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Lessons of DIY Urbanism in a Syrian Refugee Camp

Governments are so accustomed to dictating their will, through coercion if necessary, that they find it unimaginable that people might willingly – and with creativity and enthusiasm – self-organize themselves to take care of urgent needs.  So pause a moment to behold the remarkable Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.  This settlement of 85,000 displaced Syrians is showing how even desperate, resource-poor people can show enormous creativity and self-organization, and turn their "camp" into a "city."

In many respects, Zaatari bears an uncanny resemblance to the DIY dynamics of the Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert – an annual gathering that attracts more than 65,000 people for a week.  Both eschew "government" in favor of self-organized governance.  Both confer opportunities and responsibilities and individuals, and facilitate bottom-up initiatives through lightweight infrastructures.

As the New York Times reported on July 4, the Zaatari camp has “neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”  Times’ urbanist/architecture critic Michel Kimmelman declares that “Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.”

Historically, most refugee camps are seen as impermanent camps whose desperate, wretched populations need “service delivery” of all sorts.  The “professionals” must orchestrate and administer everything.  The role assigned to the sad, needy hordes of refugees is to queue up in lines for food and to idle away their hours and days. 

In Azraq, a refugee camp of 11,000 Syrians in the middle of nowhere, the “city” is “strictly policed, with fixed, corrugated metal shelters in military order, dirt floors and shameful public toilets, and it has no electricity.”  Refugees there are “terrified at night without electricity to light the shelters, unprotected against the scorpions, mice and snakes, say they escaped one nightmare to arrive at another.”

But what if you conceive a refugee camp not as an impermanent waystation (which often endures for years) to be “administered” from the top down, but as a project in self-organized, participatory, bottom-up city-building? 

Kimmelman notes that the oldest parts of Zaatari “have streets, one or two paved, some lined with electric poles, the most elaborate houses cobbled together from shelters, tents, cinder blocks and shipping containers, with interior courtyards, private toilets and jerry-built sewers.  Clusters of satellite dishes and water tanks on the skyline can bring to mind favelas in Rio de Janeiro or slums in Cairo.  Like favelas, the camp has grown according to its own ad hoc, populist urban logic, which includes a degree of social mobility.”

The Zaatari experience illustrates “a basic push toward urbanization that happens even in desperate places – people leaving their stamp wherever they live, making the spaces they occupy their own.” 

A German relief agency official describes Zaatari as “a complex ecosystem that you could call a city or a slum.  Either way, it’s a dynamic place, unforeseen by the humanitarian actors running it, which is giving refugees a sense of ownership and dignity.” 

Kilian Kleinschmidt, the United Nations official in charge of Zaatari, describes the city as having “14,000 households, 10,000 sewage pots and private toilets, 3,000 washing machines, 150 private gardens, 3,500 new businesses and shops.”  It has barbershop, a pet store, a flower shop and a homemade ice cream business. Its main drag is called the Champs-Élysées. The owner of a bridal shop on the Champs-Élysées bought his property in the black market for 7,000 Jordanian dinars, or about US$10,000, which he may re-sell at a profit in the future.

To be sure, there have been some important top-down administration and leadership decisions making all of this bottom-up self-organization possible.  As the camp’s administrator, Kleinschmidt had to engage with and neutralize the organized crime bodies that were more or less running the camp, and he had to support and encourage grassroots projects.  But his critical realization was seeing his challenge not as UN management of a refugee camp, but as enabling refugees to build their own city:  a critical shift of perspective.

To be sure, Zaatari is a squalid place with lots of problems.  But it is surely a big advance when the management strategy recognizes the agency, imagination and dignity of refugees themselves, and tries to leverage those energies to improve everyone’s circumstances.  This strikes me as the essence of commoning. 

Kleinschmidt is now exploring ways to get wifi for the camp and obtain 10,000 bicycles from an urban planning office in Amsterdam.  This, reports Kimmelman, “prompted a few canny Syrian refugees to open bike repair shops even before the bikes arrived.” 

Perhaps DIY refugee camps like Zaatari will eventually teach municipal governments around the world a few things about unleashing the cooperative capacities of people and making their cities more robust, productive and liveable.  Zaatari should perhaps be considered a charter member of the Maker City movement

 

Photo credit: "Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan (2)" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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