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Keeping Memories Of Syria Alive In Za'atari, The Middle East's Largest Refugee Camp

12/01/2017 1:49 PM IST | Updated 14/01/2017 10:00 AM IST
Onaiza Drabu

The Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan was built in a scrambling and now almost mythical nine days in 2012. It hosts refugees fleeing the nearby Syrian civil war and is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East. Over the years, it has grown and shrunk with refugees pouring in, yet soon after returning home. The population is now fairly stable as many residents have made this arid landscape home. Za'atari hosts a bustling and resilient economy, but a collective sentiment of nostalgia and the myth of return of amongst migrants runs strong in the camp.

Road Magazine

Creating Home | Domesticating space in an alien place

Syrians and Jordanians may share a language but they are distinct in their identities and ways of life. The most striking differences are that of culture and topography of the two regions. Nomadic Bedouin tribes historically populated Jordan's barren, arid land. Syria, however, was different. Civilization and culture, much like the vegetation, flourished. Most of the Syrians at Za'atari come from areas of greenery and natural beauty. It is a memory they seek to not forget. There is graffiti of gushing rivers and trees created by the residents to remind them of their villages in Syria. They paint the walls of caravans, shutters of shops and any open space they find with scenes of nature. Blacksmiths are often hired to modify caravans, creating space for courtyards like traditional Damascene houses.

Road Magazine

There is graffiti of gushing rivers and trees created by the residents to remind them of their villages in Syria.

Way back, in their early days here, the refugees created makeshift ovens out of scrap materials, baked bread and began selling it. This, together with other food that was smuggled in into the camps, is how the first markets started. Standard rations would only have sustained them for so long and thus began their ingenuity. The markets have come a long way since and you now find wafts of Syrian-style baking in the air, much like any bustling village back home.

Onaiza Drabu

The markets have expanded beyond food and essentials and the most striking of the finds are cages full of pigeons, doves and exotic parakeets. Bird rearing was a common pastime for the refugees in Syria and despite the conditions in the camps, it has continued. Hundreds of birds chirp as you walk down the market street inviting you to pet them. It seems paradoxical for people who are trapped inside a refugee camp to rear birds inside cages but it happens to be their most fulfilling recreation.

Road Magazine

Creating Narratives | Memorialising home within pages of a magazine

A flock of pigeons don the cover of a magazine you see circulating both in Arabic and English. It is an issue of the in-house periodical of the camp, Road Magazine—it contains "stories collected by Syrian youth in a refugee camp" and claims to be the world's largest refugee magazine. They run out of a small caravan office in the base camp of Za'atari. Hada Sarhan, the editor, and her small editorial team run it with help from volunteers from the camp. The agencies see it as an effective tool to spread news, public health announcements and attract refugees for participation in their many programs. With every new issue of the magazine, newer concerns are addressed. Yet, unwittingly, it preserves between its covers every month the sentiment, stories and nostalgia of the residents. Held within it are narratives of home and stories that people wish to tell.

It seems paradoxical for people who are trapped inside a refugee camp to rear birds inside cages but it happens to be their most fulfilling recreation.

Road Magazine

"The Road" collects its write-ups from the refugees within the camp, and flipping through, a collective sentiment of nostalgia and longing of return escapes the pages. At a time where their only identity is that of a refugee, they need a reminder of who they are and where they come from; from the cradle of civilisation, as they say, Syria. The soil is memorialised; its green nature and fresh water sketched by children lest they lose their impressions of them. Poems eulogise the homeland and talk of return. They talk of their villages, the smells and sounds that they miss and of return and ambitions therewith.

Of the more practical things, the magazine documents recipes and culinary hand-me-downs that some have adapted and want to share with the others. These easy recipes can be made at home using equipment available in camps without much elaborate preparation. Keeping the food alive is essential to the process of keeping memory alive. With these little actions, the Syrian refugees in the camp remodel their domestic space every day; they remodel it visually, aurally and through smells and taste to preserve a memory of the homeland.

Road Magazine

The internet is banned in the camps and they have few possessions to reminisce with. Rootlessness is a common phenomenon for migrants in extreme conditions, yet what keep them grounded are an identity and a culture preserved. A pigeon seller from Damascus, in an interview with the magazine, recalled the story of his pigeons that were sold to a Jordanian but soon enough returned from Amman to their town. Pigeons always return to the place they love, he says. A hopeful metaphor he believes in for his own return.

You can read content from the magazine here.

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