Desert Surreality: Plight of Syrian Refugees Magnified Outside Zaatari

5 minute read

For Michael Friberg, an editorial photographer based in Salt Lake City, the idea of documenting the plight of Syrian refugees formed out of dissatisfaction. There were already good pictures that had come from the mass displacement, but most were putting their struggles in the same light. “I was frustrated and wondered how I could approach a story like that from a different perspective.” So he did.

Friberg, 27, decided he wanted to try something different by slowing down. He had never been to the Middle East, instead spending time in East Africa, but has always been drawn to refugee issues. Pairing up with Benjamin Rasmussen, a Denver-based editorial photographer who’s spent a lot of time in the Philippines, the two recently spent nearly three weeks in Jordan, where safety from war has brought problems like overcrowded housing, lax integration, employment woes and money troubles.

In May, Friberg pitched Rasmussen, 28. After honing in their research and securing a fixer named Nader, who Friberg crowd-sourced for in a Facebook group where conflict-focused photojournalists share resources, they boarded a flight to Amman in mid-June with their gear and plenty of film.

Neither had collaborated with another photographer before and wanted to avoid recreating each other’s efforts, but they split costs and approached it like other assignments: blending feature stories with formal portraiture and a hint of reportage (similar to Stefan Ruiz and Rob Hornstra).

Since both were shooting all film on medium- and large-format cameras, they balanced each other out well. Friberg, who handled most of the interior work and energetic scenes, leans more visceral while Rasmussen, who preferred working in natural light, skews a bit more heady.

After initially shooting in a urban centers, they spent a few days shuffling between Amman and nearby Zaatari, the media-favorite camp near Mafraq along the Syrian border. In just over a year, it’s become the country’s fifth-largest city, holding nearly 150,000 people, and the world’s second-largest refugee camp.

Working there was so tricky, Friberg calls it a “tinderbox.” Not only was it the dead of summer in the dead of the desert, but rampant crime and gangs of unguarded children fueled an undesirable every-man-for-himself mentality. There’s a combative element to it all, too. Some refugees have dealt with photographers snapping at will so much that they’re irritated easily or put on a show, like the young boy posing with peace signs.

“It’s the most cliché thing: it’s this Syrian kid in the American flag shirt and he’s obviously been coached by adults to show the peace symbol,” Rasmussen says. Simultaneously, the picture shows the media-savvy propaganda he and others have been schooled in and the reality of his life in the camp.

The rest of the camp wasn’t much better. While photographing the four Syria-bound buses that leave Zaatari every day, the boarding free-for-all grew so volatile that the photographers shot back-to-back. And during a large scuffle, after Friberg took out his iPhone to digitally capture the scene, it was taken, then returned, then taken again.

The urban areas they shot in were a bit calmer, though more intricate.

Before the trip, Rasmussen was interested in whether Syrians recreated their communities within Jordan, since almost two-thirds of the refugees live outside camps. Instead, they saw fragmentation and isolation. Syrians they met found housing wherever they could, with some leaning hard on Jordanian hospitality for employment, too. But that doesn’t mean refugees weren’t trying to make the best of it.

One family they photographed was living in an apartment in Zarqa, a suburb of Amman. A man named Abdul, who lives in Kuwait but frequently checks on his sisters there, explained to Rasmussen why he planted an olive tree in the backyard: “Look, we did this because we didn’t want to be like the Palestinians, who always say ‘tomorrow we’re going home.’ We had olive trees in Syria so we’ll have an olive tree here.” Although there’s hope of returning home, most are realistic it won’t happen soon.

The photographers recognize the natural limitations of photographic reportage.

“You try to influence the conversation and you try to make sure the important voices are being heard, but at the end of the day, you are one voice in that conversation and you’re not going to be the complete narrative,” Rasmussen says. “As photographers, we tend to have this like cocky attitude that we’ve told the entire story and we’re going to change public perception with this, which I don’t think is impossible, but I think our goals are a little bit more simple.”

Friberg and Rasmussen are gearing up to publish their final project: a newspaper, complete with carefully selected photos and quotations from interviews they conducted with refugees. The two launched a Kickstarter on Aug. 20 to help fund it and have a month to bring in at least $6,000.

But why create a newspaper? They’re relatively cheap to produce and a lot more can be made than a pricey photography book, which might catch more coffee table dust than spur conversation. With a goal of making relatable the people silenced by war who they met and photographed, the mass availability will force their networks—and their networks’ networks—to discuss the work and inform their own communities about the refugees’ reality.

And if, at the end of the day, their readers are more interested the next time they see a news report about Syria, Friberg says, that’s enough for them.

See Friberg and Rasmussen‘s project on Kickstarter here.

Andrew Katz is a reporter with TIME covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @katz.

