A Day in the Syrian Zaatari Refugee Camp

In the midst of the sprawling and bustling Syrian Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, there is a business flourishing despite the poor living conditions– a shortage of water and food supplies, drug dealings, and prostitution–and that’s the business of customizing bicycles. The market for bikes customization became increasingly popular after refugees desired their transportation to be unique, a way to stands out in the crowd and distinguished among 80,000 refugees settlers who turn to bicycles as their primary transportation to navigate around camp.

Located just 6 miles east of Mafraq, the once dry, arid, uninhabited land is now home to 80,000 Syrian refugees who were forced out of their home as the Syrian civil war continues. Since its establishment in 2012, the camp has now expanded from 2 miles to 3.2 miles, and with the increasing population, it has now become the fourth largest city in the Jordan. Transportation can be little to none, with limited bus runs throughout the camp, while some cars or taxis offer services for about 2 Jordanian dinars, it is costly as there are little to no jobs are available.

On the contrary, refugees such as Youssef Al-Masri are being industrious and are creating a new market under extreme conditions. Al-Masri has built a vehicle that is a cross between bicycles and old metal scraps. “What made me do this is when we came to Zaatari camp, there wasn’t any transportation,” says Al-Masari. When Al-Masri left his life as a Nurse in Daara in 2013, he’s ingenuity sparked when he realized there was no form of vehicle and saw an open opportunity.

Youssef’s workshop in the middle of the main market street, along with other informal shops that authorities turn a blind eye. The Walls are lined up in with bike parts such as wheels and frames are hanging on all the wall of his makeshift workshop made up of wood and roofing panels. Scrap metals and rubber tubings are ubiquitous lies on the floor as if you were inside a chop shop. He reached for his dusty compact circular saw, powered by a small generator, and began cutting a piece of an old tent pole that will serve as a frame for his next project. He takes inspiration from the early 1920’s vintage cars with an accent of curvaceous runner boards with enamel details as if you were driving Gatsby’s car.

Al-Masri’s work is in demand; he has made 4 and sold 3, keeping one for himself. “They’re convenient to take families and household goods from one place to another. Also, the weather here gets very hot or very cold, and traveling in a car-bicycle protects you from these effects.” Al-Masri is just one of the other 3,000 entrepreneurs who has set up informal shops and business in Zaatari. Moreover, the market is thriving not only in the slum city of Zaatari but also beyond its walls. The site was meant to be temporary, but as the Syrian civil war continues, it seems the camp will continue to on in its seventh year. And this shows that the resilience of the human spirit. If Al-Masri can get more resources and materials to build his bicycle-cars, he would like to expand his business in the near future. “I always aspire to the highest standards, and if I had the all the materials I needed to do this, I could have made a better and more sophisticated vehicle,” says Youssef.



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