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A Delayed Homecoming

To displaced Palestinians living in Jordan’s refugee camps, Palestine is still home.

Um Ali sits on the ground in front of her small house in Baqa’a, the largest of 13 camps for Palestinian refugees in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

“We will never turn our eyes away from Palestine. We believe that sooner or later we will go back. Even if I die before seeing that happen, my children or grandchildren will carry the dream until it comes true,” 65-year-old Um Ali (“Um” meaning “mother”) says with determination.

The belief in the right of return has become a sacred trust, passed from one generation of Palestinians to the next. Old men in camps still keep the keys to the houses they left 53 years ago. When asked, even young women who grew up in Jordan say their home is in Palestine.

Of the 3.4 million refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), approximately one third found refuge in Jordan. The Kingdom’s location played a key factor in this tale of displacement: Jordan shares a 230-mile-long border with Palestine.

British withdrawal from what was then British-mandate Palestine in May 1948, followed by the establishment of the state of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, prompted the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 triggered another refugee crisis, the results of which have yet to be resolved.

To provide shelter for the refugees in the first wave, five camps were established: Zerqa in 1949, Irbid in 1951, Al-Hussein in 1952, Wihdat or New Amman Camp in 1955 and Madaba camp in 1956.

Eight camps were established between 1967 and 1969 to shelter those displaced in the second wave, including Al-Baqa’a, Jerash or Gaza camp and Souf. Today, more than a million Palestinian refugees remain in these camps.

Even in their displacement, Palestinians try to maintain the fabric of their traditional way of life. Village leadership, vital for the maintenance of village infrastructure and stability, follows a pattern. Though material help is rare, there is always a ready ear and word of hope for fellow villagers through the sheikhs, or village leaders.

Eighty-year-old Abu Sameer is one of these leaders. As a sheikh, he is expected to offer advice when needed, display courage and maintain objectivity and fairness when disputes are brought before him. He makes a point of telling younger generations at Baqa’a about the suffering of the families who left their villages during the uncertain, troubled years leading to the war in 1948.

Abu Sameer has held his position as village leader for many years:

“I accompanied my people on the trek over the hills to the West Bank in 1948 [then under Jordanian control].”

He describes how, for the second time, less than 20 years later, he led his village along dusty, crowded roads. With sorrow in his eyes, he relives the second journey:

“In 1967, more uncertainties occurred. Shellfire and bombings from the Israeli side became nearly a daily routine. So in 1968 I returned with my village to Jericho. After going through several stages of pain, fear, blood and sorrow, we finally settled here in Jordan.”

Sabri, 75, also lives in the Baqa’a camp. A widow born in Cyprus, Sabri married in 1937 when she was only 11 years old. She too came to Jordan seeking refuge.

“We all ran away from our village under the Israeli air strikes. We didn’t even have time to find our shoes,” she says in Greek-accented Arabic. “We kept moving from one area to another. Eventually we arrived in Jordan.”

Baqa’a was set up as a tented camp on an area a little smaller than a square mile about 12 miles north of Amman. The camp started with 5,000 tents accommodating 26,000 persons. Over the years, more durable concrete shelters replaced prefabricated shelters.

UNRWA provides camp residents with education, healthcare and social services through 20 installations operated by more than 600 UNRWA staff members.

As for Jerash camp, known locally as Gaza camp, it was one of six settlements set up by the Jordanian government in 1968 to provide temporary shelter for some 140,000 Palestinian refugees. With little more than a few personal possessions and the clothes on their backs, nearly 11,500 Palestinian refugees ended their historic exodus in tented shelters a mere two miles from the glorious Roman ruins of Jerash. As early as 1968, tents were replaced with 2,130 prefabricated dwellings.

Having sheltered three generations of refugees, Jerash today is highly congested with an estimated population of 26,000 residents.

“In general, camp services like water, electricity and communications as well as asphalt roads are fully provided by the government in coordination with UNRWA services,” states Abdelkarim Abullhaija, the Jordanian Government’s General Director of the Department of Palestinian Affairs.

“Aid and relief are ensured hand in hand with UNRWA services to Palestinian refugees,” he adds.

Refugees registered in UNRWA’s records are guaranteed health and education.

“I practically grew up in Jerash, where my family settled in 1967,” explains Ahmad, 28.

“Life hasn’t been easy at all, but I have worked hard over the years to maintain reasonable living conditions for my wife and family.” Ahmad is a house painter but he is now disabled due to poor health.

Together with local and international organizations such as CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, the Jordanian government has upgraded the standard of living in the camps by improving infrastructure and basic social services.

For the parents of more than 1,600 children, their only income arrives monthly, from generous benefactors in the states who sponsor their son or daughter through CNEWA’s Needy Child Program. Income is modest, but as funds from UNRWA dwindle, sponsorship income indeed becomes a life line.

Less than seven months after the Amman office of the Pontifical Mission opened in spring 1971, Jordan’s King Hussein asked the Pontifical Mission to build a secondary school in Baqa’a camp. Schools were also constructed by the Pontifical Mission in four additional camps, including Jerash and Marka camps.

