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Letter from Jerash, Jordan: A visit to the Gaza Refugee Camp

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

Children from the Gaza Refugee Camp, Jerash Jordan. (photo: 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



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    1. Reem Habayeb

      Thank you for sharing this with us. So much to learn about their plight!

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Thanks for this report….I am always hoping a site like this at “972” will bring more information from the field that shows how people really think and get away from the endless slogans of the politicians.
      This report clearly shows the two different ways the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees is viewed.
      Israeli advocates of the “peace process” like to portray it merely as a humanitarian problem that can be solved by finding some place for the refugees to go and have a normalized existence. Public opinion polls claiming that x-percent of the refugees really don’t expect to go back to Israel and are willing to accept other arrangements are waved about. Others, such as the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS, among others, view it as a political weapon to be used against Israel and that the wishes of the individual Palestinian refugees are irrelevant, the only thing that matters is the collective will for actual return….in fact, no refugee has the right to waive his right to return because that is a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. This piece clearly illustrates this dilemma.

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ,
      The vanguard settlers are actualizing an ideology for total control of the Bank, or at least that part thought ancient to Israel. This ideology is being protected and encouraged by State policy, yielding further loss of once Palestinian occupied or controlled land. The Palestinian “right of return” is purly verbal, used to cobble together a concept of nationhood which, yes, has political control as one motivation, to different degrees of despair and frustration.
      During the Iraq war, I was not among those “United We Stand.” That phrase also meant “shut up if you disagree, for you are killing our soldiers,” more or less. The same thing happens to journalists of 972 who are called unpatriotic, “self haters,” “race haters,” “lost to God,” and undoubtedly many other things. Nationalism is a foundational form of social control and, yes it’s happening in Gaza, the Bank, and camps such as the one reported here; it also happens in Israel and is a primary tool of Israeli State policy. The tone of the Nakba Law is a nice example of trying to silence people on “traitorous” speech.
      Many Palestinian families treasure keys of the residences their family had to flee during the Israeli Independence War. Jews descendant from families in Spain similary have keys of residences reminding them of their family’s expulsion from Spain. The family memory process is identical. Maybe the groups should meet and pass around the keys for view. The same processes of memory which enabled dispora Jews to create and hope are present, flickering, in camps such as reported here. They have little else and are not wanted in Jordan; they will create and wield what social tools they can, defining progress in an atmosphere of stagnation. You would too.
      The expulsion of defeated enemies (or the destruction) is an ancient human process. The first major action by George Washington, newly appointed general of the Continental Army, was to attack and expunge Indians thought potential allies of the British; their lands were opened up for settlement, the possibility of ataining land probably one reason why some joined that army (an American victory was pretty dubious at war’s start). As the war of Independence drew on, many Tories fled, never recouping their property. One reason to be a Patriot was to get such land or residue wealth.
      What has happened in Palestine/Israel is that the defeated has been neither completely expunged nor absorbed elsewhere. There is no solution using the old categories of warfare. And, bluntly, Israel is not allowed to do what so many other States, including the United States, did to the defeated: push them into oblivion. Sadly, a viable State on the West Bank (I am not optimistic about viable reunion with Gaza, partly because the areas are split by Israel proper) might over time, absorb some of the vast camp populations. In the present article, the camp visited has many of memory expelled from Gaza. Neither Israel (because it would mean potential commerce into Gaza) nor Hamas, I suspect, would want to take these into resource starved Gaza.
      Our old categories offer no solution. Those living this no solution will try to make one of their own. Dream of return to a world spoken of by now dying parents which no longer exists is one tool. I don’t have any solutions. But I will not live in racial categories of win and lose simply because its comfortable. If there is a viable solution, it will have to come from those living the despair. I do believe that is how Zionism started. And no, I’m not advocating pushing anyone into the ocean. Just come to understand that you are no more human than your enemy, both subject to the same causal processes, dimly understood.
      Munir Atalla,
      I apologize for going on so long about something other than your excellent piece. Your ability to bridge cultures is a great ability, at what personal cost I know not. Never say “it’s only writing which then vanishes.” I truly believe it doesn’t vanish.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Doreen Said

      Amazing piece. You have done a great job portraying the dehumanization the refugees feel and experience. The world looks in the opposite direction when it comes to the refugees, treating them like an inconvenience they cannot fix.
      Thank you for sharing, and I hope this will reach as many people as possible in order for all those who think they know, understand, or sympathize get a reality check.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Greg, you can live in whatever categories you want, but to live in the lala land of magical possibilities because you don’t like reality is not a brilliant solution.

