The instant unloved city

July 31, 2013 | Charities, Cities, Development finance agencies, Housing, Infrastructure, Jordan, Syria, Urbanization, Zaatari

By:David A. Smith


No one loves the world’s fastest growing city.  No one wants it to be where it is, and everyone wishes it did not exist.  But as reported in the Daily Mail Online (July 20, 2013), Zaatari exists, the world’s fastest growing city at least for the time being, and everyone’s willful refusal to acknowledge its existence or plan its future is a needless long-term tragedy in the making.


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Massive: The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is home for 160,000 refugees who have escaped the brutal Syrian civil war


Stretching out as far as the eye can see, this is the grim and depressing home of 160,000 refugees who have escaped the brutal Syrian civil war.


While Zaatari may be stark, for the people who have arrived there, compared to what they have left, it’s a sanctuary.


Incredibly, 6,000 people a day arrive at the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which has become the country’s fifth largest city.


By the time you read this post, Zaatari may be over 200,000 people. 


Despite the grim surroundings of the overcrowded 2.8 square-mile –


At 57,000 people per square mile, Zaatari has a population density twice that of New York City’s 28,000 per square mile – and this despite its being uniformly one-story structures.


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Depressing: The camp is made up of rows of temporary buildings squashed up against each other


– camp –


I have broken this single sentence into micro-fragments because words are important, and the moment one uses the word ‘camp,’ one consigns Zaatari to permanent limbo.


When you think of camp, what comes to mind?


1. Place in the wilderness.  A camp is somewhere remote from our city.



No grid here


2. Voluntary relocation. We choose to go to camp.



At least, our parents chose to send us to camp


3. Temporary accommodations.  Our living accommodations are temporary; we are going to be at camp only for a little while.



Camp beds at Galveston Airport


4. Self-contained households.  In the camp, we have brought everything we need.



Nobody making money here


5. Holiday from real life.  A camp is a holiday from our ‘real life,’ a deliberate change of pace. 




6. “Going home soon.”  We leave the camp and go home.  A camp is not home. 



We’ll pack up our stuff and go home


A camp, in other words, is a place of transition, voluntary transition. 


A camp is not a city.


But Zaatari is a city, because none of the presumptions we make about a camp apply to Zaatari.


– its traumatised residents and the UN officials who run it try to inject some humour.


People will be living in Zaatari indefinitely – and for the remainder of this post, I will call it a city, not a camp, and will substitute the word in the Daily Mail’s text.  It already has businesses:


Its main street, featuring many of its 3,000 shops, restaurants and food vendors, it known as the ‘Champs Elysees’.



Services: The camp’s main street, featuring many of its 3,000 shops, restaurants and food vendors, it known as the ‘Champs Elysees’ .There is also a taxi service, schools, soccer fields and hospitals within its 12 districts


A healthy day has three modes of activity – work, family, and society – or, if you like, earning, providing, and enjoying.  A city, therefore, encompasses all three modes of activity:


There is also a taxi service, schools, soccer fields and hospitals within its twelve districts.


A camp, however, lacks earning opportunities, except for the camp owner.  That’s why mobile home parks, about which I’ve written extensively, experience an evolution from camps to cities.  They shift from places of temporary living to permanent communities, from family to society and also to modest earning. 


It’s also why mobile home parks are so impaired legally; they were envisioned, zoned, and infrastructure-gridded as camps, and have become neighborhoods. 


Mobile home parks have taken a half-century to fight their way to a grudging semi-respectability.  Refugee cities are discriminated against; they are urbanization’s untouchables.  And the people who live in them resent their exclusion:


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Hard: The [city] has experienced a number of dark days, with riots sometimes breaking out as traumatised residents attempt to get used to their new home


Despite this, the difficult lives its residents lead have led to riots. However, UN officials who run the [city] say it has begun to emerge from the ‘dark period’ of violence, as its traumatised residents begin to reconcile themselves to a lengthy stay.


The residents will adapt much faster than will the aid agencies, or the feckless city custodians, the UN.



Now what?


Some of those based at the [city] – which is about 8 miles from the Syrian border – expressed their frustration to the US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday when he visited Zaatari.


Though he spent many years on the Senate Banking Committee and its Housing Subcommittee, where I encountered him a few times, Secretary Kerry is not an urbanist – he sees through geopolitical lenses, not those of city-building.


Six refugees met Mr Kerry and angrily told him that the U.S should set up a no-fly zone and safe havens in Syria to protect their fellow citizens.


That’s all well and good, but it’s beyond scope for an urbanist or a housing person.  I would have asked Secretary Kerry what the US will do to help turn Zaatari into a proper, permanent city.


