Lost Cities

Millions of Syrians have fled their war-torn country, a scattering on the scale of Chicago and Houston combined. Some have made the long journey to Europe. But most don’t run far.

After World War II, millions of people were swiftly resettled. Today's refugees can expect to languish for years or even decades.

On a bright, cold day in February 2011, a group of young people decided to graffiti their city, the way teenagers are wont to do. But this was Syria, and regime change had already roared through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The teens scrawled a message to their president, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist turned dictator: "It's your turn, doctor."

They scrawled another one: "Leave, Bashar."

And still another one: "The people want the regime to fall."

What followed has been a war without end, a fight without apparent limits. The teenagers were arrested and tortured, and in response, a once-stable Syria exploded into violence. In the years since, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died in the fighting, according to the United Nations. That's the equivalent of a Hiroshima and Nagasaki, twice.

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The Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp, pictured here, first opened in July 2012.
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Millions of Syrians have also fled the country, a scattering on the scale of Chicago and Houston combined. Some Syrians have made the long journey to Europe, capturing the attention of the West. But most don't run far.

They pour into Turkey to the north, Lebanon to the west, and Jordan to the south, where a tent city called Zaatari has taken on a feeling of permanence. It represents a new model for refugee camps — once-temporary settlements now routinely fixed by the concrete of modern politics.

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A group of young boys play soccer at a drop-in center near the refugee camp.

After World War II, millions of displaced people were swiftly resettled. Today, most refugees can expect to languish for years or even decades. The average stay in a refugee camp is 12 full years. The world's oldest refugee camp, Kenya's Dadaab, will turn 24 this year.

By those standards, Zaatari is still young. But the people in Zaatari never expected to be there for even this long. Many doubted the need for a camp at all.

The world's oldest refugee camp, Kenya's Dadaab, will turn 24 this year.

After the fighting in Syria started, they crossed the border by the thousands. They dodged sniper fire, sidestepping snakes and scorpions, carrying the young and the weak. They were dispossessed and battered — but also hopeful.

The Free Syrian Army was on the march. The president of the United States was calling on Assad to step down. The Arab League was on their side. It seemed clear to everyone that soon the displaced would all go home and vote on the future.

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A boy does a handstand next to a series of faded murals in Zaatari.
With Syria in ruins, is this place now home? The question is as painful as it is comforting. Few, if any, residents would say yes.
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The Zaatari camp is a home to about 80,000 Syrian refugees. Although it was intended to be temporary, politics have led to its continued existence.

But the United Nations determined otherwise. In July 2012, the U.N. banded together with aid groups to build Zaatari in two weeks flat. The workers hammered tent pegs for 5,000 people. By the following summer, 150,000 had arrived — forming a population center the size of Savannah, Georgia or Dayton, Ohio.

From the beginning, the camp posed basic physical problems. The weather was broiling in the summer, frigid in the winter and prone to floods in the months in between. There was no electricity, little food, no security.

It's a surprising civilization, a spectacle of determination and basic humanity.
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A cyclist stops to speak to a shopkeeper.
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Some residents worry about relatives left behind, and they bear the guilt of their own relative safety.

Chaos prevailed, then crime, then a revolt. A young girl died in a cloud of tear gas, fired by Jordanian authorities. But Zaatari eventually began to change and mature.

Residents learned how to live with terrible new losses. Parents learned how to live with a child's empty seat at the table. Husbands and wives learned how to live apart, to live alone. Workers learned how to be idle. The rich learned how to be poor. Everyone learned a new way "home."

It helped that donations started rolling in. Residents moved into prefab containers, or "caravans," as they were called, withfloors, windows and locking doors. More donations rolled in. People received hand-me-down bicycles and clothes, used shoes, and a supply of food they actually liked to eat.

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The Azraq Syrian Refugee Camp first opened in April 2014. While it has the capacity to house 130,000 refugees, it currently houses 40,000.
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The Azraq camp is undergoing improvements to infrastructure, including solar fields.

People also became innovative. Sly electricians began to wire up the caravans, which then sprouted microwaves and washing machines, stereos and air conditioners. Guerrilla plumbers set up makeshift latrines and private bathrooms.

Today, parts of Zaatari can still resemble a scene from "Mad Max." It's a loud and dirty place. The sewers smell and the dust settles into people's wrinkles. Crime remains a problem. Too many kids aren't in school. There's been an uptick in early marriages.

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Two boys collect water from the communal supply in the camp.

And yet Zaatari is also undeniably alive, a genuine community despite it all. It's a surprising civilization, a spectacle of determination and basic humanity. The aid workers and academics who have searched for a reason point to the camp's autonomy and dignity. They point to pride.

They might also point to ice cream. Zaatari's main street has become a miracle mile of commerce. There are thousands of shops, incalculable offerings.

If your shopping list includes a new puppy, red roses, take-out rotisserie chicken and a limo rental, you'll be fine. If you need a wedding dress, a barber and help with a ticket to Turkey, that's no problem at all.

Such comforts are complicated, however. The war is still raging just a few miles away. Residents say they can hear the mortars and feel the shelling. They worry about family members left behind, and they bear the guilt of their own relative safety.

