Zaatari and Azraq

Three weeks have passed since I returned from Jordan; my very first time visiting a refugee camp.

I’d already learnt a lot about refugee camps during my university research while designing Mat Zero. I’d read articles, watched countless YouTube videos and reached out to organisations such as UNHCR. Nothing could prepare me for being there in person.

When I arrived it felt strangely familiar, like I’d been there before. But I was soon overwhelmed by a mix of emotions. It’s hard to describe what I saw and felt; seeing people face such tough times but still carrying on was humbling, and stirred up feelings of ambivalence between sadness and inspiration.

Over a decade on since the Syrian crisis began, and yet the situation for the refugees remains unresolved. Basic needs such as clean water, food, electricity and healthcare are in limited supply. With very restricted employment opportunities available, and ongoing uncertainty, their lives appear to be on hold, stuck in limbo.  

Whilst in Jordan, I visited two camps: Zaatari, the largest in the Middle East, with approximately 81,000 refugees, and Azraq, which is about half the size. Both are only about a 1.5-hour drive in different directions from the capital, Amman. There was quite a striking contrast in the feel of the two camps, but both offered a glimpse into the lives of people who have had to leave their homes, country and livelihoods due to conflict.


There was a surprising sense of normality at Zaatari, with busy streets and seeing children on their way to school. The high street had been wittily named ‘Sham-Elysees’, playing on Paris’s ‘Champs-Élysées’ avenue and ‘Sham’, the local Syrian name for Damascus. It was here at Zaatari that I had the best falafel of my life! Amidst their daily struggles, I witnessed people trying their best to make things better, from turning newly learnt skills into entrepreneurial initiatives, such as ‘Made in Zaatari’, and ingeniously transforming old bicycles into e-bikes that were reaching crazy speeds! It was great to see solar energy already featured in the camp, and I was able to sit in on a solar installation and repair workshop. I also had the unique opportunity to share Mat Zero’s prototype with a women’s focus group. Their insights and feedback on the design and its application were both encouraging and enlightening, which we will be taking on board as we continue to develop Mat Zero. I was impressed by the resourcefulness of the women, and loved hearing about their own innovations that they had come up with to improve their quality of life.

Focus group discussions
Artwork by refugees in Zaatari

Azraq was different. It felt isolated and bleak, surrounded by desert, as if removed from society. I can’t help but think how this must have a huge impact on morale. Another incredibly valuable women’s focus group was held where they shared some very thought-provoking perceptions about Mat Zero and addressed the complexity of the challenges they face in their daily lives. A lot to consider as we move forward.


My visits to refugees who had moved out into communities were equally as eye-opening. Their struggles didn’t end when they left the camps, facing discrimination and uncertainty every day. A stark contrast to the lives many of them had led back in Syria with successful careers and comfortable homes.

As I look back on my trip, one thing stands out: we might not have all the solutions, but we can help. Innovations like Mat Zero can make a difference for refugees, and alleviate some of the hardship. By providing safe heating to a family in Zaatari or Azraq, they would be able to redirect their resources elsewhere such as on food and medicines.

I would like to thank the organisations that made my visit possible - WFP, UNHCR, CARE International and The Norwegian Refugee Council. Your dedicated work gives hope to so many. I really appreciate the welcome I received and the time invested in my visit, with many informative discussions and detailed translating!

So much to take in and process. This trip has most certainly given impetus to Mat Zero’s mission.


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