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Escape: Incredibly, 6,000 people a day arrive at the sprawling Zaatari refugee [city] in Jordan, which has become the country’s fifth largest city


Oh, but that would have upset Secretary Kerry’s Jordanian hosts, who as far as I can tell are doing nothing for Zaatari other than reluctantly allowing it to exist in what was heretofore bare desert.


Mr Kerry told them Washington was considering options, including buffer zones for their protection, but that the situation was complex and appeared to hint at war fatigue in the United States after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.


If one is going to stand aside and let a civil war play out – which for all I know might in fact be the least-bad option for Syria – doesn’t someone have a duty to aid their fellow Arabs?



Why aren’t you an Arab?


Where is the Islamic Development Bank?  Where are the Gulf states?


Mr Kerry took a helicopter tour of the tents and pre-fabricated, container-like homes that form by far the biggest [city] for Syrians in Jordan.


I cannot fault Secretary Kerry for limiting his tour to a helicopter windshield – there are only so many hours in the day, and this isn’t State’s purview – but where is USAID?



Good thing I’m up here and not down there


Zaatari is a city, and it’s only one of half a dozen new cities.  Lebanon has one or two, I believe, as does the Hatay region of Turkey.  And all of Syria’s neighboring countries are doing the best they can to pretend that this is a bad dream from which Syria will suddenly awake, instead of a regional political/ religious war being fought by the region’s powers through proxy factions in Syria.  It isn’t ending any time soon, and the residents of Zaatari have become de facto Jordanians, whether they or anyone else likes the idea.


More than 1.7 million Syrian refugees have fled to nearby countries to escape fighting that began as protests against the government in March 2011, and has degenerated into civil war with an increasingly sectarian dimension.


Unfortunately for all concerned, Arab populations in this part of the world have a psychic connection to a homeland that leads them to psychological denial that spans generations.


The Syrian immigrants living in Zaatari are in denial about when they will be able to go home, and what they will find it they ever get there.


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Temporary: The Zaatari [city] is about 8 miles from the Syrian border.


The Jordanians are in denial about their responsibilities to the former Syrians.


Jordan has been host to big UN [cities] for Palestinian refugees for more than six decades.


Relief agencies like the UN are in denial about their exit strategy.  They have no strategy other than cut and run at the first opportunity.


The global development institutions are in denial about their responsibility.  They thoroughly botched Haiti, now they will botch Zaatari.



Are you Syrians or Jordanians now?


An administrator at Zaatari was asked by reporters how long his camp would remain open for Syrians. He replied: ‘Three days. Thirty years. Who knows?’


Forever.  Zaatari is a city that cannot call itself by its proper name.


As long as Zaatari is seen as a camp, no one will make of it a city.  The people who moved there have had their livelihoods disrupted; they’ve become dependent on outsiders.  The outsiders have become habituated to delivering free relief.  Those outside Zaatari in a position to do something are willingly locking themselves into a self-perpetuating cycle of well-intentioned but ultimately cruel aid-dependency that ruins cities, ruins self-sufficiency, ruins families, and ultimately ruins the places once called camps and soon to be called slums.  Corail-Cesselesse in Haiti was one such – and 3 ½ years after the earthquake, it is still a miserable place where efforts to make an economic community are consistently undermined by the self-sustaining forces of dependency.



Corail-Cesselesse never became a city


AHI is now working in Haiti, trying to turn ‘camps’ into economic communities.  It’s brutally hard work, and it’s long overdue, but at least the Haitians and the aid agencies now realize the relief-dependency trap.


Unfortunately, nobody connected to Zaatari is taking the slightest lesson from Corail-Ceselesse. In that ignorance, those who cling to the deliberate self-deception that Zaatari is a camp is pouring the foundation for an utterly unnecessary long-term tragedy.


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Overcrowded: This sign highlights one of the entrances to the busy [city].


The world’s next slum, brought to you by the UN.



They’re gone but they left these plastic tents





Comment from Matthew D Healy
Date: August 3, 2013, 6:19 pm

I share your outrage, it is awful. The various euphemisms by which it is described put me in mind of this famous essay:

My father is a retired professor of history. Many times I have heard him talk about what he calls “Big Power Behaviors” that nearly every major power in history has done regardless of its stated ideology. Clearly no government with the ability to do anything about the Syrian refugee crisis has any desire to intervene, because none sees intervention as being in its own short-term self-interest. But in the longer term, I fear their refusal to help may have serious consequences.

Beyond the terrible things happening to these people right now, I expect the Syrian refugee encampments would be fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit more pawns. And I’m sure those who lead terrorist groups have already reached the same conclusion.