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Children Document Life in World’s Largest Syrian Refugee Camp


When 16-year-old Mohammad Nour Al-Abdallah pictures his ideal house, he envisions a sprawling villa with a big kitchen, a soccer field, a swimming pool and plenty of toys.

But his reality for the past four years has been a 200-square-foot corrugated-steel caravan in Za’atari, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp.

“It’s like it’s a dream,” Mohammad told ABC News in Arabic, describing his perfect home. “I was living a different life in Syria.”

In Jordan some 8 miles south of the border with Syria, Za’atari is currently home to about 80,000 refugees, more than half of whom are under the age of 18. ABC News, in conjunction with UNICEF, gave digital cameras to Mohammad and more than 50 other children ages 11 to 18 living in Za’atari and asked them to spend a week documenting daily life there — the joys, the routines and the struggles. These are their stories.

‘It Changed My Life’

Like many of the other Za’atari child refugees ABC News interviewed, Mohammad recalls the exact day he arrived at the camp. It was Oct. 17, 2012, he said. He arrived with his parents, his two sisters and little else. They left behind all their belongings and the rest of their relatives in Syria.

“It was a historic day for me. It changed my life,” Mohammad said. “We thought we were going to stay here for two months and go back.”

Mohammad has since fallen into a daily routine, he said. He wakes up every morning around 6 and walks to the camp bakery to pick up bread for his family. He then plays soccer on one of the practice fields until he has to leave for school at 11:30. After a few hours of classes, he eats lunch at home and participates in planned activities, like photography courses, at one of the camp’s informal learning centers. He then returns home for the night to study and eat dinner with his family.

Children Document Daily Life in the World's Largest Syrian Refugee Camp

ABC News partnered with UNICEF to give kids in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan cameras to document daily life there. We asked the kids to describe the photos they took. The following are summaries of their captions, translated from Arabic into English.
It's hard work pushing a cart, but these boys seemed to be enjoying themselves in the pleasant evening.
A view of the camp in the evening during sunset. I love taking pictures of the setting sun.
Everyone in the family helps carry water. Here, my young neighbors carry water in buckets.
My cute little sister Farah helps out with chores in the house.
The falafel fryer and the beauty of food with the rays of sunlight shown through the mosque minaret at dusk. It gives me hope for a better life someday.
Children carry bread home. We go to the World Food Programme center every morning around 7 a.m. to get bread.
I enjoyed watching and taking pictures of a father teaching his son how to ride a bicycle.
Before: A lunch of chicken, fries, yogurt and salad prepared by my mother.
After: It was so tasty, we finished the meal in a matter of minutes.
During a training session for mothers and pregnant women about childcare and health issues, we organized activities for their young children so that the mothers would not be disturbed.
I like creating things to make the room more beautiful and cozy. I used to do this in Syria, and I wanted to continue here too. It makes me happy that my sisters also love making and decorating things.
Children fly kites in an area away from the caravans where no one can disturb them. Many children in the camp make their own kites.
I was walking around taking photos when these two boys from the neighborhood begged me to take their picture.
I tried to create this photo like a painting, using the dark part to frame the view outside. I took this looking out from inside my father's shop.
There are 174 types of perfume in my father's shop. Silver Scents (for men) and Blue Lady (for women) are my favorites.
Red bell peppers are unloaded at the vegetable shop. There is a lot of demand for red bell peppers and eggplant as we use them to make a tasty pickle called maqdoos.
I took this picture of the dresses in the camp market because it expresses the dreams of all girls.
The interiors of our caravans are very dull and boring, so my older brothers draw and paint on the walls, including this beautiful design around the light.
A garden in my house. The interesting thing is we didn't plant any of it. It just grew from the seeds we tossed, like peaches and lemons. Now my mother takes care of it.
This garden was created by the people in District 1, Street 12. Every family came and planted something, so it's a collective effort.
Birds sing beautiful tunes. The birds make us feel a little bit like home.
My sisters have already started learning about make-up.
My sister draws a lot of these kinds of things, like guns and tanks – things she saw for real in Syria.
My brothers and sister studying together using an educational board.
Students leave a learning support school at 11 a.m. in the morning.
This is part of the water infrastructure planned for Za'atari, which I heard will pipe water straight to our home. They say it's bigger underground than it looks here.
There was a hole in the ground where there was previously a washroom. The children took over and made a pretend shop. The children around the outside play the customers.
Although my favorite game is basketball, there are so many children in the camp who love football that not everyone gets a chance to play on the field. I wish there were enough football fields so that all of them can enjoy the game.
A lot of children come out to play football in the evening around 6:30 p.m., as it is much cooler.
I took the picture of the Jordanian flag as it reminded me of our own flag in Syria.
As Syrian children, we loved playing with toys. When we came here, we were forced to leave all our toys and came here with nothing.
This is our neighbor's daughter. I helped raise her and love her like my own sister. She is crying because she wanted ice cream.
My brother looked so sweet as he patted our little sister to sleep.
My 9-year-old cousin helping our mother crochet a shawl.
I was reading this book on journalism at a friend's place. I wanted to highlight the importance of education and that even if it's not your book, you can still read and learn.
Religious books in our mosque. We have not lost our faith in God despite all our suffering.
A boy about my age transports items on a wheelbarrow past the mosque.
This is a children's playground in District 11. I feel good that children have a place to play. So beautiful.
One of our neighbors lost his leg in Syria.
A donkey cart commonly used in the camp to transport things.
Our neighbors relax under the shade of the water tank.
The water truck comes around 4 p.m. every day. A neighbor helps fill up the tank.
Just before we ate our breakfast at around noon, my sister wanted some water to drink and I took this photo.
My father, right, chats with a neighbor in our home at the camp.
My brother's cigarettes and "mate" (yerba mate) tea. I took this picture to show the habits of Syrian people. Although coffee is very popular in Syria, this kind of tea is preferred in the country side of Damascus.
Shai (tea) is a part of our lives. We drink it from the time we wake up, during all our meals and throughout the day. It is a fundamental part of our life.
Reem Al-Hariri is pictured playing the keyboard at the Makani center.

