Syrian exodus spurs building boom in refugee camp
Muscles aching, head pounding, Mohammed al-Haj grunted as he drove his pick-axe into the desert soil.
Of the dozens of schools, bridges and apartment complexes he oversaw as an engineer in his native Syria, the 37-year-old Homs resident said his latest project has been nothing short of a labour of love: An addition to his family's tent in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
"For so many months we have watched our country destroyed bit by bit," al-Haj said, as he slammed the axe into the ground a second time.
"Now it is finally a chance for us to build."
Al-Haj is one of hundreds of Syrians taking up hammers, saws and shovels in the Zaatari refugee camp, rapidly transforming the desert unit into a makeshift metropolis.
Jordanian officials say the camp has witnessed a rapid expansion because of a recent exodus that saw the entry of more than 60,000 Syrians in January alone, pushing Zaatari's population to some 100,000 - a near doubling in less than three months.
Syrians are driving the camp construction, erecting hundreds of makeshift aluminum-and-wood cafes, vegetable stands and shelters. They are often outpacing the bulldozers and lines of canvas tents being laid out daily by United Nations and Jordanian officials.
Abu Mohammed al-Darawi is one of hundreds taking part in the construction drive, which he says has been a "welcome distraction" from a life in exile.
"Many of us have not worked in more than a year, others have sat in tents for months," the former carpenter from Daraa - the cradle of the Syrian uprising - said, as he laid a wooden foundation beam for his cousin's planned vegetable stand on the western edge of the camp.
"Now we are learning what it is like to feel tired at the end of the day again."
The building boom is fuelled by a combination of economics and necessity, the refugees say.
For as little as 12 dollars, residents can purchase bundles of wooden planks and aluminum sheeting harvested from the dozens of humanitarian aid and residential trailer crates that are trucked into the camp each day.
With the growing number of goods being smuggled into the camp, entrepreneurial residents say their businesses generate an average profit margin of 50 dollars.
Faced with the prospect of generating income and creating additional shelter for the steady trickle of relatives joining them, few are willing to miss out on the current "real estate boom."
"The first question people ask you when you arrive to Zaatari is not, 'Where are you from?' or 'When do you plan to go back?'" said Zuhair Abu Ahmed as he lit a gas burner in his coffee stand at the centre of the camp.
"It is: What do you plan to open?"
The daily influx of some 1,000 refugees has sparked fierce competition for prime real estate in the camp, with residents resorting to reserving plots of land with stones, disassembled tents and even relatives.
Mohammed al-Rifai says he has spent the past five days alternating 12-hour shifts with his brother guarding their four-metre-by-four-metre plot, located at a rare intersection of two paved streets.
"In Zaatari it is first come, first served," al-Rifai said as he squatted on a stone positioned in the middle of his planned coffee stand.
"We will not move until we put our last nail in."
But rapidly shrinking real estate has given rise to speculators and prospectors, as dozens of Syrians stake out plots in deserted regions hundreds of metres away from the current edges of the camp, which they believe will soon become the centre of bustling neighbourhoods.
"In order to succeed in business, you have to have the courage to be the first," said Ahmed Abu Ali as he leaned out the window of his vacant cigarette stand, nearly a kilometre away from the last row of tents on the southern edge of the camp.
"If you build it, people will come."
With dozens of buildings appearing seemingly overnight, camp veterans and newcomers alike say the expansion has rendered Zaatari virtually "unrecognizable."
Marwan Hamad is one of dozens of Syrians assigned to tents at the western edge of Zaatari following their entry last week.
The 40-year-old said when he woke up the following day he found himself at the centre of a bustling neighbourhood.
"(That) night our tent was the last one in the camp," Hamad told dpa. "Now I cannot even find my way to the main road."
Despite their current construction fervor, Syrians say they are ready to abandon their masterpieces at a moment's notice in order to take on their dream project.
"We may be building coffee stands and shelters today," said al-Haj, the Homs resident, as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
"But God willing we will be building a new Syria tomorrow."