thirds of the 30,000 child population eligible for school do not have a place. We learned during our visits to schools in Ammam that some Jordanian schools are operating double shifts to accommodate child refugees into their schools. As one might imagine, having a rapid influx of people with a similar population to the UK city of Norwich or the US city of Knoxville joining your country presents an enormous challenge on resources.


Considering the challenges presented the camp is well-organised and we are welcomed by the majority of those whom we meet who are often willing to tell us their stories. Children are especially happy to see us and stop us to ask questions, play or have us take their photograph. There are “high streets” where entrepreneurial refugees have set up shops and trading posts for those who have money so an economy of sorts operates within the camp. The main street has been jokingly called the “Champs Elysee” athough as you’d expect it’s somewhat different from its Parisian counterpart.


Whilst at first impression there is a festival like feel to the camp that idea is quickly eroded when one considers the reasons why people are here in the first place and uncertainty of what they might return to.  Rather than a temporary safe-haven for many this will become a permanent settlement and whilst we arrived on a hot summers day it will soon be winter when it is cold – it snows in Jordan. Life can also be harsh with the biggest challenge being security. Gangs are now operating in the camp and violent attacks are becoming more frequents particularly against women. It’s a staggering challenge for the Jordanian government and the UNHCR that one can only respect them for taking on. I have no doubt that they will be successful but it will take time, resources and, inevitably, things won’t always go to plan. 


tired child zaatariI was unprepared for the size and scale of the camp. It is absolutely enormous and leaves you in disbelief and then utter shock at the consequences of human conflict. I have the utmost respect for the spirit and welcoming kindness that many of the people living at the camp showed me. 


I can honestly say that my visit to Zaatari was life-changing. It has made me question a lot of things about the human condition, our society, the media, our global leadership and myself. It has given me a much needed shove to consider what I do next with my life but in the meantime my hopes and wishes are with those who have been displaced.


Additional pictures from Zaatari and Learning {RE}imagined maybe be viewed via our personal Instagram channels – Graham Brown-Martin, Newsha TavakolianRaphael Yaghobzadeh