      These people will eventually adjust to living in Jordan or wherever fate takes them. They have the gift of being born into a religion and a ethnic group that has a vast array of territory and countries where they can quite easily assimilate. That they haven’t done so already is a result of the structural framework provided by UNRWA to continue and nurture their grievances while keeping them shackled to the refugee camps. There will come a time when UNRWA and the RoR will both stop making sense and the descendants of the kid who claims he is from Jaffa or Nablus and whose grandfather has never even seen those places will be from Jerash or wherever fate takes him. That time is not far away – 30, 40 years max. We have all the time in the world to wait.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Niz

      I had the chance to witness Palestinian camps in Lebanon and work in some of them. It’s the same horrible human suffering. During Friday evenings I would be invited to gatherings by the elderly who would recite the personal histories of their families to the young generation. It was similar, I would imagine, to the Jewish ghetto in Europe. However, I feel that being or becoming a victim is also a comfortable zone. The oslo accords perpetuated that feeling. We need to bring down the PA, re-frame the Palestinian identity back into an active optimistic forward outlook towards the future. To do that, we have to understand that Israel itself is weak, shallow, and could be overcome easily. We are not, eventually, the same Palestinians that left their homes on a hurry in 1948. But in the mean time, every time I read about this, or I witness it, I feel despair. my impatience and anguish over our condition makes my blood boil- fuck I would love to take revenge, brutal and wild against Israel. To inflict upon them equal, if not harsher measures…and I am not a believer to believe in cosmic justice or cosmic forgiveness. my mind says, yes, we need to fight the institution (zionism) and not the people, but my psychological tendency is to fracture the skull of an Israeli soldier or settler or collectively punish the Israeli society -civilians included (والسن بالسن والعين بالعين والبادي أظلم)… and I am bewildered, because these images while are intellectually unacceptable to me, they satisfy me and calm me down sometimes. I have to take a breath and say, if I hate, they have stripped my humanity from me, but then I say, why should I feel regret for such feelings? aren’t they all, including those who write in 972 complicit in this structure of oppression? While I imagine a scenario, Israelis do that same scenario regularly for the past 60 years? and..it bothers me on multiple levels, particularly that some part of me is fascinated by Israeli violence, that my subconscious imitates it, finds pleasure in it and identifies with it. This level of inhibited violence for two generations circulates in all of us and has to get out…

      Reply to Comment
    7. XYZ

      NIZ says:
      I had the chance to witness Palestinian camps in Lebanon and work in some of them. It’s the same horrible human suffering. During Friday evenings I would be invited to gatherings by the elderly who would recite the personal histories of their families to the young generation. It was similar, I would imagine, to the Jewish ghetto in Europe.

      Of course, it is important to note that the Jews had this suffering imposed on them by Christians or Muslims, whereas the suffering Palestinians have it inficted on them by their brother Arab/Muslims.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Palestinian

      @ XYZ Thats why they were protected by those “evil ” Arabs while they were persecuted in Europe .Thats why they flourished in those “Islamic” countries.Some people are used to bite the hand that feeds them “وان اكرمت اللئيم تمردا” just to remind you , the Palestinians were butchered and expelled by Zionist Jews from Russia and Europe.Our “brothers” didnt take over (steal) our land and properties ,and they arent occupying us.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Kolumn9

      @Palestinian, no, your “brothers” are just keeping you locked in camps 63 years after they failed in helping you kill all the Jews so that they can use you for political purposes when the need arises while selling you empty promises that they have no intention of ever fulfilling.

      As to the historical nonsense.. Yeah, some people bite the hand that keeps them oppressed and occasionally massacres or tries to convert them forcefully. Quite a surprise that ‘they’ aspire to control their own fate rather than remaining oppressed minorities at the mercy of their Muslim overlords.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Munir, thanks for this article. I don’t know much about the refugee camps in Jordan (as with most people, my focus is usually on Lebanon) and it’s good to read a personal account.
      “I am always hoping a site like this at “972″ will bring more information from the field that shows how people really think and get away from the endless slogans of the politicians.”
      XYZ, most of the refugees I know would be quite touched to read this. Feeling ignored and sidelined is a fairly common thing for them, as is bitterness over being used for political gain, so it’s always nice when people have an interest in what they think.
      If you’d ever like to meet some refugees in the West Bank, I’d be happy to try and help.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Palestinian

      @K9 I didnt know prime ministers can work while being locked in camps.I’m a Palestinian who lives much better than at least 73% of the Palestinians inside the green line.

