Master’s student Hedzer Roodenburg Vermaat studied how refugee camps in Jordan grow into refugee cities. He was impressed by the resilience and friendliness of the residents. ‘My worldview shifted; I’ve become much more pro-Arab.’
Photos: Hedzer Roodenburg Vermaat
Until just over a year ago Hedzer Roodenburg Vermaat was a student of architecture in Delft, but the budding architect decided he didn’t want to spend all his life at the drawing board. Now he is in the second year of the Wageningen MSc in Development and Rural Innovation, and is studying the development of refugee camps in Jordan. ‘I have always had an interest in what goes on beyond our national borders.’ When he got the chance to do his thesis research in Jordan, he thought that would be a nice adventure.
Jordan houses more than 650,000 Syrian and millions of Palestinian refugees. Most of the Palestinian refugees are spread over 13 refugee camps. ‘The camps were built as temporary measures but they have been in in existence now for 17 years, on average. The tents soon wear out, but people cannot go home yet. They develop different needs and try to meet those needs by finding creative ways around the rules of the camp. In the course of time the camps develop into functioning cities. I find that fascinating.’
Hedzer visited two camps for his research: Baqa’a and Za’atari. Baqa’a, 20 kilometres north of Amman, is the biggest refugee camp in the Middle East and has existed since 1968. Most of its residents are Palestinians who fled the violence during the six-day Arab-Israeli war. Hedzer: ‘They were put up in tents but now, over 50 years later, the camp looks just like a city. Concrete houses have been built and there are roads, schools, shops and mosques. The temporary nature of the camp hasn’t stopped all this from happening.’
Exactly how many people live here is not clear, says Hedzer. ‘There are at least 120,000 registered Palestinians, as well as an unknown number of Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians. The population has grown from 26,000 Palestinian refugees in 1968 to what it is now.’
Hedzer compared this camp with Za’atari, the largest Syrian refugee camp which was founded in 2012. ‘The first time I went to that camp was so unreal. Za’atari gets hyped up, it is in the news a lot with pitiful pictures of children out in the cold. But what I saw was very different to those pictures. It was already a growing city with container homes and huge shops. Wedding dressings, domestic appliances, food and drink, cigarettes, patisserie, clothes, telephones… you name it, it’s sold there. If you can build up all this in that situation, you are very strong and inventive, if you ask me.’ The camp houses 80,000 residents, and there are schools, hospitals, shopping streets and even several football pitches.
Chat over coffee
Hedzer is a fast talker with a Leiden accent. His jovial nature was a useful trait for his research. ‘I interviewed residents about how the camps had developed into cities. That boiled down to hours of chatting over coffee or tea, and then another coffee or tea. The people there are so hospitable and generous. Often they almost dragged me into their homes to offer me lunch or dinner. If I didn’t come in, they sometimes came after me with a cup of coffee.’
At first all this could feel a little uncomfortable, says Hedzer. ‘It is difficult for people to make ends meet, especially in the Syrian camp. Sometimes I was given such as extensive lunch that I wondered how the family was supposed to get to the end of the week. But to refuse the food would have been a massive insult. In the Arab world, a guest is seen as a gift. So I just cleaned my plate. In fact I stuffed myself silly.’
This hospitality was not universal right from the start, though. In his first few weeks Hedzer encountered a lot of suspicion in the Palestinian camp. ‘I stood out as a foreigner, walking around with my little backpack. Once I was cornered by a group of five boys. They thought I was an Israeli spy and wanted to know what I was doing in the camp. They asked, ‘Why do you hate Muslims?’ I was really shaking in my shoes but I kept calm and managed to give the right answers through my interpreter. In the end I went for a cup of tea with those boys.’
Hedzer conducted hundreds of interviews. He got to know more and more people and made friends. ‘I even went to someone’s wedding. I began to see those camps as nice sociable places. But if I said something about that, it was immediately made clear to me that they are emergency camps. The Palestinians want to go back to their country, even though they realize they can’t. Most Palestinians still have the key of their old house in Palestine; those keys have become a symbol of the return the they long for.
When he got back to the Netherlands, Hedzer fell into a black hole. ‘I was incredibly bored. It was hard for me to talk about what I had seen and experienced.’ He could also get extremely annoyed by people who said, ‘How amazing that you’ve come back alive.’ ‘As if it were nothing but a breeding ground for trouble and terrorism. My worldview shifted in Jordan: I have become much more pro-Arab. A lot of people in the west have some idea of the Middle East as a desert populated by a bunch of hotheads, but that is far from the truth. The people are endlessly friendly and hospitable and they don’t hate westerners at all. I felt really safe in Jordan; as a foreign man you are treated with great respect.’
Hedzer’s adventure in Jordan is not over. He is going back soon, this time for an internship with the international aid organization UNHCR. He is keen to go, although he has enjoyed the peace and quiet in the Netherlands. ‘Life here is really carefree. You can crack jokes about anything you like, and all you have to worry about, really, is what to have for dinner tonight. Lots of things are a lot more sensitive in Jordan. The region is going up in flames and everything is politically laden. But I enjoy manoeuvring in that kind of situation. If you are good at adapting, you can cope anywhere.’