Student - September 28, 2017

Even refugees want to chill out

Lotje Hogerzeil

Who? Hedzer Roodenburg Vermaat
What? Internship at UNHCR (The UN High Commission for Refugees) and work for VNG International and the City of Amsterdam
Where? Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

‘It was an unforgettable experience. When my internship at the UNHCR came to an end I was offered a job, for which I stayed another couple of months in Za’atari. Now I’m back in the Netherlands. The Association of Dutch Municipalities International and the City of Amsterdam wanted to do something about creating public space in this refugee camp. I took that upon myself and worked with the UNHCR and the City of Amsterdam to develop the idea into the Emerging Public Spaces project.

With its 80,000 residents, Za’atari is the biggest UN refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. It was established five years ago and is now home for its residents. At first they lived in tents, now they live in containers. People plant little front gardens, a water supply system is under construction and about 1000 little businesses and shops are up and running. This is not a place where people just sit and wait for aid; they build up a new life in the temporary permanence of the camp.

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Space to chill out
The refugees themselves said they would like to have some outdoor meeting places, where children can play and they can “chill out”. Up to now there were only enclosed community centres which could be used under the watchful eye of security guards. It became clear at community meetings that there was a real need for improved public space, and it was my job to make that happen.

We came up with the main criteria together with the refugees: the meeting places should be created by them and for them, without fences or guards. The refugees should own these spaces themselves. I helped during the building phase, took care of the day-to-day management, maintained contacts with neighbourhood residents and solved conflicts between volunteers. I worked 14-hour days.

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Back again
And I’m not done yet. At the moment I’m back in Wageningen to finish my thesis, but I leave for Za’atari soon to check how things are going. All the time I was there I did nothing but work hard, and I never had time to have a cup of tea with the guys I was working with, even though that is a crucial way of keeping the project well-oiled. Luckily I get to go back soon. I am very grateful for this project. The way I was able to develop things on the ground together with the refugees made it unforgettable.’