Rashed, 14, leaves the camp to buy furniture from Jordanian merchants and comes back to sell it, much as his family once did back home.
Toufic Beyhum‘s photographs of the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan provide a look into the makeshift pastimes and work as well as the daily mundane activities of Syrian refugees. His series Champs Elysées focuses on the retail and food stands along the central road in Za’atari nicknamed Champs Elysées by French aid workers.
This body of work is more interesting than many others emerging from the Syrian conflict. There are no bombs here, but there is trauma. That trauma though isn’t immediately apparent. We’ve got to dig deep into Beyhum’s photographs.
Beyhum’s focus on small-scale trade is instantly connective; there’s no society in the world that doesn’t move about the continuous modest commercial negotiations. Beyhum shows us the less fraught but no-less-important side of the Syrian conflict and the refugee resettlement.
How do cities, wanted or not, develop? How do humans resettle? And what happens if that resettlement is involuntary? Refugee camps are a hive of struggle and psychological trauma, but they are also a hive of survival and continuing on. Of course, the degree to how much refugees want to live on, move on, accommodate and adapt in camps differs hugely. In Western Sahara, for example, refugee camps have housed Sahwaris who fled war over 38 years and the definitions of “home” are under great assault.
One hopes that Za-atari and Syria’s other refugee camps won’t be the “home” for repeated generations. Za’atari is home to an estimated 130,000 Syrians. It is only 3 years old. It is now the 4th largest city in Jordan. It’s an extraordinary place for all the wrong reasons.
The world tends to think of refugee camps as a necessary inconvenience — as better than war, and as the most stable iteration of displacement. Refugees, on the other hand, are daily reminded of lost goods, careers, projects and anchoring points of pride from their former lives (a French psychologist talks about this very well in this VICE feature, Syria: Ground Zero shot by Robert King).
Beyhum’s series, I think, expertly patrols those gaps between subject and audience’s perceptions.
Before digging a little deeper into Beyhum’s work I want make a nod to work made by NOOR photographers at the turn of the year that simultaneously documented the camp and provided opportunities for refugees to make new family portraits. VICE:
Nina Berman, Andrea Bruce, Alixandra Fazzina, and Stanley Greene — supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Japan Emergency NGOs (JEN) — turned a large tent into a photo booth where refugees could come and have their portraits made. Refugees were asked to bring an object they cherished or, if they didn’t have anything, to bring a person they loved. A boy came wrapped in his blanket. A man brought his shisha pipe. A mother posed with her five children. In all, about 300 portraits were printed on the spot and given to people to keep.
There are common attributes to all refugee camps (devastating stories of different degrees) but Beyhum identified one of the defining characteristics of Za’atari — the extraordinary growth of independent businesses. According to UNHCR’s Andreas Needham, is the growth has been “impressive compared with other refugee camps.”
Eighteen months after the camp’s establishment there were 2,500 shops, and 700 on the Champs-Elysées alone.
So while I’d argue that photography’s role is to give subjects a voice, gift or benefit (e.g. NOOR’s portrait studio) its role is also to usher audiences into the psychological territory of the subjects. The shops and shop-owners in Beyhum’s series are perfect vehicles in explaining to us far-away and comfortable consumers that the Za-atari refugee camp is a place of making do.
Beyhum’s images must remind us however that survival is only partly related to the aid-organisations’ food and shelter that provide physical security. Survival has as much to do with forging ones own spaces, purpose, pride and as a result psychological health.
What a refreshing foil to the photographs of desperate handout and sacks of rice being thrown from atop aid-trucks that we so often see in the media.
Please scroll down to read Dimechkie’s original text that accompanies these images. It provides important context.
‘CHAMPS ELYSEES’ by NADIM DIMECHKIE
The salesman on the Champs-Elysées displays the shiny black shoes in neat, even rows. Each time the wind picks up, each time a truck roars past, they are drowned in billows of fine desert sand. And each time, the salesman dusts the sand off each shoe, wipes it down and places it back in line. Another cloud of sand may come along any moment, but the shoes will stay clean.
130,000 refugees are trying to make a living somewhere they do not wish to live. Most have left their homes, trades, families, and material possessions behind and they want to go back now. But until they do, they must manage with what they have left.
Father-son traditions fostered in the souks of Damascus and Aleppo, and preserved by the protectionism of successive Assad governments, are so ingrained they are almost instinctive. By one reckoning, 80% of the shops hark back to skills honed at home.
Where tradition fails, resourcefulness steps in. There are no cars here, and law and order is the preserve of the UN. So Abdul Mansoor, once a policeman in Syria, now makes phenomenal falafels. Omar was a car mechanic; now he sells second-hand clothes. Mounib established an impressive perfume shop — which he insists is nowhere near as good as the one his family ran in Syria for generations.
Some jobs have been invented before anyone’s come up with a name for them. What do you call the kids who use wheelbarrows to help people with their shopping for tips, or to resell UNHCR blankets and tents so they can buy what they really need? What do you call the welder-joiners who fuse impossible things from impossible combinations of materials, or the makers of custom-made flat-bed trolleys designed to shift shipping-container homes between buyers and sellers?
Small gardens grow in infertile ground. Bottled water is still sold even though water filtration units have been closed down. Recently, someone stuck a whole police station on wheels and dropped it off somewhere they felt was more appropriate.
The ‘Mayor of Za’atari’, UN Special Field Coordinator Kilian Kleinschmidt, appreciates their entrepreneurial nature. Refugees are building their own amenities, like showers and toilets and kitchens. Even if this is sometimes using illicit materials, Kleinschmidt prefers to see refugees build facilities proactively than wait to receive them. Elements of their success are also down to other factors: there are 193 NGOs here, including UNHCR who provide blankets for warmth, containers for homes and security for business to thrive.
Atallah revived the family bakery from Syria and set up shop in Za’atari.
Some business-owners benefited from existing ties with Jordanian pre-war business partners and set up an enormous supermarket in the centre of Za’atari.
Of course, not all of the attributes brought by the empty-handed are good ones. Fear has also followed them—of government informers, of ISIS informers, of the mafia. Criminality, which characterized the town of Dara’a from which many of the refugees fled, has followed many of them too.
A combination of good governance and the opportunity for dignity has quelled many of these less desirable elements, while providing opportunities for the better instincts to grow. For some, there is even excitement here—in the relative law and order, in the electricity (which some Syrian villagers had never had on tap before), in the entrepreneurial opportunities. But nobody wants to be here.
For all their ability to survive the present moment, no one can build lasting happiness here, for that would mean accepting their fate. Still, there is enough tradition and resourcefulness to make life bearable.
And there is always pride — another resource from within. Pride keeps the streets tidy and the wedding dresses moving. Pride keeps the homes orderly, the teenaged boys groomed and fragrant, the barbershops busy. Pride keeps the shoe salesman in business.
All images: Toufic Beyhum
Introduction: Pete Brook
Text: Nadim Dimechkie