The fashion boutiques that line the “Champs-Élysées” of a massive Syrian refugee camp are a fascinating lens on the crisis

Sara Elizabeth Williams’ long, beautifully written profile of the merchants who established illegal storefronts on the Champs-Élysées, a stretch of road in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp — home to 93,000 Syrian refugees — is a lens on the crisis created by decades of western complicity in the brutal Assad regime, followed by a global proxy war fought on Syrian soil, with no compassion or regard by any of the belligerents for the civilian costs.

The merchants have no overheads to speak of; they don’t pay rent, and they are tapped into the snarling, endless hairball of stolen electricity infrastructure that snakes through the entire camp, part of the activity that gives rise to the UN High Commission on Refugees’ monthly $500K electric bill for Za’atari.

The merchants come from a variety of backgrounds, but all source their materials from outside the camp, in Jordan, where they can only venture if they can get hard-to-acquire travel papers. These are secured thanks to the Jordanians who profit from the camp by wholesaling to the merchants of the Champs-Élysées; and since Jordanians can’t enter the camp, they must depend on the refugees for access to a 93,000-person market.

The merchants’ shifting stock reflect changes in the refugees’ perceptions of their situation; they’ve begun to stock a wide variety of footwear (beyond the simple sandals that dominated the camp a year ago), and rentals for wedding dresses are a booming business as couples settle down to start families in what appears to be a perpetual, unbreakable deadlock.

At the same time, the low-end market is booming, as the poorest of the refugees struggle to stay clothed, and merchants bring in second- and third-hand goods bought from dealers in used western clothing donated to charity shops in the rich world.

Williams closes by noting that the UN is instituting a new electrical distribution system designed to make it harder to steal power (whether that works is unclear), but Williams says that the merchants can still make a go of it, even with added overheads.

With minimal overhead — no rent, taxes or electricity bills — Abu Ala’s operation has grown from a single table to something closer to a mall — three pre-fab caravans in a row, selling lingerie, menswear and womenswear — in less than a year and a half. He grosses about 4,000 Jordanian dinars ($5,650) each month from his menswear store alone, and pays a handful of employees 15 Jordanian dinars ($21) per week. Business is good.

Young men are keen to wear fitted long-sleeve t-shirts in soft jersey, so this is what Abu Ala stocks the most. He also has a wall of preppy button-down stuff, lots of knock-off Burberry, and another wall filled with sporty tracksuit tops. Abu Ala’s advice for newcomers? “You’ve got to follow the trends. Syrians have changed the way they dress since arriving in Jordan. No more of these,” he gestures at his own baggy cuffs. “Now they like skinny jeans.”

Abu Ala’s price point is 20 percent lower than in Mafraq, the nearest city, which he says draws outside money in. “The guards and camp staff get their salary monthly and the first thing they do is buy clothes from my shop.” Abu Ala even has special customers who ask him to call them when he gets new stock. He does, every time.

Profit and Loss on the ‘Champs-Élysées’ of a Syrian Refugee Camp [Sara Elizabeth Williams/Business of Fashion]

(via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: Dustin Mennie)