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An assortment of juices is stocked at the Sameh supermarket. Vegetables are delivered to a shop on Champs Elysees, the principal commercial area in the camp.

The result is another kind of psychological problem in Zaatari. With Syria in ruins, is this place now home? The question is as painful as it is comforting. Few, if any, residents would say yes. Virtually none would use the h-word out loud. But their actions suggest a reckoning that's almost soul-deep.

Outside the oldest residences, there are courtyards and gardens, beds of tulips and mint, corn and tomatoes. Families host one another. They serve sweet tea and strong coffee, and pretend not to notice each other's chipped cups.

The young, meanwhile, get on with the business of youth. They fight and date, love and marry. The birds and the bees are flourishing in Zaatari. Dozens of babies are born each week. Some of the streets are now lined with trees.

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Some Syrians have made the long journey to Europe, but most don’t run far. Among them, some are housed in this Zaatari camp.

The next step is infrastructure: real water and sewage systems, a solar field, automatic banking machines, camp-wide wireless Internet. All these projects are planned or already underway.

But the lessons of Zaatari aren't easy to implement elsewhere. Not far away, in the fenceless expanse of Jordan's northeastern desert, there's a second camp for Syria's refugees. It's known as Azraq, and in every way that Zaatari is makeshift, Azraq was planned.

The next step is infrastructure: real water and sewage systems, a solar field, automatic banking machines, camp-wide wireless Internet.

Every new arrival got a welcome kit and a trip to an on-site supply store. Inside, the new families found a map of the camp, mattresses, lanterns, waste bins, buckets, gas burners — all the supplies a person could need.

There was also security, healthcare, and a vast supermarket from day one. Plus, the residences are larger, with higher ceilings, pitched roofs and ventilation. The cabins are arranged in groups of six, which combine into four distinct "villages."

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The average stay in a refugee camp is 12 years.
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The idea was to keep friends and families close together, and settle regions of people with their own former neighbors. The idea was autonomy and dignity, the secret of Zaatari's relative success.

But despite the effort, Azraq remains chronically empty. It was built to house more than 100,000 people, but it's never had more than 30,000 residents.

Zaatari's population is also down to below 80,000 people, almost half its peak.

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A truck drives through the camp, repairing fixtures on the site. All these projects are planned or already underway, and at times, it is more expensive to be temporary.
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Young refugees stand near the street. Each new arrival receives a welcome kit and a trip to an on-site supply store.

This is not good news. It's not a sign of success or an indication that Syria is healing. There are only three options for refugees: they can go home, they can stay in a camp, or they can be resettled in a third location.

So where are the people of Zaatari and Azraq going?

Resettlement is considered the safest solution. It's also become the least likely. The United Nations makes the first cut, advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable 10 percent of all refugees.

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Clothes are left to dry on a clothing line in the Zaatari camp.
Of the roughly 4.5 million Syrians on the run, more than 150,000 have been offered spots in a new country. That's approaching five percent.
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Zaatari is undeniably alive, a genuine community despite it all.

The other 90 percent are on their own. Most of the lucky 10 percent will end up on their own, as well. In fact, of the 20 million U.N.-designated refugees in the world right now, fewer than one percent will be officially resettled, according to the U.N.'s own data.

If they're Syrian, the resettlement rate is trending a little bit higher. According to another U.N. estimate, of the roughly 4.5 million Syrians on the run, more than 150,000 have been offered spots in a new country. That's approaching five percent.

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The people in Zaatari never expected to be there for even this long. Many doubted the need for a camp at all.

Still, that leaves millions of Syrians to make a new life as best they can. For most this means living in a camp like Azraq or Zaatari, or in similar camps in Lebanon or Turkey. But Syrians seem unwilling to accept the new model of a long-term refugee camp.

That's why the populations of Azraq and Zaatari are flat or falling. Residents are opting to go back to Syria, back to the raids and the bombings. Or they're escaping into wider Jordan and other countries, where they'll have no papers, and no right to work. Most will be marginalized for life.

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Of the 20 million United Nations-designated refugees in the world right now, less than one percent will be officially resettled.
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A group of refugees pray inside of a mosque.

One place they aren't coming in large numbers is the United States. Not in an election year. Not in the aftermath of terror attacks in Paris, San Bernadino, and Brussels. Since the year 2000, America has accepted more than 750,000 refugees. Five have faced terrorism-related charges. Exactly none were Syrian.

But you never know.

Some of their kids might graffiti our walls.

MARK POWER, born in the United Kingdom, is currently the Professor of Photography at the University of Brighton. “Now that everyone in the developed world seems to own some form of camera, a different space has opened for documentary photographers. It's a space free from specific events, where there are different expectations, where it is first and foremost about ideas. Now we can all take pictures, with varying degrees of ability, it's what we DO with our cameras that counts.” Power has published several books, including “The Shipping Forecast”(1996), “Superstructure” (2000), “The Treasury Project” (2002), “26 Different Endings” (2007), “The Sound of Two Songs” (2010), “Mass” (2013) and “Die Mauer Ist Weg!” (2014).

Mark Power became a full member of Magnum Photos in 2002. He currently lives in the United Kingdom.