I walked down the main strip through Za'atari refugee camp. The wind blew the desert sand onto the hundreds of makeshift stalls and shops that have been set up here by Syrian refugees, their former country just 7 and a half miles away.
Moataz Alsmara sits next to a vegetable stall. The 22-year-old is looking for a job at one of the many shops on this dusty thoroughfare known to aid-workers as the Champs-Élysées.
Moataz, who worked as a computing teacher back home in Syria, is willing to take whatever he can get.
“I don’t want anyone to give me money,” Alsmara told me, as we walked down to his new home. “I want a job and I will make money!”
Thanks to two years of bloody civil war which has forced two million people to flee Syria, Za'atari has exploded over the last year into the world’s second largest refugee camp. Home to some 110,000 people, the site is turning into a major city — the fourth largest in Jordan in fact. And in it, an informal economy is growing.
Kilian Kleinschmidt works for UNHCR and is the camp’s manager. The gruff German is keen to foster that economyhere as well as improve and develop the camp’s infrastructure. This tactic differs from traditional humanitarian response by focusing more on development.
“Making money fast seems to be the theme of the day,” Kleinschmidt told me, clad in desert-friendly khaki shirt and scarf and sat in front of a giant map of the evolving site.
Kilian said that at least eight million euros is changing hands on the site every month and 65% of residents have some form of income.
On the Champs-Élysées dirt road, nearly 700 large and well-stocked shops have opened up, selling groceries, fridges, heaters, even wedding dresses and flat-screen TVs. They are financed by entrepreneurial Jordanians and Syrians, hoping to make the most of the humanitarian crisis.
Rather than offer handouts to the refugees, Kilian wants to harness their business acumen. He believes that helping develop the refugees and the infrastructure of the camp will help Syria move forward when the war finally comes to an end.
The 50-year-old is a veteran of refugee crises, having worked in South Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Bosnia over the past 25 years. His attitude is more akin to that of a military sergeant than the university-educated officer class that normally makes up the upper echelons of UNHCR.
“I would like to see us managing camps differently, shifting the way in which humanitarian organizations deliver in a camp setting, develop a new model,” he told me.
Moataz, the jobseeker wandering the Champs-Élysées, shows off the home of his best friend whose brother was killed having fought for the government-opposed rebels in Syria.
Two caravans stand just a few feet apart, the gap between them covered in order to form a makeshift lobby that leads to a tiny combined toilet and cooking area. It houses six people. Everything is covered in sand.
“This isn’t a house,” he lamented, as a friend’s mother brought out food for us. “In Syria, I had good money and a good life but I didn’t have freedom.”
Moataz told me a few days later that he’d finally been offered a job, earning 4 euros a day, as a technician. He would be based a couple of hours away in Jordan’s capital, Amman. The good news was overshadowed by the death of a close friend in Syria.
Days later, Alsmara lost the job when his employer worked out where he had come from.
“I’m very lost,” he said.
For World Report, this is Girish Gupta at Za'atari in Jordan