In early 2012, it was an anonymous patch of desert in the north of Jordan but by the end of 2013, it was a city of 156,000 Syrian refugees, the fourth biggest population center in the country.
Now it has shrunk to almost one third of its former size as Syrians desperate for a better future migrate to other parts of the Middle East or attempt the dangerous journey to Europe.
For those who made a successful business amid the despair, depopulation has hit them hard. Shadi Arour, a refugee from the southern Syrian city of Daraa says his business, which sells candies, nuts and cigarettes, has fallen by 75% in the last two years. “Before there was movement, people, now we stop during the week, people only buy tea and cigarettes, and the only traffic is on Fridays. Almost one out of two shops has closed,” he says.
Arour's stall is in the camp's main thoroughfare, nicknamed the Champs-Elysées after a glamorous avenue in Paris, where camp residents could buy anything from food to televisions and bridal gowns.
Now the main activity is by the camp's security center, where hundreds queue to collect permits issued by Jordan’s Interior Ministry to leave the camp. The permits allow Jordan to monitor the number of refugees and allocate food and services in conjunction with international agencies.
Some 630,000 Syrians have registered with the U.N.’s refugee agency in Jordan since 2011, though Amman says the actual number of Syrian refugees in Jordan is around 1.4 million. Official figures estimate some 79,000 live in Zaatari today, though some think the number could be closer to 50,000.
The richer refugees plan to fly to Turkey from Amman where they will try to make the sea crossing with people smugglers from Turkey to the Greek islands. Others join a daily fleet of Jordanian military, which transport them six miles to the Nasib border crossing on the Syria Jordan border. From there, they will either return to their homes in Syria or make their way to Turkey by land, risking conflict and armed bands on the way.
Andrew Harper, the representative of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan said that in July, 60 Syrians a day were leaving the camp but that has reached 300 in recent weeks.
Omar Nweran, a music teacher from Daraa has lived in Zaatari since the early days of 2012, says he has seen more than 100 people he knows leave with their families. "I’m not leaving, because I have a mission here to meet with the children and teach them music, but not many are like me nowadays,” he says.
The smaller numbers of refugees has improved conditions for those that remain. “Certainly there are less, it’s much more manageable now. We’re putting in better infrastructure, but it takes time and money,” Harper says. “In the end we can keep people alive but it has to be much more than that. They need dignity, and that’s something more refugees are finding increasingly difficult to have here.”
Electricity in the camp is intermittent and residents wait for the supply to re-start so they can watch the news bulletins in which they have seen their compatriots crossing the sea and traveling through Europe.
That’s how most people learned about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open her country’s borders to unregistered refugees.
“My goal is Germany. I am checking the news and saw what happened in Hungary at the border but I am not afraid of it or any changing policy,” Jamal Al Hamier, a Zaatari resident from Syria’s southern city of Daraa, says ahead of his trip.
The 27-year-old holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, and after spending three years doing odd jobs like the one he has now filling water tanks, he said the camp just doesn’t cut it.
“I have friends who were already living in Germany and they said the future is possible and bright there,” he says. “People have been talking about this since June, then Merkel said she would host Syrians, and I know that after September the sea becomes dangerous but I don’t care, I want to go.”
For those without the funds for the Europe trip, war-torn Syria still presents a better option than the camp. Just outside the security center, Ahmed Al Kharas, a Syrian in his 30s slouched on a pile of luggage and smoked a cigarette. He would cross the Jordanian border by bus the next day, alone.
“I am going back to reach my brothers in Daraa, regardless of the war and the barrel bombs” he says. “Once in Syria I will think of a plan, because here there is no future.”