Turning waste into work in Za’atari refugee camp

Alixandra Buck Refugees and IDPs, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

As Za’atari refugee camp continues to hosts a large amount of Syrian refugees, new recycling initiatives are offering opportunities for work. Soman Moodley and Alixandra Buck, introduce a new case study on the ‘cash for work’ initiative. 

Adapting to life as a refugee here was extremely difficult for us at first. We weren’t used to living in tents, to the unforgiving environment. In those days there was garbage everywhere – along with the insects and other pests that come with it. It was not easy.’Jasem Al-Wrewir, Team Leader in Oxfam’s cash for work recycling project in Za’atari camp

Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is home to nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees.

With no immediate prospect of returning home and limited opportunities to work and support their families, refugees in Jordan face an uncertain future. For the residents of Za’atari camp, accessing work is even more difficult.

In the past, the streets of Za’atari  were littered with rubbish. But now, Oxfam is turning waste management into an opportunity to address social, environmental and economic needs.

Our recycling project diverts 21% of the waste from the camp away from landfills and provides cash-for-work opportunities to around 200 refugees each month. Not only does this provide a much-needed income to refugees, but also a sense of autonomy. The Syrian trolley workers and community mobilizers involved in the project have told our staff that they relish having meaningful work to do, and that they appreciate regaining their productivity and ability to provide for their families. 

Our recycling project diverts 21% of the waste from the camp away from landfills and provides cash-for-work opportunities

Jasem Al-Wrewir fled from Syria to Za’atari camp in Jordan in 2013, leaving behind his waste disposal business in Damascus where he managed six landfill sites and 200 employees. Since early 2015, Jasem has been a Team Leader in Oxfam’s cash for work recycling project, working alongside Wissam Al-Sharafat, a Jordanian engineer and Recycling Officer with Oxfam.

Jasem’s 15 years of experience in waste management and his collaboration with Wissam have been instrumental to the success of the project. ‘I can’t imagine the recycling centre without Jasem in it,’ says Wissam. ‘We would definitely face challenges in running the recycling project without him, particularly given his skills and years of experience in recycling back in Syria. Jasem means a lot to me, I see him as my older brother.’

The success of recycling in Za’atari would not have been possible without the support and collective expertise of Syrians and Jordanians like Jasem and Wissam. However, Syrians are only able to work legally in certain sectors in Jordan, such as agriculture, cleaning and construction. Despite being a vital member of the recycling team, Jasem has to date only been able to work as a cash for work volunteer rather than as a member of staff.

There are many Syrian refugees who bring considerable skills and experience with them to Jordan. Their skills can be used to expand new productive sectors within Jordan’s economy – creating new jobs rather than displacing people from existing ones. However, unless residents of Za’atari have opportunities beyond the camp’s borders, it will be difficult to realize this ambition.

With no end to the Syrian crisis in sight, it is likely that many will remain in Za’atari and in numerous host communities across Jordan. Refugee communities have already devised bold and creative ways to support themselves and their families, and over the coming years aid agencies must support them to find livelihoods activities that harness their skills and aspirations.

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Julie Seghers


Esther Shaylor