ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Palestinians of Jebel Ashrafiya

Almost a half-century after their displacement, Palestine’s refugees continue their struggle to survive.

Hassan and Solame Khandeel have spent all their lives on Jebel Ashrafiya, one of the many hills in the modern city of Amman, Jordan. Both of them were born amid the gray, cramped houses of this refugee quarter overlooking the old city. And both of them hope not to die here.

Hassan and Solame are newlyweds. Like many young couples in this quarter, they moved in with the bride’s parents. They soon expect to be parents themselves. And like most good parents, they want to give their children a better life.

But for Palestinians such as Hassan and Solame, a better life does not mean living with their parents. It means living in the land where their parents were born. A better life for them means returning to the land they call Palestine.

Within the confines of a few small rooms, mothers train their daughters in the age-old traditions of an age-old land they no longer inhabit. Grandmothers sing to babies about their lost homes in Jerusalem and Jaffa. And young couples, such as Hassan and Solame, nurture the dreams and say, “This is not our home…that is our home…Palestine.” There is urgency and passion in his speech…and there is raw and threatening anger.

“And they should know we will not forget. I don’t care for my life. I tell you the truth, I don’t care for my life. I will fight for my land.”

Ironically, Hassan has never seen the land for which he says he is willing to die. He is 28 years old. His pretty, black-haired bride is a year or so younger. Both their families trace their roots back to villages near Nablus, now in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Both families fled their villages in 1948, in the war that followed the U.N. partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. And both families wound up refugees atop Jebel Ashrafiya.

The thousands of refugees that fled in 1948 were joined less than two decades later by still more refugees after another war with Israel. A city of tents soon enveloped Jebel Ashrafiya. Today, canvas has given way to cinder block and the district has taken on an air of concrete permanence. Paved roads stretch over the cliffs from downtown Amman. And a generation of youth, such as Hassan and Solame, has grown to adulthood nurturing the dreams of their parents and grandparents – to return to their lost homes west of the Jordan River.

Hassan and others on Jebel Ashrafiya, indeed the majority of the residents of the U.N. refugee camps in Jordan, have resisted melding into the identity of their adoptive country, although many others have long since opted to do so. Hassan does not consider himself Jordanian. He insists Jebel Ashrafiya is not his home. And it would seem that despite the sense of community that prevails here, there is little peace.

Even the older people still hold out hope that somehow, they will go back to Nablus, Jaffa and Jericho. They remember the olive groves and the little houses where their parents were born. And they describe it over and over again to their children. Such memories can be more powerful than the grim reality of life on Jebel Ashrafiya.

Technically, refugee camps are under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, which provides basic medical care and education. And in many ways, the refugee quarter atop Jebel Ashrafiya is self-contained, with shops, schools, a hospital, even a modern, towering mosque. But the refugees depend on Jordan for jobs, jobs that are in short supply.

Only a few months ago, King Hussein called a special session of parliament to tell them some sobering news, “Jordan is practically under siege,” he said. “Jordan has limited resources. Jordan has one of the highest population growth rates; in short, Jordan has both unemployment and hunger.”

Jordan’s official unemployment rate is 22.9 percent. That number does not include thousands of refugees who have not registered with authorities. If these people were counted, the Jordanian government rate could exceed 35 percent.

Much of Jordan’s problems stem from the Gulf War. With the looming threat of conflict, Western investors pulled out, thousands of people lost their jobs and a new wave of refugees from Kuwait, Egyptians, Indians, Palestinians and Filipinos – and later thousands of Iraqis – drove into Amman.

Abu Hussein, another resident of Jebel Ashrafiya, lost his job as a truck driver when trade dried up between Jordan and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. But he says that for almost a year, he was without a way to earn money for his family of 12. He has only recently returned to work.

“I went to everyone I knew here for money,” Abu Hussein remembers. “But most people are as poor as me.”

In many ways, Abu Hussein’s family is typical of those on Jebel Ashrafiya. His wife, Um Hussein, works as a housekeeper for a dentist in Amman. Inside their home, every room has far more people than furniture. The door is always open to relatives and friends alike. A small kitchen bustles with women and children. It has one large iron stove, but no refrigerator. A scrubbed counter holds a few mounds of pita bread.