I love music. I love acting too.
This is a hand-slapping game. I love to watch my sister and brother laughing and having fun.
I love shoes.
A girl going to throw out garbage. I like this photo because it is important to throw garbage in the right place so the rest of the area stays clean.
Beautiful dresses and gowns for sale at one of the shops in the camp market.
My friend and I stand in front of a clothing store and capture our reflection in the window.
There must have been over a hundred birds flying overhead. I wish I could fly with them.
Sandstorms are quite common in the camp, especially in the afternoon.
There was so much garbage that it caught my eye. It is cleaned up now, but at that moment I wanted to take a photo to show the importance of environmental conservation.
Children from our neighborhood go to a learning center.

Editor's Note: There are approximately 26 informal learning centers in Za'atari called "Makani" or "My Space" in Arabic, where children can play sports, learn life skills, do art and cultural activities or receive counseling and do school work. They often go there for the second half of the day, when they are not in school, and on Saturdays.
At a Relief International learning support school, these two teachers love playing chess during their spare time – and they are very good at it.
A neighbor enjoys the pleasant evening weather.
Football in Za'atari at sunset. I don't know what we would do if we didn't have football in our lives.
Dusk in Za'atari.
These kids, like thousands of others, go to school. There are enough places for children to get an education in Za'atari for whoever wants to get it.
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While growing up in Syria, Mohammad and his family lived in a spacious three-bedroom house in Sayyidah Zaynab, a suburb nestled in the countryside south of the capital, Damascus. He went to school and played soccer there every day with his cousins, who lived in the same neighborhood. That all began to change after the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

What started as a local protest movement in the southern city of Dara’a expanded into a full-fledged civil war by 2012. The country’s war has since burgeoned into today’s brutal conflict, pulling in the United States, Russia, Iran and almost all of Syria’s neighbors. It has caused the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with more than 8 million children in danger, according to UNICEF.

UN agencies estimate that 4.8 million men, women and children have fled the country since 2012 and another 13.5 million people in Syria are still in need of humanitarian assistance.

‘Many of Them Remain Here’

As Syrians fleeing violence started pouring across the southern border into Jordan in 2012, the Jordanian government established a stretch of land in the desert as a temporary refugee camp some 6 miles east of Mafraq, a provincial capital. Approximately 430,000 refugees have passed through Za’atari since it opened on July 29, 2012, according to UNICEF, which is in charge of education, water, sanitation and hygiene in the camp.

At one point, there were as many as 120,000 refugees in Za’atari. They live in small tents and single-room prefabricated mobile-home units called caravans. Some move to towns outside the camp after a few years.

“They spend between three and a half to four years in the camp, but many of them remain here,” Miraj Pradhan, the head of communication for UNICEF’s office in Jordan, told ABC News.
Over time, Za’atari has evolved into a 3-square-mile, semipermanent settlement in order to meet the needs of the growing Syrian refugee population.

Today, Pradhan said, the camp has more than 13 UNICEF-run schools and 21 community centers, called Makani (My Space in Arabic). The UNICEF initiative provides informal learning, psychosocial support services and life skills training.

