A Weight Off Their Mind

In the barren plains of northern Jordan, just 10 miles from the Syrian border, lies the Zaatari refugee camp where close to 150,000 Syrians have found shelter after fleeing across the border from their homeland which has been gripped by one of the most vicious civil wars in recent history. Zaatari is now the second largest refugee camp in the world and Jordan's fourth biggest city. In this kingdom of 8 million people which so far has largely escaped the upheavals of the Arab Spring, yet another influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from a neighbouring country is threatening to destabilise the precarious balance between the different population groups including Palestinians (about half of the population), Iraqi Christians (approx. 500,000) and now an estimated 600,000 Syrians.

While many of the Zaatari residents are women, children and the elderly there are also tens of thousands of young men who were faced with the terrifying choice of either fighting with one of the militias or being conscripted into the Syrian Army when the civil war started. Syrian refugees in Jordan are not given work permits and don't have access to educational institutions. In addition to this, certain professions like engineering, accountancy, construction work and driving are reserved for Jordanians, making it very difficult for refugees to make any money even in the lesser paid jobs.

For many young men, life in the camp has little meaning in a conservative society where gender roles remain clearly demarcated and the man's role is to go out and earn money for the family's upkeep. Depression, listlessness, violence and drug abuse are common among many who see no end in sight to the slaughter across the border.


While visiting the camp, Chris de Bode came across the Men's Activity Centre, a gym set up by StC, where dozens of young men meet to pump iron, talk and find a sense of purpose in their unfamiliar home away from home. Chris has visited the gym for the past three years. It is fun to see that some of the men have become a lot more muscular. The population changes each year. People come and go. It gives us an insight of who lives in the camp. Everybody is welcome in the gym. Young or old, weak or strong. Only for men, though...


Ali, Zaatari gym, jordan

Ali is the supervisor at the gym. I met Ali three years ago when I visited the gym for the second time. We became friends and are almost daily in contact via WhatsApp. He always asks me for pictures of my life, and he sends his. This way we keep track of each other. The last time I saw him was in October 2015. The previous time we met was in April 2014.