ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — When life in exile seems unbearable, Alkhedawi al-Nabulsi sometimes seeks solace in memories of home, such as his backyard in a southern Syrian village where his children played in the shade of fig trees.
For the last four years, the 63-year-old, his wife and two of their four children have lived in Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees. From their cramped caravan, they look out onto an empty desert.
Yet the family is trying to make the best of their situation. Al-Nabulsi teaches art at a camp school. His daughter Tasneem, 17, graduated from high school this summer, placing among the top five Syrian and Jordanian students in Jordan’s northern Mafraq province.
Al-Nabulsi said leaving their home village of Namar in Syria’s southern Daraa province had been tough. “We held on to Syria until the very last moment,” he said, puffing on a cigarette.
In 2013, a government helicopter dropped barrel bombs on his house, reducing it to rubble. After hearing about it on the news, Al-Nabulsi drove for what he described as the longest 10 minutes of his life, to find his family safe.
“I kept imagining them in pieces, or under the rubble, or that I wouldn’t find a trace of them,” he said. “I couldn’t handle feeling that anymore. We had to leave.”
The family settled in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, set up five years ago. With the war now in its seventh year, Zaatari’s 80,000 residents — along with close to 5 million Syrian refugees across the region — grapple every day with the notion of long-term exile.
Many try to cope by building a new life. Zaatari itself has evolved from a squalid tent camp into a bustling town, with residents living in trailer home-like caravans.
Al-Nabulsi teaches art at one of the camp’s U.N.-administered schools, using drawings to help children cope with war trauma. “I wanted to get them out of this violent state of mind,” he said.
In the beginning, they drew tanks, warplanes, helicopters and barrel bombs. He encouraged them to replace those dark images with cheerful ones, such as rainbows and roses.
Al-Nabulsi paints and sculpts to preserve memories of Syria, both his own and those of his neighbors. He has created replicas of traditional Syrian objects, such as an old rifle and a wheat grinder, using wood, stone and polystyrene.
Tasneem, the recent graduate, won a place to study English-Arabic translation at a Jordanian university.
“I feel I deserve this,” she said, relishing her success.
She said the transition had been tough. “I couldn’t stop crying on the way over to Jordan,” said Tasneem. “I was depressed for a very long time.”
The family’s small caravan is embellished with paintings, sculptures and trinkets, all linked to Syrian culture and heritage.
Signs of refugees settling in are everywhere.
Zaatari residents have painted walls and planted gardens. More than 3,000 refugee-run shops — typically single-room market stalls, but some more elaborate — line several main streets in the camp. Businesses include restaurants, fruit and vegetable stalls, hair salons, bridal shops and art galleries.
Earlier this month, a job center opened up. With coveted Jordanian work permits still scarce, camp residents can sign up for jobs outside Zaatari, including on farms, construction sites and garment factories. So far, more than 800 refugees have been assigned jobs and hundreds more have signed up.
Eighty percent of school-age children in Zaatari are registered in camp schools, said Catherine Philippe, the U.N. protection officer for Zaatari. This exceeds the regional average of two-thirds of Syrian refugee children with access to education.
Fifty-one Zaatari students passed the final high school exam, or “tawjihi,” compared to 14 last year, signaling another improvement.
A $17.5 million German-funded solar power plant will be completed November, replacing a makeshift electricity grid.
But hardships remain.
Electricity only runs some of the time, mostly in the evenings, and not during the day when temperatures are high, said al-Nabulsi. Applying for a permit to leave the camp for several days requires several hours of waiting in line, he said.
Many refugees don’t have jobs, barely getting by on U.N. food aid and cash grants.
Still, al-Nabulsi is grateful.
“I expected life here to be much worse,” he said. “But thank God, we were lucky.”
With a durable cease-fire elusive, a return home in the near future is unlikely — even if hope remains.
“I know that we won’t be going back anytime soon,” he said.