“First and foremost, the child has to feel safe and comfortable,” Pradhan said. “We provide the psychosocial support that they need because, as you know, they’ve gone through a lot. They’ve seen a lot of violence and bad things that nobody should see — children or adults.”
PHOTO: Everyone in the family helps carry water. Here, my young neighbors carry water in buckets.
There’s also a marketplace in the camp, where people have started businesses to sell everything from falafel to perfume, and a small community garden, where residents are cultivating flowers and vegetables in the otherwise desolate landscape.

Each day, UNICEF delivers about 3.5 million liters of water to Za’atari, which residents collect from tanks, and removes 2.35 million liters of wastewater.

“Jordan is already one of the most water-scarce places in the world,” Pradhan said. “Having a camp of this size and providing safe water every day is a big challenge.”

Adjusting to Life in a Refugee Camp

Although there are immense efforts to bring a sense of normality to Za’atari, many children said adjusting to camp life has been very difficult and they often feel bored or alone.

Reem Al-Hariri, 14, told ABC News it took her two months to learn where her family’s caravan is in the sprawling settlement. She said she had to make marks in the dusty streets in order to find her way back. The weather is brutally hot, and the electricity in the camp cuts off at times, which she said makes it tough to study.
Reem had trouble making friends when she arrived with her family from Dara’a, she said. Her struggles have made her a stronger person, she said, but she still feels lonely at times.

“I have happy days and sad ones,” she said. “Whenever I’m upset, I start to sing.”

Aya Barghash, 16, said she and the other girls in the camp face verbal harassment from some boys when leaving school each day. School is not co-ed in Za’atari; the girls attend classes in the morning, and the boys attend in the afternoon, and the two groups run into each other when one is leaving and the other is arriving. She said she discussed this issue and possible solutions during a United Nations workshop about violence against women that she attended at a Makani center.

“Harassment is creating serious damage for girls, as their parents are preventing them from going to school because of it,” Aya told ABC News. “We need to speak up and not be silenced.”
PHOTO: Children from our neighborhood go to a learning center.
Early marriage is another prevalent issue in the camp, and divorce is common, she said.

Statistics from the Jordanian government show that 35 percent of marriages among Syrian refugees involved a minor in 2015, up from 18 percent in 2012. Child marriage among Syrians is not new, but the practice is on the rise as displaced families face the economic pressures and the challenges of providing security for their daughters in exile, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

It’s one of the reasons Aya wants to continue her education and eventually become a psychologist.

“I am always listening to all the details of my friends’ problems. I sometimes cry after hearing them,” she said. “One of my friends got divorced six months ago, and her mother-in-law wouldn’t give her bread. She sometimes would give her old bread and would keep the fresh one for her son and husband. That’s unacceptable."

“I tell myself how my education is my weapon,” she added.

‘Trying to Make It Normal’

Many families didn’t expect to be living in Za’atari for years. And while some still hope to return to Syria one day, they have tried to transform their caravans into homes. On the inside, families often decorate the ribbed steel walls with fabric or hand-painted designs. And on the outside, some caravans are adorned with murals that make the shelters look like an inviting cottage with painted flowers or a stone castle with growing ivy.

The murals are scattered throughout Za’atari. Some are decorative and thought-provoking, like one that depicts a goldfish jumping out of its bowl. Others are used to mark the streets. Nearly every child who received a camera from ABC News took photos of these murals — bright spots in the otherwise plain camp.

Murals of Za'atari: Photos by Syrian Refugees

ABC News partnered with UNICEF to give kids in the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan digital cameras to document their lives. Murals are scattered throughout Za’atari. Some are decorative and thought-provoking, while others are used to mark the streets. Nearly every child who received a camera from ABC News took photos of these murals — bright spots in the otherwise bleak landscape. The captions are summaries of their descriptions, translated from Arabic into English.
A colorful, water-themed painting on one the organization offices.
We have to do whatever we can to take care of plants. It is the source of life.
This caravan looks so beautiful with the painting. There is a project where artists and painters go all around the camp making our caravans look beautiful.
This is the street with the water theme. I love the paintings on this street. They make me feel cool in the heat.
I find this picture so inspiring. I think of it as symbolizing jumping over our hurdles and problems.
This painting reminds me of a castle back in Syria.
A painting depicting nature and greenery on one of the caravans in the camp.
The murals on this street in the camp have a buildings theme.
This sign says "Schools Street." All of the caravan paintings on this street have a school and education theme.
It makes me smile when I see this happy and sideways cartoon face. Sometimes it looks scary too.
The mural reads, "Space for Change." I think we've all changed a lot.
I love this painting as it says "hello" in so many languages. It means we can at least greet people, no matter where they come from.
A painting on one of the caravans reminded me of a castle we used to visit back in Syria.
This painting on a caravan reminds me of a place in Syria where we went for a family picnic.
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Ahmad Al-Koud, who just turned 18 and has lived in the camp since he was 15, said his family members have maintained their traditions, like praying at the mosque, drinking plenty of “shai” (tea in Arabic) and making some of the same meals they ate back in Syria.

