Home to 80,000 people. Intended as a temporary, transitory place, but evolving in to a long-term home for so many displaced by war. It’s Jordan’s fourth biggest city. Seen from above, as it is often is, to emphasise its sprawling scale, it’s easy to forget that in that city, as in any city, people are living their lives.
We use the refugee camp as a symbol of the challenge of mass migration, and of the desperate needs of those who live there. The people who did, once, lead lives very much like our own, until war drove them out. They were farmers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses and builders. They still can be.
Within the camp, babies are born, children grow up, people get sick, women have periods, all of the normal events of life take place here too. All of these things present greater challenges when you’re living in a place that wasn’t intended to be a city, that was only meant to house you for a short time, until you could safely go home, or until some other place was found for you to move on to.
And so those agencies working within the camp are trying to address these everyday problems, to provide for health and education, to ensure access to basic facilities. But this isn’t a one-way process. Because to solve the everyday problems in the camp they are working with, and not just for, the people in the camp.
Obviously not everyone living there has the kind of skills that can be pressed into service to help build the resources that the communities need, and not everyone is well and strong enough after the physical and mental traumas of flight to contribute in this way. But as a transit camp becomes a city the people living there can become again the people they were at home, can be part of the process of building and healing and problem-solving.
That’s what researchers from the University of Sheffield have found. The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures is an ambitious and innovative collaboration between the University of Sheffield and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Their sustainability research creates knowledge and connects it to policy debates on how to build a fairer world and save natural resources for future generations.
And under the auspices of the Grantham Centre, innovative solutions to everyday problems are being developed, in collaboration with the people of Zaatari. Tony Ryan, the Director of the Centre, has been working with Helen Storey from the London College of Fashion, on resource use and repurposing in conflict zones, and on specific questions from the UNHCR about the design and manufacture of all kinds of things that we take for granted, like sanitary ware, make-up and bicycles. Resources are scarce in the camp, where 80,000 people share 6 sq km of space, and nothing is left to waste.
One farmer collected pots of the salty local soil and washed it repeatedly till the salt crystals were cleared away, so that he could use it to grow herbs. And polymer foams from old mattresses are being developed for use as artificial soil to grow crops.
Make no mistake, the people who end up in these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine. But those I met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community. As hard as we must fight to live in a world where no one is forced to flee their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.
Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield.