From emptiness to a vibrant town

How Syrian refugees and the World Food Programme created life and a healthy economy in a refugee camp in Jordan

Kelly Stablein
Dec 19, 2018 · 6 min read

It is 35 degrees outside, and you can feel the thick desert heat fill your pores. From inside Abu Mohamed’s air-conditioned home, drinking a cup of mint tea, it’s hard to tell that we are at a refugee camp.

Outside is grim and deserted with steel shelters peaking from the edges of a vacant nowhere. Inside, the home is colorful and filled with cushions worn from countless meals shared among family. There is life inside this home. But it wasn’t always like this.

At first, there was nothing

In 2014, Mohamed fled his home in Daraa, Syria with his wife and four children. They arrived by foot to a remote and daunting land in Jordan that would soon become Azraq Camp — now home to 37,000 Syrian refugees.

“When we arrived, it was just sand in the middle of the desert,” Mohamed says. “There was nothing. No electricity. No people. Nothing.”

Though overwhelmed with uncertainty after escaping war, Mohamed knew anywhere but home had become safer. So, he built a new home for his family in the middle of the desert. And as the surrounding camp came to life, he watched as nothing grew into something.

The nature of humanitarian assistance

Azraq Camp was the global response to the influx of Syrians fleeing war. People were cold, so shelters were given. People were sick, women were in labor, a hospital was built. When survival was met, secondary needs were addressed. Kids needed to be kids. Parks, football fields, even a karate studio opened in Azraq. Little by little, from each need tended to, a home was built.

Food assistance had a similar evolution: people were hungry, so the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) set up food distributions. Refugees like Mohamed came from a life without financial concerns before the war. They made grocery lists, shopped at supermarkets, and cooked family recipes. Now they wait in line for bread selected for them by the United Nations.

“It wasn’t an easy transition,” Mohamed says.

Food distributions were the best option during the peak of the emergency but WFP knew it wasn’t ideal. From the beginning of Azraq, a plan was made to provide not only food but also autonomy for refugees through cash assistance.

A captive market

Here was the challenge: with the nearest town 25 kilometers away, there was no local market where Azraq Camp was built. What that means is refugees living there face a severely limited market of suppliers for food. And when a market is limited, the few shops present stop competing — they know they will have customers regardless.

What happens when shops don’t compete? Prices go up, quality goes down. In the business world, this dilemma is known as a captive market. In the humanitarian world, it’s a big problem for cash assistance which is reliant on the flow of a competitive market.

The Syrian way of rebuilding

While WFP worked to build a functioning market in Azraq, Mohamed built a new home for his family. He engineered an air conditioner — a modern invention created from scraps around a refugee camp. Walking through Azraq, you will encounter many handcrafted innovations like this, serving as a profound reminder of the human capacity to rebuild even when everything you once had was left behind.

The resourcefulness and creativity of Syrians expanded across Azraq to small self-run shops, built from the ground up. At these emerging informal markets, you will find shops for spices, bikes, shisha. Even a famous falafel restaurant once highly-acclaimed in Damascus can now be found in Azraq.

The camp is a manifestation of thousands of lives coming together, and the vibrant market tells their story.

Here in this lively, striving place in the middle of an otherwise lifeless desert, you can witness the Syrian way of rebuilding.

A different set of needs

Inside one of the shops at the informal market, we meet Omar — one of many self-taught retailers in Azraq. When Omar moved to the camp, he left his life as a dentist in Syria behind and began selling chocolates from a tent to support his family. In the nature of Azraq camp, the tent flourished and grew. Now a striving business, Omar’s shop showcases bins of bulk candy where children congregate after school to pick out a special treat.

Omar’s shop fills a need formal food assistance doesn’t cover. While WFP shops provide fresh produce and meat, the market here serves those secondary needs all of us have on a gloomy day. Here, at the informal market, when a refugee has had a long day, they too can indulge in a chocolate to lift their spirits.

The informal market is complimentary to WFP assistance but cannot alone feed 37,000 people. So, WFP faced the captive market and opened two supermarkets in Azraq camp.

The retail world

Cash assistance moves WFP from the humanitarian bubble of the United Nations to engaging with the private sector. And the retail world is not for the philanthropist minded: it’s all about profit. This difference has reshaped WFP’s approach with our new partners — retailers. Realizing we must think like retailers to work with them, WFP brought in experts from the private sector to help us speak their language. This changed the way WFP operates in markets globally.

The solution for the captive markets of the refugee camps in Jordan was a unique agreement called open book contracting. Open book contracting gives WFP full visibility of how contracted retailers run their shops — from how they source, transport, store and sell, down to how they manage their inventory.

This transparency has created more accountable stores with lower prices, better quality, and friendlier service, raising the purchasing power of 80,000 refugees in Jordan by 8%. That savings is worth an extra kilo of basmati rice! Every grain of rice can make a difference for families living off assistance.

Innovating the shopping experiene

By October 2014, Azraq camp shifted from food distributions to cash assistance. Inspired by the constant innovations of the refugees, WFP continued to innovate the shops in Azraq. Today refugees can make grocery lists again and buy ingredients for their family meals at supermarkets in the camp. At checkout, they redeem their WFP cash assistance by simply scanning their eyes and Blockchain technology completes the card-less transaction.

But Azraq shops are not perfect and the artificial camp market remains a challenge. With 37,000 people shopping at two stores, there’s a tendency for long lines and inconsistent stocks. These are a few challenges WFP’s Retail Supply Chain team is currently addressing, knowing there will always be more innovations to make — it’s an ongoing evolution in Azraq Camp.

Food and home are synonymous

Now with the freedom to grocery shop, Mohamed’s wife buys bulgur, chicken and yogurt at a WFP shop in Azraq to cook shakriya — a traditional Syrian dish. While Mohamed has built a home from a place once filled with uncertainty and emptiness, it is the familiar smell of shakriya lofting through the shelter that unravels a warm nostalgia, returning the family for just a moment to a treasured past-life in Syria.

WFP works in more than 80 countries, feeding people caught in conflict and disasters. In 2017, WFP transferred US$1.4 billion to 19.2 million people, accelerating progress to end world hunger.

Learn more about how WFP cash assistance supports people in need.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme