The Zaatari Refugee Camp

© Manu Brabo (AP)

© Manu Brabo (AP)


Since the eruption of the brutal conflict in Syria in 2011, more than 2.5 million refugees have fled their homes in search of peace, safety, and normalcy. While a vast majority of these people are seeking refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, the Zaatari (مخيم الزعتري) refugee camp, a three-square-mile piece of land located in the desolate Jordanian desert, has quickly become a semi-permanent home for tens of thousands of refugees, most originating in the Da’ara Governorate in Syria’s Southwest.


Located 10 km east of Mafraq and first opened on 28th July 2012, the camp is now the 4thlargest ‘city’ in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with over 100,000 inhabitants and new arrivals continuing to flood in each day. Zaatari, which was initially designed to host a maximum of 60,000 inhabitants, is jointly administrated by the Jordanian government and UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The camp is made up of 30,000 shelters and administration buildings, 3 hospitals, 3 schools, and a market-like structure of 3,000 makeshift shops on the so-called ‘Champs Elysees’, selling a wide range of food, household goods, and clothes.

Approximately 55% of inhabitants are under the age of 18, making the provision of basic education to school-aged children extremely difficult. Although there are several schools on the campsite, the regular attendance of classes is strikingly low. Though aid and educational efforts are genuine and abundant in Zaatari, the stories and lived experiences of these children – and the policy implications of those stories – are often lost in translation.

Zaatari Camp Organization

Since its inception in 2012, Zaatari has continuously expanded, trying to remedy to the needs of incoming Syrian refugees.

Zaatari in November 2012. Source: Digital Globe

Zaatari in November 2012. Source: Digital Globe

Zaatari in July 2013. Source: Digital Globe

Zaatari in July 2013. Source: Digital Globe

As an attempt to have the camp organized as a city, Zaatari was divided into 12 districts, with representatives chosen from each district. Leadership in the camp remains an issue with the presence of gang leaders, which is why UNHCR is hoping to have traditional Syrian leaders who were previously involved in their communities stepping up as positive leaders in the districts.

The oldest part of the camp, Districts 1 and 2, is surnamed the ‘Old City’, and whilst it benefits from close access to services such as schools and hospitals, it is one of the highest densely populated area of Zaatari refugee camp. UNHCR is trying as much as possible to regroup refugees from the same previous Syrian communities into the same district, as an attempt to foster a sense of community within each district.

The camp’s expansion and organization has been beneficial to many refugees, with the implementation of a taxi system, shopping streets, etc. However, socio-economic inequalities can be observed in Zaatari, with a widening gap between those whose economic situation improved by the renewed economic market of the camp, and those who are still highly dependent on international aid. Disabled, women, and children who are heads of their families are especially vulnerable to these difficult living conditions.

Education In and Around Zaatari

Jordan, which has received more than 500,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the war three years ago, is facing the difficult challenge of providing educational services to hundreds of thousands of school-aged Syrian refugee children now living in the country. Data collected from the Ministry of Education suggest that in September 2013, 56% of the Syrian refugee children were not enrolled into formal schooling (out of the 187,675 children registered with UNHCR).

In Za’atari refugee camp, 3 schools are currently functional- in districts 3, 5 and 8- and the construction of two new schools for 2014 has been planned. Schools operate on a double shift system, with girls attending the morning sessions and boys attending afternoon sessions.  According to the latest numbers available, more than 10,000 children were attending formal schooling in the camp. Informal educational sessions are also being provided within the camp by aid organizations such as Save the Children, as are other activities such as music and taekwondo lessons. Moreover, UN Women is providing in its ‘Women and Girls Oasis Centre’ sessions on gender-based violence and gender equality, as well as vocational training.

However, important challenges to the education of Syrian refugee children are not only found in the refugee camps themselves, but more so in the urban areas that received large influx of Syrian refugees. In these urban areas, public schools are often over-crowded- some schools are now unable to enrol more children- and not all Jordanian teachers have been trained to work with war-affected children.  These public schools are organized around the Jordanian curriculum, and are based on the Ministry of Education’s guidelines. There are also additional ‘urban’ problems that limit the inclusion of Syrian refugee children, such as distance to schools, as well as safety and costs of transportation.

Hoping to help remedy this situation, the government, as well as international aid organizations, have put in place diverse services and programs to improve access to education for urban refugees. For example, Jordanian teachers both in camps and urban areas have been trained by international organizations (UNICEF, UNESCO and other partners) in terms of supporting students who suffer from war-related trauma. Schools’ tuition fees are also covered by the Jordanian government, while additional costs (uniforms, stationery, etc.) are partly funded by UNICEF and UNHCR. Private car-pooling systems have also been established in some schools in Mafraq to remedy to the transportation issues, and summer classes, informal education and remedial classes are all offered to allow children to efficiently integrate the Jordanian public school system.

Additional Resources

Articles and Reports

Documenting Zaatari

Educational Aid Organizations at Zaatari

  • Finn Church Aid (FCA)
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC)
  • Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO)
  • Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)
  • Lutheran World Federation (LWF)
  • Ministry of Education – Jordan (MoE Jordan)
  • Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
  • Save the Children (SC)
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)


‘Syrian women graduate from vocational training programme at Za’atari Refugee Camp’, UN Women. 29 October 2013.

‘The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis’, UNHCR,

‘UNICEF’s Education Services in Za’atari Camp’, Za’atari Briefing, UNICEF, January 2014.