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Za’atari Refugee Camp: Unknowing and Uncertainty


Since returning from Za’atari in February I’ve been trying to making sense of my experience. Trying to connect what’s being lived there, to what’s being lived here in London.

Brexit. Walls. Cochroaches. Migrant crisis. Illegalness. Hostile Environments. Grenfell. Climate Emergency. Extinction Rebellion. And the threads that connect them? I’m working on this, I know they’re there but capturing the complexity of my feelings about here and there in words permanently tied to a page is a daunting task.

Uncertainty. Fear. Courage. Possibility. Unknowing. I’m learning to embrace all of these, to use them as guides and integral to living at this particular historical moment.

My process has been and is continuing to be, one of trying to move away from what I know – to unknow – and to be in this new space of uncertainty. To unknown is to be open. Honestly open. In this space hegemony can unravel, cultural values and norms can destabilise, and a deep vulnerability exists. This is a space where transformation may take place. The kind of place where change is both individual and collective, taking place both at a systemic level and within ourselves.

This blog briefly explores the experience of connecting with the world, the messy and complex business of being connected to and yet of the world. It is also an attempt to reveal how intertwined our lives are: from one hostile environment to another.

Za’atari is a refugee camp in Jordan. I joined Professor Helen Storey for a week there in February as she was starting her role as the camp’s first Artist-in-Residence. The purpose of my brief visit was to experience the possibilities and constraints that working in Za’atari presents for Helen. The challenges being explored are: the real need for self-sufficiency for the refugees on the one hand, but, on the other, the paradigm shift needed in ourselves in order to address social and environmental concerns. What the, I have been asking myself, is the role of design or the designer in this shift? I’m still working on my answers…

As of October 2018, Za’atari was home to about 78,357 refugees, of whom nearly 20% were under five years old. The layout of Za’atari was, as the images I had seen, rows of caravans, external water tanks, hazy sun, endless sky. In some ways there’s an urban familiarity to me – rows of housing with numerical markings. And yet, it is also outside of my knowing. In both form and practice it is beyond the normative. In her recent work Aya Musmar (2019) describes Za’atari as being ‘conditioned by its ‘extraterritoriality’ and ‘exceptionalism’ that were destined when its boundaries were decided by the UNHCR and the Jordanian government, Za’atri camp has opted out of the normative order of life to develop its own norms’. In what ways would I be able to see these norms? Indeed, why should I? And the norms here in London: In what ways are norms created through legislative measures such as the hostile environment visible to me and others around me? How can we ensure our hands working here are not undoing our other hands work there? Do we make sure our hands are joined?

Changes to UNHCR policy now emphasise the need for self-reliance of those living camps such as Za’atari. The implications of this are: the possibility of empowering refugees on the one hand; but on the other a real reduction in the material support for those living there. This form of governance is arguably in-line with neo-liberal policies across the world, which seek to place the individual as solely responsible for her/his life. Binary narratives of the deserving/undeserving, visible/invisible, voice/voiceless have developed in relation to and because these socio-economic-cultural shifts. The policy is especially challenging in remote places like Za’atari where interaction with the local economy is minimised (more details on this shift in policy from A. Dalal).  The economy is largely informal and there are high rates of unemployment. Income is generated in various ways: by selling humanitarian aid or by cash for work (in organisations within the camp, and the market) which can be both a form of income generation and of resistance. I saw bread being made and sold in shops. I heard that food was distributed by the NGOs in Za’atari but not that all refugees want to be recipients of this aid. Aid is problematic. The provision of basic needs so much more complex and unknown. Yet, the people living in Za’atari were not famined, and life was continuing. There was not a complete breakdown. There was diginity.

In Za’atari I saw my passport more clearly. As an object embodied with power:  the very document that ‘protects’ me from the aforementioned hostile environment. As the shiny, white 4×4 of the UNHCR pulled up at the camp and my passport was demanded, I understood that my ability to move freely, arrive and leave, was a privilege – not a right.  This small document embued with so much power. So much certainty. I became ‘official’. I have a verified identity that brings with it abilities to belong, to have freedoms. To arrive at Za’atari as part of the frontline staff is to be verified and badged. This verifying and validation also means I can leave. It also means my belonging is legitimated through structures and organisations which contribute to the problems faced by those living in Za’atari.  It also means I am unable to walk around the camp unaided, my role limited to seeing, looking, watching, perhaps talking (though through an interpreter). It felt stark. My being able to be somewhere because of everything my British passport is.  Yet, I am here, where people cannot leave for various complex reasons (both structural and emotional). A place of impermanence. And yet, this is a place that also is.

I had, and still have, a list of questions running through my mind. What of people’s emotional needs? The support needed to be away from home, dealing with unbelonging, unknowing, uncertainty, of your home no longer being home, since many people have been in Za’atari for five years or more?  Can their lives in Syria be returned to? How can we move towards a world where the strength of borders weakens?

Helen is working in various ways under the umbrella of her project ‘Dress for our Time,’ which started in 2015. During 2019, Helen aims to find collaborative ways to empower women and girls in camp through nurturing entrepreneurship, creativity and financial independence including a perfume and soap making lab, a kitchen, hydroponics ‘garden’, a shop space, children’s play area. It is a women only space. It is here that Helen will run certain workshops and activities over the course of the year, including a jewellery workshop that took place in Za’atari over 5 days in March and involving women from across the camp.

At the same time, understanding what existing in uncertainty means yet recognising the problematic nature of the strucutres and consciousness that we bring is also a crucial part of this work.


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