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Life in Zaatari: An inside look

Jordan, Syria, April 19, 2013

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The front gate to Zaatari. Syrians are not allowed to leave the camp, unless a Jordanian “sponsors” them and can pay the fee for their release. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The registration area for new arrivals. Zaatari is run jointly by the Jordanian Government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugees cross the border at night, under the cover of darkness. The Jordanian army receives them at the border and the IOM busses them to nearby Zaatari where they are registered, receive ration cards and medical attention if needed. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Running this camp is a daily logistical feat. For the last month, the camp has received between 2,000-3,000 refugees each day. If there are an average of five people in a family, that can mean supplying and setting up as many as 600 tents daily. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A mother settles into a semblance of a daily routine as she washes dishes after a meal. Families in Zaatari receive tents, mattresses, blankets, cooking pans and utensils, food and water. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Following custom, shoes are removed at the entrance of a family’s tent. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A makeshift kitchen in the back of one family’s tent. A dishwashing area, a place to make tea, a trash bag. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Living in such close quarters, families take pains to keep their space tidy and orderly. Mattresses and blankets are stacked off to the side during the day, clothes bundled into bags. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Zaatari’s “Main Street.” Entrepreneurs, like anywhere else in the world, have sprouted up throughoutthe camp. People sell all manner of goods including fruits and vegetables, nuts, mobile phones and shoes. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps has constructed a water supply system at Zaatari that consists of two deep wells, a pump station and chlorination system that will support up to 65,500 refugees. The remaining water supply will continue to be trucked in. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    School is offered to children in Zaatari, but they still have a lot of free time. Mercy Corps, in partnership with UNICEF, has constructed and is operating five playgrounds and multipurpose sports courts in the camp. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps and UNICEF have set up a “cinema tent” in Zaatari camp, where kid-friendly movies are shown daily. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shahed, 10, (in blue) survived the bombing of Dara’a, her hometown. I instantly sense her strength, and know she’ll be O.K. Still, I am glad when she dashes off. It’s Friday and her mom has a special chicken dinner waiting, like Sunday dinner in the U.S. Rituals in camp help keep families together, and Shahed will need hers. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps

Until a few weeks ago, I had only read about refugee camps. I wondered what they were like. Then I found myself standing in Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border where an estimated 140,000 Syrians now live, according to the Jordanian government. This camp opened only last July.

Here I’ve selected a few of my photos to show you, as best as I can, the basic anatomy of this refugee camp and give you some sense of the experience for families there.

I do this in full recognition that my time in Zaatari was short. I still wonder what it is really like for families there. What it is like to have fled across the border as your own government shot at you. To live in a tent filled only with possessions you carried in your hands or that you received out of charity. To only hope to return home but have no real idea if or when that might happen. Simply put, only these Syrian families could tell you what it is really like there.

Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson of my visit. Though a camp is filled with uniform rows of tent upon tent, living in it will be a singular, life-changing event for every individual there.