“Life is hard, but we are trying to make it normal. We are having the same Syrian breakfast,” he told ABC News. “We still have a mosque, and Islam is still our religion.”

Ahmad snapped numerous pictures of the people he has met in the camp, mainly out-of-school children. One photo shows a young boy who lost his father and stopped going to school in order to get a job to help his family. Another shows a boy playing with a toy gun instead of attending school. Ahmad said that child told him he once saw men on TV carrying guns, so he wanted to do the same.

Children of Za'atari: Photos by Syrian Refugees

ABC News partnered with UNICEF to give kids in the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan cameras to document their lives. The kids created intimate portraits of those around them. The captions are summaries of their descriptions, translated from Arabic into English.
A child plays with a toy gun in my neighborhood. I feel sad because so many of us experienced it in real life in Syria, including very small children.
At sunset, a boy about my age transports items on a wheelbarrow to earn money. There are many boys in the camp who work part time or full time to support their family.
A sweet little neighbor of mine.
A selfie in a mirror.
My friend at the bodybuilding and fitness center where we go every morning.
A child with his pink balloon. Such a lovely sight.
A group of quintuplets – a very rare situation in Za'atari and, I guess, anywhere in the world.
A girl wanted me to take her picture in the street.
A selfie I took with my friend, Ahmad Al-Shareh Daham, who also took part in the photo project. Ahmad was my first friend when I came to the camp, and we've been friends for over two and a half years. I have many other friends now, but Ahmad will always be my first and best friend.
A young boy helps his father in the shop.
My friend and I pose for a photo.
Sha'am, my beautiful little sister.
One of my best friends, Mohammad, left. We always hang out together. Editor's note: Maher El-Rzayek is pictured in the center.
My sister Farah. She is the sweetest girl in the world.
My cousin and the plants behind him. He looked so funny.
My 3 1/2-year-old sister Arwa'a wanted me to take a picture of her. You can also see the plants planted by my father.
Two of my little neighbors wanted me to take a picture of them. They were returning from one of the learning centers.
My cousin Ghaith loves eating chips.
Two children transport carpets on a wheelbarrow in District 4 around 10 in the morning.
A young girl in our neighborhood.
My friend Marah Barghash, who also took part in this activity. She is a very jolly girl.
My brother loves riding on his toy tricycle.
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According to a report by UNICEF, over 48 percent of school-age children in Za’atari were out of school in 2014, with more than 38 percent not receiving any form of education, formal or informal. Ahmad said he hopes to help these children achieve their goals by becoming a teacher.

“All this suffering,” he said, looking at his photos. “My dream is to become a schoolteacher and shape the next generation.”

Far From ‘Paradise’

For 17-year-old Bayan Masri, it’s difficult to move on when her close-knit family is split between two countries. She arrived in Za’atari with her parents, three sisters and her brother on Jan. 18, 2013. But her brother returned to Syria soon after that to get married. He currently lives in Dara’a with his wife and their 7-month-old daughter, Bayan told ABC News. She misses him desperately.

Her grandparents are also in Syria, along with her uncles, aunts and cousins. One of her uncles was killed while fighting in the conflict, she said. Another was wounded, and one is currently detained.
PHOTO: There are 174 types of perfume in my father's shop. Silver Scents (for men) and Blue Lady (for women) are my favorites.
Before war broke out in Syria, Bayan and her family lived comfortably in a house in Dara’a. Her father worked as a mason, and her mother was a housewife. Their family would often take trips to Damascus and to the coastal city of Latakia, where they would rent a chalet in the summer.

In Za’atari, her parents have opened up a perfume shop in the camp’s marketplace to make ends meet. Bayan said she helps out at the shop after school.

While she is thankful to have escaped war-torn Syria, she wishes she could be reunited with the rest of her family, and she deeply misses the country she knew as “paradise.”

“I think about how we left our country, why we left and when we’ll go back,” she said. “Syria is the paradise of the earth.”


Executive Producer DAN SILVER

Managing Editor XANA O'NEILL
Managing Editor, International News JON WILLIAMS

Supervising Producer RONNIE POLIDORO
Deputy Photo Director JEFF COSTELLO
Assignment Manager KIRIT RADIA




Creative Director HAL ARONOW-THEIL
Senior Animator LISA FISHER
Senior Developer GREG ATRIA


Additional Photo Credits
Satellite images of Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan from 2011-2016: DigitalGlobe
Children carrying water in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan: Alaa Al Khatib/UNICEF
Children walking in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan: Aya Barghash/UNICEF
Perfume shop in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan: Bayan Masri/UNICEF