We pull up to an arch, a Jordanian tank is parked to the side and a dozen or so Jordanian soldiers sit in the shade of its turret, dragging on cheap cigarettes and not even attempting to hide their boredom I get out of the Taxi and am feeling the nerves, my shoddy temporary passport for identification, lack of press accreditation and the fact that I have never been in an environment like this before combine to produce a pounding heart beat and sweatier than usual palms. I put my head down and make a B line for the entrance. I get about 10 meters past them before I hear the first “excuse me, sir”. They’ve spotted me, I’ve just spent several days worth of my travelling budget getting here and i’m going to get turned back. Instead they greet me with the “how are you?” and “where are you from?” that I have grown used to out here. To my surprise they are very welcoming, they don’t ask me for any papers and arrange a lift for me the down the one kilometer road from the gates to the start of the camp.
Normally it costs 1 JD but for me it’s free, it’s a Catch 22, people who have so little just keep giving. The level of their hospitality is embarrassing but then it would be insulting not to accept it. We drive down the long straight road, weaving in and out of children pushing wheelbarrows and wheelchairs and pick-up trucks brashly sporting stickers that boast their donation from various western government. As the driver pulls up he again refuses my money and so accepting his hospitality I give him my thanks and take my first real look at the panoramic view of tents.
As far as one can see in every direction are UNHCR marked tents, they appear to just haze into the horizon in every direction. The scale of the place is impossible to describe, but for what it’s worth Al Zataari is now Jordan’s forth largest settlement and home to nearly 150,000 Syrians. Credit must go to the Jordanians for absorbing so many refugees with barely a murmur of complaint. I read on twitter that if the UK were to absorb an equal proportion of refugees it would mean taking in approximately 8 million asylum seekers, so as I say, a proverbial tip of the hat to the Jordanian authorities.I start down the main thoroughfare, and almost immediately my expectations and any preconceived images I had of refugee camps are shattered, wooden shacks line both sides of the track, complete with corrugated roofs. They sell everything from mobile phones to falafel, fake belts to televisions. The notorious Arab entrepreneurial spirit is perhaps at its finest here. But therein lies a symptom of the tragedy, when this place was set up it was a tent city, people with whom I spoke thought the regime would not last the Arab spring. However, now there is a certain air of permanence, plumbing replaces water purification tablets and instead of tents, portacabins accommodate new arrivals.As I continue down the thoroughfare I am invited by every other shopkeeper to sit and have tea, but one catches my attention. As I approach him a young man chants “Sura, Sura” (picture, picture) at me and gestures for me to take a photo of him in front of his shop. He tells me he is from Dera’a, as most people in this camp are, and has been living in Zataari for 6 months. He asks me if he can take a picture of me with his friend, I oblige and he goes trigger happy , shooting spontaneously at people in the street outside. . He comes across as trouble-free and after a painful and slightly awkward attempt to speak to him in Arabic I say goodbye and continue on down the track.I was expecting to be met with some skepticism, but I can’t walk 5 meters without having a welcome shouted at me or someone asking for a photo. The only point at which I felt uncomfortable was when a few elder guys started shouting at me with true zeal. Thankfully a nearby boy who spoke pretty good English told me it was because they thought I was Russian. I learnt a lot in that short moment, I think the political sentiments thrown around by western correspondents and on twitter are pretty well echoed down here. They might not realise it but I think those Syrians who are pro-intervention are chanting from pretty much the same verse as those in Westminster and Washington.I met and interacted with many people during an admittedly short time in Zataari, but it left me with much hope for Syria. Syrian optimism is incredibly strong in this place, succinctly summed up by the kid who saved me from my apparent Russian appearances and bid me farewell with the line “Don’t worry, I will kiss the soil of Syria again”.