A piece of Syria: fragments of life in Za’atari refugee camp

As part of Yalla’s mission of integrating refugees into Dutch society, and strengthening their bonds, we are publishing a series of articles showing both the refugees’ view on Dutch society and also refugees’ life from a Dutch perspective. In the first article, Rami Hilamia described his journey and how he built his new life in the Netherlands. In this post, Robert van Sluis, a Dutch photographer, reports his experience at Za’atari camp.

Photo © Robert van Sluis

Located in Jordan, Za’atari is the world’s largest refugee camp for Syrians, who started to move there in 2012, after fleeing the ongoing civil war in Syria. United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees have reported that Za’atari camp is currently home to more than 76,000 refugees and almost 20%, or more than 15,000, are children under five years old. According to the organization “Save the Children Jordan” more than half of Syrian refugees in Jordan are children under 18. Women play a key role in Za’atari camp, heading 30% of the households. Working for “Save the Children” and capturing through his lens the work that has been done in Za’atari camp to ensure a better life for those children is Robert van Sluis, a graphic designer and photographer passionate about people. He is the photographer behind the exhibition “A piece of Syria”, a collection of photos and stories of objects brought to Za’atari camp by refugees. Due to social distancing measures, the exhibition initially displayed at Mariënburg library, in Nijmegen, is now available online until June 1. Robert van Sluis reveals in this interview details of the process of taking pictures and interviewing refugees, and what life looks like in Za’atari camp.

When did you become a photographer?

My background is in science, in medical physics. In part, I am a scientist, but I am also a creative person. I decided to study graphic design because I thought it was artistic, but also applied, it has a use for society. And all the while, I was taking pictures as a hobby. In 2007, I quit my job at an advertising agency and I became a freelancer. I realized, then, that photography could also become a professional activity for me. When I do photography, it is always about people.

When did you have the idea for the exhibition? When did that idea come to your mind?

I’ve been to Jordan four times to do volunteer work and, every single time, I wanted to do something personal with it, offering my own vision on it, but I couldn’t formulate what it should look like. I didn’t want to just document the life there, because that has been done before. Also, I didn’t want just portraits of people, because I wanted to do something meaningful to people here, in the Netherlands. My focus in the project is not a person, but the universal experience, the possibility of becoming a refugee yourself. If I, or somebody else were to become a refugee, we would also have to make those choices of what to bring along. I want to find out what kind of things people would take. I was curious about what was precious to people. I wanted to see the evidence. I wanted stories.

Part of the exhibition “A Piece of Syria. Photo © Robert van Sluis

What does fascinate you about the objects people have chosen?

The objects in themselves are so unassuming, but what makes them precious is the value that we bring to them. This is also related to other aspects of life such as the relationship between people. The time that you invest in and the value that you add to that is what make them really precious. People tend to forget that.

How was the process of selection of the stories and objects?

The people who we visited were very honored to have somebody spending time with them. Thus, we spent a lot of time. Sometimes, we spent two hours just to extract fifteen minutes of interview. We had fourteen stories in total and some other candidates, but we ran out of time. We chose objects that were unique and stories that would have the most impact, observing different angles. There was a man, for instance, who brought an oil lamp, because he had heard some information about the lack of electricity in the camp. That was a very touching and interesting story. Sometimes it was a choice between the importance of the object or the story. More often, they kind of lifted each other up.

Part of the exhibition “A Piece of Syria. Photo © Robert van Sluis

Can you tell me a little bit about your routine in the camp?

I was staying in downtown Amman, which is around forty kilometers from Za’atari camp. In the morning someone from the office would come and pick me up between 5:00 and 7:30, depending on the activities programmed for the day. When I had to photograph the food distribution, that starts at 6:30, we were leaving Amman at 5:00. But on some of the other days, we arrived at 8:30 in Za’atari and would photograph different projects up until 12:00, and then we would have lunch at the NGO base in the camp. In the afternoon, we would photograph again up until 3 or 4 pm and then drive back. Usually we were in Amman about 5 pm, when I could shower, sleep, have dinner and sleep some more. That was for fourteen days in a row. Also, you have to be able to improvise, because whatever has been scheduled could change, once priorities change very quickly there.

What are your impressions on refugees’ life in the camp?

