A Syrian refugee camp in the desert is a place where wedding dresses are unlikely to be rented – until you enter “Salon Al Fardous” or “Paradise Salon”. It is located in a trailer at Market Street, the main road in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp.
Dress in bright red and turquoise tones in large windows (white is not necessarily the color of the bride’s dress in the Muslim tradition). There are dozens of shops in the store – brides and members for bride parties of all ages.
When I entered, I was greeted by the owners, the warmth of Zeyneb Assaf and her smiling husband Hussam Assaf. I almost forgot my position, the extreme poverty of the camp and the reasons for the war. A little girl suddenly passed through the door of a white princess dress. Before wearing colorful clothes, she briefly placed the camera in a pose.
Photojournalist Adib Chowdhury and I work for iguacu, an independent charity that investigates humanitarian crises. We have had a long conversation with Syrian refugees who lost everything in the seven-year conflict. The Zaatari camp now has approximately 80,000 refugees and was opened in 2012.
Paradise Salon is one of the 3,000 informal stores on the vibrant and dusty market street where refugee entrepreneurs ignore displacement. They don’t have any licenses and they don’t pay taxes. But they are there.
“We have to live our lives, we must continue,” Husam declared. “Doing nothing is not an option. We must do something.” Life continues, even in camps. During the summer wedding season, Assafs said they rent about five pieces a week, which is about $35 to $45 per piece.
Hussam is a carpenter in his hometown of Daraa, Syria. His wife is a hair stylist – until they fled four years ago. Dala is one of the hotbeds of rebellion.
“We raised this idea together one day in the camp,” he explained. “I will wear a robes, she will do hair and make-up. She supports me a lot, we succeed together.”
They started their business in 2014 and bought four wedding dresses from a company in Amman.
Spending money together to buy a dress is a struggle. “I have two rings, I have to sell them,” Husam said. Zeyneb took a break from the corner of the store’s room: “The biggest challenge is money!…and dust! The dust is killing us and there is no water.” They said that lack of water would make washing clothes Difficult.
Four years later, they participated in the competition in the form of other wedding rental stores. So they always try to stand out. “Yesterday, we repainted this place,” Husam said.
The money they make will definitely help. In the camp, there are food distribution and vouchers issued by the United Nations, as well as some “work-for-work” programs carried out by charities, but many families are working hard not to eat three meals a day.
They are not the only optimistic adventures in the camp.
Walking along the street from Paradise Salon is the “Paris Perfume”, run by Ahmad Atalla. He runs a perfume shop in Syria, so he seems to naturally try to rebuild it in the camp. “This is my transaction, this is what I did. This is what I like,” he said.
Creating a business in such a place means starting from scratch.
“We started very small,” Atala said. “First, we only have one tent and a small bracket. Next we have a corrugated board cabin. Then we bought a caravan [prefabricated structure on the street].”
“It’s hard to get the product. We have to get permission from the police to leave the camp and try to find a reasonably priced item in the Jordanian town.”
Shopkeepers also face criticism from refugees. Some of them are hard to think of living in a refugee camp, rather than focusing on going home or going to another country.
Even if they celebrate their success, memories of devastating wars will always exist. Atala remembers “explosions and fears – fear of child safety.” The father of the three children sold the perfume more confidently than selling the weapon. He refused to participate in the competition. “I should recruit troops for the army, but I don’t want to fight for either side,” he said. “So I have an arrest warrant.”
Shopkeepers are proud of their adventures, but still dream of different lives.
“This is just a way of life,” Atala said. “I just want to go home. I hope to resettle for my children. It’s too late for us. But my children are still young, and they are even bigger when they are 4 years old. I want to give them the opportunity to build elsewhere. Something. I don’t want their future to be lost like their parents.”