In another room, a bundle of sleeping mats is heaped against the wall. When they are rolled out, children will share the floor with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

In the home of Um Hussein, another room also serves as a living room to receive guests. And while the walls of the other rooms are bare, these are generously decorated. On one wall, a picture of Jerusalem is taped above another of a Palestinian flag, both clipped from the glossy pages of a magazine. Another wall is set aside for pictures of shebab, the young men who fuel the intifada on the West Bank. Their faces are wrapped in black and white checkered scarves, the traditional headdress of the Palestinians.

But the focal point of Um Hussein’s living room is a large, though faded mural of a spring garden. In the middle of the garden, Um Hussein has taped a smiling photo of Saddam Hussein. Many Palestinians supported Saddam during the Gulf War, partly out of long-standing resentment toward rich Gulf Arabs, partly out of hope that the Iraqi leader could help them win back Palestine.

It is just such sentiments that sometimes worry Jordanian officials, who must keep their border with Israel quiet, despite the yearnings of their restive Palestinian population. Most of Jordan’s residents are now Palestinians; relatively few of them still live in refugee camps. The latest wave of Palestinian refugees, an estimated 300,000, fled the Gulf after the war with Iraq. Many of them had lucrative jobs in Kuwait and other Gulf states. But the sympathy of some Palestinians for Saddam Hussein made all of them unwelcome in the Gulf.

Jordan is perhaps the most hospitable country for Palestinian refugees these days. Some feel they are not trusted by the Jordanian government. Jordanians dismiss such allegations as unfounded paranoia. But if the Jordanians are watchful of Palestinians, the reason would be found in Jordan’s turbulent history, and in the events that led to what has been called Black September.

In September of 1970, trouble erupted on Jebel Ashrafiya. Jordan had allowed Palestinian militia to operate freely in Amman. But their frustration at not being able to win back the West Bank soon turned against Jordan. Palestinian militia battled Jordanian soldiers in a brief, but brutal civil war.

And though there is little reason to suspect another civil war, Jordan’s economic situation is a potential source of unrest.

“Everything is so expensive here,” Um Hussein complains. “The price of food kept rising and it was very hard to get enough food for the children…and it still is too expensive…everything…food, clothes, even water.”

Water is a major concern for the refugee camps which depend on Jordan’s supply.During the hot summer months last year, Jordan was critically short. The government began rationing water, supplying homes and refugee camps only twice a week.

“It wasn’t enough,” Um Hussein said. “We would always run out. And we couldn’t afford to go and buy more from the water trucks.”

But Palestinian women have learned to be resourceful. The mothers of Jebel Ashrafiya made the best of a desperate situation. They conserved every bit of water possible, even recycling. In many homes, children share the twice-a-week bath water, which in turn is used to clean the house or to wash clothes.

The heavy rains and snow this winter should help Jordan meet its demands this summer, but the long-range outlook for water, as with Jordan’s economy, remains bleak. Jordan needs to find new sources of water, especially since Israel now diverts most of the Jordan’s waters away from Jordan. The Jordanian government realized it must rehabilitate itself with the West before it can begin to improve its economy. Jordan’s only real hope – and the only real hope for the people of Jebel Ashrafiya – is through peaceful settlement of the differences dividing Arabs and Jews.

Jordanian officials are well aware that they must make peace with Israel and resume ties with the West if their country is to avoid economic and political collapse. It is a humbling but obvious reality. Jordan cannot win a war with Israel. Its only option is peace. For that reason, Jordan has committed itself to the Middle East peace talks. And though the people of Jebel Ashrafya are afraid to put much confidence in negotiations, many of them concede that the talks are at least the first step toward ending their lives as refugees.

The truth is that despite the bitterness and despair that pervades Jebel Ashrafiya, for the first time in a long time, young Palestinians such as Hassan and Solame may come to believe they have more to gain from peace in the Middle East than from war.

Joyce M. Davis is Middle East editor on the Foreign Desk of National Public Radio.

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