The writer shares snippets of life from the Palestinians living in the refugee camp in Jordan – from the longing for a home unknown, to reservations about the ‘Arab Spring’ reaching them. Dispatch from Jerash.
By Munir Atalla
Last month I worked at the Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash, Jordan. The camp is home to about 24,000 Palestinian refugees who left the Gaza Strip in 1968. Most of the families living there were also displaced in 1948, meaning that they have lost their homes twice in one lifetime. The majority live on less than $2 a day. About a quarter live on less than one.
The camp starts unexpectedly. After the stone ruins of Jerash, one turns left into a valley. The streets become narrower and the pedestrians more numerous. Like a punch in the gut, the air begins to smell of hot sewage and rotting fruit. Sweaty and dusty from walking through the camp in the scorching summer, the one word that wouldn’t leave my mind was “hellish.” The market on the main road is very crowded. Amongst the frying falafel and bread baking, an old man was selling homemade perfumes. “Come here young man, I’ll make a personalized scent that will make you irresistible to young women,” he grinned and advertised.
If anything can be said about the inhabitants of the many refugee camps in Jordan, it is that they have shown remarkable resilience in the face of unspeakable injustice. The people at Gaza Camp are warm and welcoming, albeit suspicious. Numbers haunt the life of every refugee. There are passport numbers, national identification numbers, and social security numbers that are denied to them. There are the statistics that their lives have been reduced to: 24,000 refugees, 2,000 makeshift shelters, 50% unemployment, 0.75 square kilometers.
I introduced myself as a Palestinian student studying in America. People were irritated with my vagueness, “yes, but where are you from” they asked. They were asking me from which Palestinian town my family was. “Jerusalem, although I’ve never really lived there and my parents were born here [in Jordan],” I thought it was necessary to qualify. “I’m from Jaffa,” chimed one boy. “Nablusi and proud,” boasted another. They had probably never seen the places to which they claimed loyalty except though their grandparents’ stories, yet the promise of a homeland was kept close in their hearts, a dream deferred.
I spoke to someone from the camp about the Arab Spring. Why had it seemingly passed over them?
“You know what Munir, I’m someone who is ‘with’ the Arab Spring not hitting the refugee camps,” she began.
“Historically, every protest in the camps has been met with slaughter. We are not considered people by the world, so maybe it is best that we just keep our heads down and work in different ways to earn our humanity.”
To have an uprising, there needs to be hope. Although people here struggle to find water and clothing, hope is the resource that they need most.
I saw how the weight of displacement had manifested itself on each individual generation. For the old, the homeland is a bittersweet memory. “Not a day goes by where I don’t think of the house I grew up in,” told me one elderly man in a kuffiyeh.
“Now, as I reach the end of my life, all I want is to be buried by my father’s olive grove.”
The young are just as sentimental, but frustrated with lives spent entirely in refugee camps and used as political pawns. “People keep telling us ‘right of return, right of return’, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re returning anytime soon. I want to return, but until then, can’t I live a humane life?”
The argument is a difficult one. If the refugees settle down, they will be playing right into Israel’s hands. Zionists have long advocated a “Jordan is Palestine” policy, hoping that time will erase all ties to the land.
I was sitting in the headquarters of the Community Development Office (CDO), an offshoot of UNRWA, when a veiled woman walked in. She was holding an infant to her chest and dragging a toddler behind her.
“I would like to register for an allowance,” she said, without enthusiasm. The woman in charge of the office apologized, “We don’t do that here,” she said.
“Please,” the woman protested, “my children are hungry.”
“We don’t have money for that,” the woman in charge frowned, “you’re going to have to go ask the mosque, they’re the ones who do things like this.”
After the woman left, the manager saw me looking annoyed. She explained to me, “if we granted every request that came through our door, we wouldn’t be able to run a quarter of our programs.” Religion acts as a safety net for many people in the camps. When the entire world has left them in the dark, they believe that the light of God still shines on. I saw how hard the employees at UNRWA work, but how the United Nations has crippled the agency with a miserable budget, and kept entire populations right above starvation and right below revolt. Like a perfume seller in a refugee camp with no working plumbing, UNRWA’s efforts only serve as a temporary distraction from the inherent problems faced by the refugees.
Munir Atalla is a Palestinian-Jordanian currently entering his second year at Tufts University. He hopes to major in Cognitive Science, and is involved with advocacy work surrounding the Middle East. A shorter version of this post was originally published on yourmiddleeast.com