Getting into the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan is a complicated affair. Forms must be filled in, letters written and passports scanned. Then, after an unspecified wait, the authorities will suddenly issue a permit granting a limited window during which you can enter. So when the green light comes you need to drop everything and go.
The waiting game meant the weeks before my visit to the Zaatari camp were an exercise in meticulous preparation: I built up piles of kit I normally leave at home – a backup phone, pay-as-you-go sim cards (English and Jordanian) and endless spare batteries and leads. But after just ten minutes in Zaatari I realised this search for packing perfection was both needless and self-defeating. The camp is a consumer hub – you can buy anything you need there – and going shopping is a great way to find out how life in the camp works.
Zaatari sits on dusty farmland on the edge of the desert, a short drive from Mafraq, a town in northern Jordan. It opened in July 2012 and rapidly filled with families escaping bombing in Syria’s Daraa region, which is around a day’s walk away. Within just nine months there were over 200,000 inhabitants, making it the world’s fastest growing refugee camp and for a time the largest. (Kenya’s Dadaab settlement currently has over 400,000 inhabitants, but is a network of five camps which developed over a 20-year period.)
Companies sprang up everywhere: by the time the camp was two years old it had more than 1,400 firms. They have continued to be founded at an incredible rate. I quizzed its butchers and bakers on what makes a successful business.
Their first business tip is a familiar one: location is vital. Anyone coming into Zaatari passes down a road the UNHCR refers to as “Market Street 1” but which everyone else calls the Champs-Elysées. The aid agencies’ bases are nearby (its name derives in part from the fact that it starts near a French hospital), which means a diverse clientele from newly arrived refugees to off-duty NGO workers. Here they can choose from a host of products and services: a decent coffee, a haircut, a wedding dress or a delicious falafel wrap or chicken shawarma.
Mohammed Jendi owns the biggest store in Zaatari, a large clothing emporium. His main tip is to work hard to know your customers. The way he went about this would impress any management consultant: he explains how he surveyed his friends and neighbours to find out what they needed and what they wanted. At the start, when conditions were really desperate, they just needed clothing to make it through the harsh winter. But as things improved, the refugees wanted a more individual look. So Jendi now offers men an array of colourful tracksuits, sports jackets and jeans in various cuts. Women can choose from a huge selection of shawls, handbags and high heels.
The success of the bicycle shop run by Qaseem al-Aeash is partly down to the desire for individuality too. Zaatari has no cars but is packed with bikes. This includes 500 sturdy two-wheelers donated by the Netherlands. The problem with Dutch bikes is that they all look the same. Academic studies show the loss of personal identity and self determination is a major cause of anxiety among refugees. The donated bikes are popular, and can go for up to $200 when sold, but they are boring: all the same shape, in dull black or dark blue.
So Aeash helps his customers pimp their bikes, spraying them bright colours and adding bells and pinstriped grips. His own steed is a beauty. Designed to look like a motorbike it is bright yellow with red go-faster stripes and reflectors, twin exhaust pipes stuck to the side, and dual speedometers. I comment on the large VIP sign he has stuck to the back. “Of course,” says Qaseem. “I am a businessman.” Later I hear rumours about a Zaatari “Rolls-Royce”. It belongs to the king of customisation, Youssef al-Masri. His bike is indeed a four-wheeler: gold with red pleather seating, wing mirrors and gears – including reverse (pictured top).
To reach this status these entrepreneurs all had to adapt. Jendi knew little about clothing – he ran a small supermarket back in Syria – but he knew about retail. Qaseem, a mechanic, found himself in a camp with no cars. He first tried working as an electrician, installing and mending lighting in people’s homes, before switching to bikes. Tarek Darra explains how he repurposed his skills too. Back in Syria he was a designer; in the camp he works as a carpenter, running one of its main joineries.
But Tarek rues his career change, explaining that the carpentry trade is a struggle. The problem, he says, is durability. Refugees face hard lives, so things are cared for and made to last. Once people have a bed, shelves and cupboards they do not need his services again. This is why you should try to set up a business where people keep coming back, he says. Jendi agrees: he must keep switching the styles and colours of the clothes he sells to stoke demand. As I talk with Aeash he is soldering away, mending the dynamo on a customer’s bike. This is the beauty of the bike business: once you sell someone a bike, you know you have an ongoing customer for maintenance.
Zaatari’s entrepreneurs keep a close eye on costs. They have some rare advantages here: electricity is often pinched from the UNHCR and there is no tax collected inside the camp. But there are other strategies too. One of the secrets of Hasan al-Arsi’s success as a baker is economies of scale. He makes huge quantities of baked sweets, including delicious knafeh, miniature nests with nuts inside, at his main bakery. Doing these big batches keeps costs down, and his employees then transport trays of baked goods to his four outlets dotted across Zaatari. The taste of home is so popular he is opening a fifth outlet soon.
Hamid Harriri’s sweet shop mainly sells cheap knock-offs including Chiko chocolate éclairs, a copy of the Cadbury’s version. But his most prized candies are sugar-coated almonds, mlabbas, that he imports from Syria. Harriri explains that Damascus is famed for these sweets and that people like to give them as gifts during Eid.
A yearning for home presents both an opportunity and a risk. As the war has shifted to Aleppo, 300 miles north of Daraa, some Syrians in Zaatari have heard that their villages are safe. They are heading back, and the numbers in the camp are dropping. This is good news for those intent on re-building their damaged homes. It is a concern if your bakery is expanding.