Each day more than 34 thousand people are forced from their homes, escaping the torments of war. More than 20 million refugees are scattered around the globe, of which 3 million are still living in refugee camps. The global community has been rallied to take action in addressing the plight of refugees, and provide support for their struggle. This humanitarian propaganda gave architecture the role of an inevitable accomplice within the process that seeks the optimal solutions for these problems. Yet, despite their good intents, these efforts have been useful but insufficient.

Once, one could hear about a place called Zaatari. There was no distinctive or iconic architecture. There were no landmarks. There were no reference points. There were only a few streets framed with a long fence. It was a makeshift solution within a confined space, with countless tents placed to host thousands of people escaping war. Architecture – an inevitable accomplice of propaganda – was used for good intentions: to provide safe haven for those looking for a sign of hope. The architecture of Zaatari was an offspring of much despair and its dwellers were the true Voluntary Prisoners of Survival.

Escaping the horrors of war, they were the victims of an unfolding clash of propagandistic ideals, each one with a clearly established system of symbols, messages and values. Yet their predicament continued as the camp was also a reflection of a new set of ideals. Here architecture was used to provide only the sufficient living conditions for the most vulnerable populations escaping war. Countless tents, barbed wire, water tanks, dirt roads, and uniformed international personnel were the symbols of a new reality they were stepping in. Longing for their homes in this state of limbo, all they were left with were memories, now used to transform Zaatari into a place of normalcy. As shops opened, and routines were established, a city was born. Zaatari rapidly turned into a unique symbol of adaptation, urbanism and organization.

Zaatari is a symbol of propaganda. While its inhabitants escaped the destructive nature of political propaganda, its urban layout was designed as a reaction to humanitarian propaganda. Despite the imposed spatial limits, and the temporal vacuum of their refugee status, citizens of Zaatari are now using a new form of architectural propaganda: by making the city in their own image, they are showing how architecture can be a symbol of hope.

FILM Hotel Zaatari (2014), Directed by Zaid Baqaeen and Mais Salman 

79.736 REFUGES