Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan, has a population of approximately 80,000 people, most from southern Syria. It is often dubbed Jordan’s fifth largest city. However, it is also an agglomeration that functions as an extraterritorial space, an open-air enclosure, but also a giant prison to an extent, where multiple states of order prevail. The conflict in Syria has upended the lives of Zaatari’s inhabitants, however as the war grinds on, the camp is gradually taking on characteristics of permanence. Yet this permanence, as camp residents are reminded constantly, is one dependent on the kindness of strangers.

I visited the camp on April 23. The resilience of camp inhabitants, especially the women, is remarkable. Despite the arid landscape and the temporary nature of the dwellings, camp residents are slowly building their lives anew. Many of the women work while also tending to homes and children, including extended families. There is a strong sense of community and social solidarity.

Small businesses have also emerged across this sprawling horizontal city, as connections to the state infrastructure are being put in place. Flourishing businesses have allowed a class structure to emerge within the camp. A recognizable order has been put in place, albeit an informal one that consists of self-appointed “street leaders” liaising with camp officials and the security services. By some accounts, this system has also enabled the advent of local street bosses who control access to services and demand protection money from destitute refugees.

For refugees, life in Zaatari is all that they have. Jamila, one of the camp’s residents, escaped to Jordan in 2012. Her daughter was killed and her grandchildren injured in fighting in Der‘a, the “province of the uprising” as she told me. “We had to escape to safety. And without safety we cannot go back with children who cannot fend for themselves. I yearn to go home, and one day I left the camp intending to walk back to Der‘a, but the security guard at the gate invited me in for a coffee to share my troubles. Once we were done chatting I felt better and walked back in. For better or worse we have made new lives for ourselves here.”

She was not alone in feeling a sense of uncertainty. Many women expressed a similar desire to return, but noted that their homes had been destroyed. However, they did not want to emigrate to Europe, as the culture there is very different. They feared that once their sons turned eighteen they would no longer have any authority over them, while their daughters would be lost. This effort to cling to some kind of family hierarchy and social tradition could have seemed ironic among people who have faced a cataclysmic social breakdown. Yet it also underlined that Zaatari is more than a refugee camp. It is also a place where Syrians try to hang on to a life suddenly shattered.