The places where people live were quite simple, but not uncomfortable, just small. I was surprised that there are so many activities going on. There are shops, people selling things. Syrian people that I met have a very large entrepreneur mentality. They managed ways to get food from outside the camp, like chips, soft drinks, and also utilities such as ventilators. Basically, everything was on sale and this was very surprising. This is what I really admire about them, their capacity to adapt. The children are so eager to learn. That is the key thing that I found in the daily life in the camp: that overall people are willing to go somewhere, are willing to develop. There is this sense of opportunity, to make something out of their lives.

Is there a cultural difference in the way they live their lives?

What I miss here when I spend time in any Arabic country, is the warmth of the people. The very poetic way of expressing yourself. For example, if you say “the weather is good”, I would say “okay, the weather is good”, but they would say “It is such a beautiful day” and cross their hands over their hearts, close their eyes and say that they have never seen something like that before. You know, this kind of poetic drama. There are a lot of social rituals. If I would go to the office, I would shake hands with all the drivers. We would have a cup of tea and, even though I don’t smoke, they would give me a cigarette every day. It is always like that. It is ritualized. These things will always happen.

Are there separate areas for women and men?

Yes, the schools are divided by gender. I’ve seen some vocational training for teenagers, for instance, which were mostly for men. There are some women, but they sit separately. Everything related to babies in the camp is always the women’s responsibility. I was the only man in the entire women-and-babies-area because I had to photograph a woman breastfeeding. The fact that I was allowed to do this, shows that the women who were photographed by me realized the importance of the message we were trying to convey.

A Save the Children Jordan educator is teaching a Syrian refugee mother on breastfeeding in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Photo © Robert van Sluis

How do you see the role of women in those societies?

It is part of Save the Children Jordan (SCJ) policy to address the women of the families first. All the educational projects are also aimed at women. Because if they are able to change the mentality of the women, eventually the men would have to follow.

Is early marriage an issue in the camps?

Yes, and SCJ is actively campaigning to prevent this. Their idea is that if a girl is married off very quickly, she will then become a mother and will not contribute her other skills to society. At some point, all girls will get married because this is how society is organized there. However, the longer you can postpone that, the greater the chance of girls to have more education and therefore become less susceptible to be suppressed by men. Schools provide them with skills to become independent. Even if they are in a marriage, they have the opportunity to have a job for themselves. Let me show this picture. It is a girl with her school book. She is probably about fourteen years old, and even facing the scarcity of material and the precarious situation of schools, studying is her priority.

School girl with a language text book in Amman, Jordan. Photo © Robert van Sluis

What is the potential of integration of this camp? What kind of work has been done there to prepare people to be re-integrated into society?

Some older children (eighteen, nineteen or in their twenties) study at the university or in vocational training, in Jordan. They get a permit to go to visit their schools and then go back. Inside the camp there is no further education.

Your exhibition is about objects, what people have brought that have value for them, that means something for them. What did you bring from Za’atari?

Girl in pink T-shirt playing with the camera. Photo © Robert van Sluis

It is not an object, but it is a memory. I think this is one of my strongest memories. One of the people we photographed had kids in the caravan and the kids were very curious about what I was doing there. In those situations, the boys are usually the ones who grab the camera and want to play with it. But there was one girl, a six-year old in a pink T-shirt, who was standing by the door waiting for everybody else to be finished. Eventually the boys were finished. The person who was with me was helping her with my camera, because everyone wanted to have a look through it. Then she walked away. She was outside near the caravan. We had finished and we were ready to leave the camp. In that moment, I looked at her and I talked to myself “if she looks around now, it means that we have made a connection”. She did it. First she walked away, then she turned around and she waved good-bye. Then she turned around again and she walked away smiling, jumping and dancing. I think this is the most important thing: the memory of people there wanting to be seen as human beings. Sometimes you see somebody, but actually you don’t see them. I saw her. That was the strongest single thing that I brought from Za’atari apart from the photos. I saw that person, and that person also saw me. I was in contact with a real human being, not a number, or a Syrian, or a refugee, but a person.

“A piece of Syria” – https://eyefordetail.nl/

Interviewed on 19th March 2020

Written by: Denise Moura

Photos: Robert van Sluis