      Do oppressed people usually get the best education ,attend their own religious institutions, schools, and medical facilities, become prominent in governments and business ?It seems those “evil” Muslims failed to “forcefully” convert those poor Jews for 1400 years.I wonder why the Jews from Europe and specifically Spain chose to resettle in evil Islamic land hundreds of years ago?! Again how does it justify the massacres and land theft by European Zionist Jewish thieves and terrorists ?

      Reply to Comment
    12. XYZ

      Without reopening the tired discussion about how well the Arab world supposedly treated the Jews as compared to the Christian, I can only point out that around 1900, something like 90% of the Jews in the world were living in Europe or North America and only 10% (rough estimate) in the supposedly “tolerant” Arab Middle East. Today there are virtually non in the “tolerant” Arab countries. If things were so good there, why weren’t there many Jews there?
      Also, if Israeli Arabs have it so bad, as you claim, why do their political leaders vehemently oppose having sovereignity of their lands and towns transferred to the Palestinian Authority as part of a proposed peace settlement. Wouldn’t they welcome improving their lot, as you indicate, as well as benefit from living under enlightened Arab/Muslim rule instead of living under the racist Zionist regime?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Palestinian

      In 2012 80% of the Muslims in the world live outside the ME ,are they persecuted there ?
      You mean Palestinians who live inside the green line ?

      Reply to Comment
    14. XYZ

      I mean “Israeli Arabs”. If you want to call them “Palestinians”, then you have to call me a “Palestinian” as well, or to be more precise, a “Palestinian Jew” since I am living in the same territory as they are.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Palestinian

      The majority identify themselves as Palestinians who live inside the green line.Just like African-Americans.There is a small number of Jewish Palestinians but you arent one of them.

      Reply to Comment
    16. XYZ

      Yes, I am. I live in the territory they call “Palestine” and which Jews have tradictionally called Eretz Israel. So that makes them “Israeli Arabs” according to the second territorial definiation and it makes me a “Palestinian Jew” according to the first.
      Perish the thought that you are identifying nationality along ethnocentric lines!

      Reply to Comment
    17. Palestinian

      You mean Jews in Russia used to call Palestine Eghetz Isghael ? They identify themselves as Palestinians and they hold the Israeli citizenship which makes them Palestinian Israelis (officially) and Palestinians who live inside the green line (Israel as recognized by the UN ).You are Jewish but not Palestinian ,you live in what you consider Israel which makes you a Jewish Israeli.Ethnicity was never part of my argument.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Jan

      @Kolumn9 – I wonder where you are from. I suspect that you may not have been born in Israel and if you were surely your parents were not. You are an alien in a land that was taken by force from the people who had lived for many generations on the land. They were there long before the first European or American Jew set foot in Palestine. You already have your “Eretz Israel.” Get out of the West Bank and let the Palestinians have at least a small portion of their righrful homeland. Let the young boy return to his family home in Nablus. Nablus is not yours and it never should be. Please understand that the Palestinians have been twice ethnically cleansed. They plan to stay on the land in spite of the hardships beted out by the Jewish state.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Siraj Davis

      There was a fight between Jordanians and refugees of Gaza Camp in Jordan. The residents of the former paraded into Gaza Camp sparking a brawl between them and the refugees. They vandalized shops and assaulted Gaza Camp inhabitants. The police helped the Jordanians while arresting the Palestinian youth. 14 Palestinian refugees were arrested without evidence. 9 were recently released and 5 remain in jail. The prisoners report torture.

      Gaza Camp could use help in contacting HR orgs and media.


      Reply to Comment
    20. Siraj Davis

      Siraj Davis : First music video I produced and directed.

      A message from Palestinian refugees of #GazaCamp to world. Featuring G Unit co-founder and Rick Ross Maybach Records affiliate Bang Em Smurf and Mid East analyst and author Moe Diab.

      Please like and share

      Reply to Comment
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