UNRWA and the Department of Palestinian Affairs have continued to extend relief for 18 percent of the 1.7 million refugees registered with UNRWA in Jordan.

“Improving the quality of life for refugees has been one of Jordan’s primary concerns,” Mr. Abullhaija continues.

“Jordan spends $300 million on refugees annually. The Hashemite Kingdom does not accept the Israeli notion of settling the refugees in host countries. Jordan’s position is that the refugee’s right of return and/or compensation must be fulfilled in accordance with UN resolution 194,” he adds.

Article 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which supports the concept of right of return for all refugees, has often been used to legitimize the claim for absolute right of return for Palestinian refugees and displaced persons.

Nevertheless, the effects of dispossession are still evident in most of the camps.

“Our situation is pitiful. Regardless of the extent of humanitarian assistance offered to the refugees here, we will always be worse off than the other official camps in Jordan,” explains Hassan, a well-known figure in Jerash’s Gaza camp.

Wearing the traditional thobe and kafiya, the aging Hassan says the fact that refugees from Gaza camp are not allowed to take up legal employment in Jordan has denied them an otherwise productive life.

In general, Palestinian refugees with Jordanian citizenship have the same rights as other Jordanian citizens. These Palestinians can vote in elections and hold public office – in fact, some are cabinet ministers. According to UNRWA, all Palestinian refugees in Jordan have full Jordanian citizenship except for those 100,000 refugees originally from the Gaza Strip. Until 1967, this tiny area was administered by Egypt.

Refugees from Gaza are eligible for temporary Jordanian passports, but their situation does not entitle them to full citizenship privileges such as the right to vote and employment in the public sector.

“How can families earn a decent living if they are not permitted to work like any other person?” Hassan continues.

“It is not enough to provide camp residents with healthcare and social services to enable them to cope with their difficult living conditions.

“Being allowed to work is essential to helping the refugees help both themselves and their families,” he adds.

Successive waves of involuntary migration have resulted in extreme economic hardship for refugees and displaced persons and, most importantly, altered the demographic composition of a country that at one time was able to absorb these waves. In addition, a combination of factors has contributed to a rise in unemployment and has created disparities of income. The present annual growth of the Kingdom’s economy cannot provide jobs for all those seeking employment.

Twenty-year-old Fadi has a degree in accounting but cannot find a job.

“I’ve been applying for more than a year for any job, but with no luck at all.” Fadi now sells fruit in Gaza camp’s streets to make ends meet.

Nineteen-year-old Mohammad, who lives in Gaza camp, confirms that not one young person in the camp is spoiled – they simply cannot afford to be.

“Everything is very expensive,” asserts Mohammad. “What we usually do in the camps is walk through the streets, watch TV or visit family and friends.”

Schooling is also available in the camps, although classrooms are crowded and supplies are limited.

“Refugee children receive ten years of primary schooling,” says Essa Gharib, the Baqa’a camp service officer.

“Thereafter,” he adds, “they attend government schools for their secondary education.

As a general rule, camp schools follow the same curriculum as government schools.

According to Dr Abdul Gader Taha, head of the health center in Gaza camp, camp residents are provided with basic preventive and curative health services, “particularly immunization, mother and child care, health education and environmental sanitation.

“Curative health services include outpatient treatment, oral health and laboratory services.

“These services,” Dr. Taha continues, “including medicines, are provided free of charge.”

Budget constraints forced UNRWA to halt individual subsidies for treatment at private hospitals in 1996, a cutback that has remained in place to this day. UNRWA refers patients to government hospitals for secondary care, but is able to cover only a portion of the costs, leaving the rest to be covered by those individuals in need of treatment. These individuals are often too poor to cover extraordinary medical costs.

Murad is 21. A housewife and mother of five, she delivered her first baby at a private hospital, but the rest were delivered by a midwife at home.

“The hospitals are very expensive, and we’ve got other priorities on which to spend the limited amount of income we have,” says Murad, whose husband is a mechanic.

According to UNRWA officials in Baqa’a, between 100,000 and 120,000 refugees visit the clinic per year, which means each doctor receives 100 to 120 patient per day. Add to this wrinkle the fact that there are no health services available after 2:00 p.m., the end of the workday in Jordan.

UNRWA, which helps needy families with the repair and maintenance of their shelters, also provides foodstuffs, clothing and some cash assistance to particularly needy refugees registered as special hardship cases in the camps.

European Union nations, the United States, Japan, Switzerland and the Holy See – particularly through its Pontifical Mission – are among 25 donor countries who provide financial aid to the agency.

A question posed by many is, “If the quality of services provided to refugees are not good, why are they still living in the camps?”

In addition to the fact that life is more affordable in the camps compared to other areas in the Kingdom, most of the folks we talked to add that, “by living together, we keep the memory of Palestine alive.

“This gives us a little glimmer of hope that one day we will return to our villages.”

It is this hope that keeps the refugees going despite the hardships of daily life.

Caroline Faraj filed this story from Jordan.

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