Syria’s Displaced: A Photo Essay

Syria’s Displaced: A Photo Essay

Za’atari refugee camp houses some 80,000 residents, making it one of the largest cities in Jordan. Views from inside the wall.

© Nina Berman 2014, NOOR

In late July 2012, the first Syrian families arrived at the Za’atari refugee camp, a barren strip of land twelve kilometers from the Syrian border and seventy kilometers from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

At the time, Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s Country Representative in Jordan said, “We are the first to admit that it is a hot desolate location. Nobody wants to put a family who has already suffered so much in a tent, in the desert, but we have no choice.”

By the end of that summer, the camp housed over 28,000 refugees. In March 2013, 156,000 people were living in a space designed for 113,000. The windswept camp had become Jordan’s fourth largest city, and UNHCR’s second largest camp after Dadaab in Kenya, currently home to about 328,000 displaced Somalis. Today, of the close to 700,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, Za’atari houses about 80,000 residents.

In July 2013 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived by helicopter to visit the camp. Agence France-Presse photographer Mandel Ngan’s aerial photographs of Za’atari became the defining images of the visit. In these images, people appear as dots, little specks in brown sand against an undulating grid of tents and container homes, with no end in sight. The photographs evoked the enormity of the Syrian refugee crisis. They were powerful, but also impersonal.

As the Za’atari camp grew, the camp’s security architecture evolved.

Just past the checkpoint entrance is the camp’s main road bordered on one side by a barbed-wire security wall that stands 2.44 meters high and 120 meters long. This is the largest and most prominent in a series of walls encircling service areas and UNHCR buildings.

In late December 2013 and early January 2014, along with three experienced photographers, I visited the camp to capture the daily life of its residents.  Our aim was to tell a story about the camp through images and to paste these photos on the security wall, transforming the concrete barrier into a massive narrative canvas. The photographic display would be visible to both the subjects of the photographs and to visitors, diplomats, and other actors who would decide the fate of the refugees living within.

Rather than unidentifiable specks in brown sand, we wanted Za’atari’s refugees to appear epic, but also to show their humanity and dignity. The project used the visual language of photojournalism but required consent and collaboration from the camp’s residents. In addition, the images had to strike a particular note: they had to negotiate the space between the grim reality of the camp and the project’s intention to use art as an affirming medium in spaces of disenfranchisement and trauma.

When escaping violence, refugees flee with what they can carry. Many left behind their family photographs. So in addition to the creation of the security wall mural, our team of photographers turned one tent into a photo studio. Refugees were invited to have their portraits taken alone or with someone—or something—they loved. One man brought his shisha; a young boy, his blanket. Four girls held their schoolbooks. Mothers carried babies. A father stood behind his son. The photo studio provided a neutral space where residents could momentarily escape their refugee status. Participants were treated as clients, not subjects. They chose how they would pose and look. We printed hundreds of these portraits and distributed them for free on the spot. I also selected a few images for the security wall mural.

In March 2014, we pasted the photographs on the wall and it came alive.

People drove by honking their horns, giving the thumbs-up sign. Some walked by in careful contemplation, taking in each picture. Others, however, were less positive. One refugee, a former fighter who had first agreed to be photographed outside his tent, became self-conscious once he saw his image enlarged. We covered the picture at his request. The Jordanian authorities (who had not been given prior review) grew agitated during the installation process. They questioned whether some of the images portrayed the camp, and by extension, the host country, in a negative light. For example, a photo of a man holding up X-rays of injuries he had suffered in Syria could be mistaken for injuries received at the camp. Another depicting the daily ritual of bread distribution could give the impression, authorities said, that everyone in the camp was poor and hungry.

The pictures were designed to have a six-month life span. But the majority of the nearly one hundred images still remain on the security wall today. They are discolored and frayed, washed out by the passage of time, yet the faces of the refugees are still discernible on the concrete slabs. Their photographs are now testament to the duration of the refugee crisis and the permanence of the camp.

A view of the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in tents and container homes, making the camp the country’s fourth largest city. © Nina Berman 2014, NOOR images.

Newly arrived refugees from the Syrian city of Homs wait in the processing area at the Za’atari camp.
© Nina Berman 2013, NOOR images.

A boy waits for his container home to arrive on moving day. Refugees are first given tents, which are later replaced by prefabricated metal container homes.
© Nina Berman 2013, NOOR images.

Hussein, a former taxi driver, walks on crutches to his tent in Za’atari. He was wounded in a Syrian air strike. © Nina Berman 2013, NOOR images.

Hussein and his wife and daughter inside their tent. Hussein survived two months of torture by the regime at the Mezzeh prison near Damascus. He was released after his brother paid bribe money.
© Nina Berman 2013, NOOR images.

Refugees wait in line for food distribution. Around half a million pieces of bread are given out each day in the camp. © Nina Berman 2014, NOOR.

A boy holds his bread rations during morning food distribution.
© Nina Berman 2014, NOOR.

A photo by Stanley Greene showing a Za’atari chicken vendor is pasted on the camp’s security wall.
© Nina Berman 2014, NOOR.

A photograph of triplets born in Za’atari, taken by Alixandra Fazzina, used as an installation image.
© Nina Berman 2014, NOOR.

A portion of the 120-meter photographic mural on the Za’atari security wall.
© Nina Berman 2014, NOOR.

Four girls pose with their school books in the portrait studio set up in the camp.
© Andrea Bruce 2013, NOOR.

Family members pose against a leopard-print background at a wedding ceremony in Za’atari.
© Alixandra Fazzina 2014, NOOR.

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author of Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq (Trolley Books, 2004), and Homeland (Trolley Books, 2008), and an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The Za’atari project was produced by Nina Berman and NOOR images, and photographed by Stanley Greene, Alixandra Fazzina, Andrea Bruce, and Nina Berman. Curator Sam Barzilay assisted with installation.