Syrian Refugees
Children run home after sunset in Jordan's massive Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees.Benjamin Rasmussen
Syrian Refugees
A Syrian man pushes a young boy through the window of a bus while other climb in and push luggage on. The bus is one of three that leave the Zaatari refugee camp every day to return to Syria. The buses, paid for by the Jordanian government, take refugees across the border where they are either met by a Free Syrian Army escort or left to find their own way to their towns and villages. In July, an average of 300 people a day were leaving the camp to return to Syria.Benjamin Rasmussen
Syrian Refugees
Mohammad Ghazi Al Kaderi, 5, from Dara'a, Syria gives the peace sign after being coached for the camera by Abdul Rahman Al-Zamel. Al-Zamel was visiting his brother, a wounded FSA fighter, in the camp.Benjamin Rasmussen
A boy named Malek Syria sells chips on the baren outskirts of Zaatari.Michael Friberg
Nadeem Musallam, 17, from Dara'a, Syria, sells juice on the baren outskirts of Zaatari.Michael Friberg
A boy who declined to give his name stands with his posessions in trash bags, waiting for the bus back to the Syrian border.Michael Friberg
A view of Zaatari refugee camp from atop one of the approximately 16,500 containers that are being used as makeshift homes. The remaining 11,000 tents are being replaced before winter so that the entire camp will be made up of the containers.Michael Friberg
Syrian Refugees
Intisaar Ghuzlaan came to Jordan five months ago with her two daughters and two youngest sons. She followed her two oldest sons, who had left before her to avoid forced military conscription. "Our neighborhood in Dara'a was in the center of town and was full of people," she says. "The neighborhood had the court, the national hospital, and more. Out of all those people, now only two families remain. And I won't go back until I hear that Bashar has fallen."Benjamin Rasmussen
Syrian Refugees
Mohamed Ghassan Al-Jughmani sits for a portrait in the small home in which his family is staying in rural Jordan.Benjamin Rasmussen
Naser Hamad in his home in the Cyber City refugee camp near Irbid, Jordan. Naser is a Palestinian and former PLO fighter who was living in Syria as a refugee. Twice displaced, he now lives in Cyber City, a refugee camp for Palestinians displaced from Syria that has been set up in a mostly abandoned technology factory complex.Michael Friberg
Syrian brothers Eyad and Mo'ayad Ghassan Al-Jughmani in the room they share with three other foreign laborers in an apartment on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Both brothers work as day laborers in the area to earn money for their mother and young siblings, who also fled to Jordan and live elsewhere in the city.Michael Friberg
Street leaders Abu Mohamad and Abu Hassan in the trailer of gang leader Abu Hussein in Zaatari refugee camp. Informal leaders have sprung up in Zaatari to fill the power vacuum. Somewhere between politicians and mobsters, they help to keep order and resolve disputes in the camp while also profiting off of their control over commerce..Michael Friberg
Syrian Refugees
A framed picture of brothers Abdul Rahman and Mounir Al-Zamel hangs above a memorial to their cousin who was killed fighting with the Free Syrian Army. Beneath it sit their nephews and nieces, whose fathers are off fighting for the FSA.Benjamin Rasmussen
Hamad sits near a hand painted Free Syrian Army flag in his home in the Cyber City refugee camp near Irbid, Jordan.Michael Friberg
Siblings Aghyad, Hanin and Mohammad Ghassan Al-Jughmani in an old family photo that the family brought with them when they fled Dara'a, Syria, for Jordan.Michael Friberg
Eyad Ghassan Al-Jughmani and an unnamed friend pose in a photo studio. Family photos and clothing are some of the only things the family brought with them from Syria when they fled the fighting.Michael Friberg
Portraits of Safa'a Ghassan Al-Jughmani that she brought with her when she fled the fighting in Dara'a, Syria. Some photos and clothing are all she has left from her life there.Michael Friberg
Abu Feras from Dara'a, Syria, stands in the shade at the small home a wealthy Jordanian family is letting his family live in for free on the outskirts of Amman. Feras has been able to get some work as a day laborer during harvest, but is still living off savings he brought from Syria.Michael Friberg
Syrian Refugees
Malak, 5, sits between her sisters on a swing outside the home in which they are staying in rural Jordan. Her family left Dara'a, Syria, because of the constant, terrifying shelling. Even in Jordan, they still get scared every time an airplane flies over head or fireworks go off.Benjamin Rasmussen
Mohammad Al Hariri sits on the outskirts of Zaatari refugee camp, dejected after his family was unable to get on one of the buses back to the Syrian border. People return for a number of reasons, but most simply say that life in the camp is unbearable.Michael Friberg
A boy who declined to give his name sits on a truck full of luggage on the outskirts of the Zaatari refugee camp.Michael Friberg
Syrian Refugees
Lights glow in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Of the 500,000 Syrian refugees currently in Jordan, nearly 370,000 of them live outside of the refugee camps and are largely spread throughout urban centers.Benjamin Rasmussen
Street leader Abu Zaid in the trailer of gang leader Abu Hussein in Zaatari. Informal leaders have sprung up in Zaatari to fill the power vacuum. Somewhere between politicians and mobsters, they help to keep order and resolve disputes in the camp while also profiting off of their control over commerce.Michael Friberg
Aghyad Ghassan Al-Jughmani, 10, sits on his bike in the small home his family currently stays in for free on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan.Michael Friberg
Syrian Refugees
Abu Hussein, one of the most influential Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp, sits in the trailer on his small compound where he meets with other camp leaders and hear the grievances of refugees. If you ask Abu Hussein, he is a benevolent community leader giving himself for the betterment of his fellow refugees. But the United Nations High Council on Refugees officials who run the camp see him as a self-styled mob boss who controls much of the activity in the camp, legal and otherwise.Benjamin Rasmussen
Syrian Refugees
The Jordanian military has secretly taken over an apartment building next to where Abdul Rahman Al-Zamel and his sisters live, to house high-ranking Syrian military defectors under tight security.Benjamin Rasmussen

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