WFP Staffer Compares Two Refugee Camps: Zaatari and Dadaab

Dorte Jessen coordinates WFP's food assistance programmes for Syrian refugees in Jordan. She spends much of her time at the Zaatari refugee camp, which has swelled to the size of a large city over the past year. In 2011, Dorte worked at the world's largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. We asked her to compare the two and tell us how things have changed at Zaatari since it opened.

ZAATARI (Jordan)--Dorte Jessen, an experienced WFP staffer from Denmark, is responsible for programming the food assistance that WFP distributes to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Many of those refugees live in Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. Dorte was there when the camp was being built last July and has seen it grow rapidly to become a community equivalent in size to a large city.

It’s not the first time Dorte has been involved in food assistance to refugees. During the Horn of Africa crisis in 2011, she has also worked in another big camp, Dadaab in Kenya. In this interview she reflects on the differences and similarities between the two camps and looks back on Zaatari’s first 11 months.

Zaatari from the sky

aerial view of enormous zatari refugee camp\

An aerial picture of Zaatari gives some indication of its vast size. The camp, which opened less than one year ago, is now the fifth largest "city" in Jordan.

Do you see similarities between Zaatari and Dadaab, the big refugee camp in Kenya?

WFP’s food distribution centre in Zaatari camp is actually modelled on Dadaab (the world’s largest and longest running refugee camp which opened in the early 1990s – ed). Like Dadaab, Zaatari is built in a very hostile desert environment, which had no infrastructure in the beginning. In both camps, a sort of urban society has emerged. 

Even in Zaatari, a quite new camp, there is a main pedestrian square, full of Syrian shop-owners.  They have set up food outlets to offer a wide range of fresh vegetables, fruit, bread and cooked meals. Zaatari would be the fifth largest city in Jordan, whereas Dadaab is unofficially the third largest city in Kenya.

And the differences?

Naturally in Dadaab, which has been there for 30 years, everything is more settled.  But is interesting to see how fast things have moved along in Zaatari. It is improving in terms of infrastructure, with roads, schools, market space, kitchens and water-supply. The next , rather  complex,  priority is governance -- installing a civil administration. The structures are still developing in Zaatari. Another priority for Zaatari is to get everyone settled into caravans.

What was it like working at Zaatari when it was being built

In the beginning, the activities in Zaatari camp and our operations were focused on very concrete, basic things. We were coordinating with UNHCR for the building of kitchens and constructing our WFP food distribution centre. In the beginning there was nothing there except a desert with moon-like dust and shrubs. We had to level the area, compact it and finish it with gravel. Only then could we install the Wiikhalls, the containers we use as offices, the security lights and all the other basic things you need.

Dorte Jessen close-up

And now? 

Our food distribution system is running at full capacity. There are 120,000 refugees collecting their food rations every two weeks. Of course the WFP team now is substantially larger these days and we have a fully operational office in the camp.  A city grew out of nothing, and now there are streets lined with lights. There are two schools, and more are planned to open.

What does this mean for your work?

This means that now I get to concentrate on longer term planning and new programme activities. At the moment we are working with other humanitarian agencies on opening another large camp, Azraq. We’re also launching a nutrition programme. Both of these projects will require us to find new partners to work with. It’s my unit that manages the selection of partners. 

What strikes you most about Zaatari?

This is a sophisticated population. These are people who enjoyed a relatively high standard of living before they fled Syria. Many lived in semi-urban areas and therefore the baseline is different. They are used to running water, functioning kitchens and to shopping in supermarkets. In terms of refugee contexts, they have high expectations – and so would you and I if we were forced to resettle in a neighbouring country. It drives you every day to aim to provide better services, and to consider new ways of improving the way we provide humanitarian assistance. It’s hugely stimulating, actually!