How the poorest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan encapsulates the unrecognised nation’s global campaign for validity.
by #ameje18 caar delegate benito carbone
It’s 1948 and Leila is on a journey. Suffering through an episode of Palestinian history later known as al-Nakba (translation: ‘The Catastrophe’), her and her family are fleeing from the town of Beersheba.
Seeking refuge from Israeli air strikes that had battered the region, Leila is one of many Palestinian civilians who escaped to Gaza during the war. She would eventually learn that her home town was captured by the Israelis in the final days of the war, and that her abandoned house had quickly been filled by a Jewish immigrant family.
Leila lived in Gaza until 1967. It was then that Arab-Israeli conflict reared its head in a significant way once more. Al-Naksa (translation: ‘The Setback’) was a war that lasted for just six days, but the resulting ramifications are still felt strongly today by the Palestinian people.
Israel captured the remaining Arab-occupied Palestinian territories in their decisive victory, leading to the displacement of 1 million Palestinians – some for the second, third and fourth time – across the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Leila was one of the large number of Gaza-residing Palestinians from Beersheba who made the difficult decision to leave their homes again, journeying to Jordan to find the sanctuary they thought they had secured in Gaza. Thousands of these Palestinians would make their way to a town slightly north of Amman, where their new homes were hastily being assembled.
Jerash Camp was initially an emergency camp set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the beginning of 1968 to house 11,500 displaced Palestinians.
Also known as Gaza Camp due to the previous location of the refugees, 1,500 tents were initially erected alongside the necessary facilities as workers dealt with the influx of new residents. Having underestimated the harshness of the Jerash winter, the tents were swapped out with prefabricated shelters and then replaced by more durable concrete shelters by the inhabitants, at their own cost.
While being mindful not to reduce the residents to a statistic, a staggering 52.7% of the refugees at Gaza Camp live below the national poverty line, the highest proportion out of any of the ten Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.
The 0.75km² plot of land on which the camp resides was leased by the Jordanian government to the UN for 99 years. The UN would never have envisioned having to administer the camp for such a period, yet fast-forward to 2018 and the camp is now in its 50th year of operation.
Now closer to the lease’s end than its commencement date, the UN estimates that just 10% of Jordan’s population were alive when Gaza Camp was established, such are the Hashemite Kingdom’s youthful age trends.
In the chaos of our world, the stateless Palestinian people in Jerash Camp have been largely forgotten by those outside Jordan. Now a long way down the list of UN priorities, camp funding decreases on a yearly basis and speculation continues to bubble over rumours that the UNRWA will relinquish their operational duties and leave the camp.
The character ‘Leila’ above was fictitious; however, her story is real. Leila is a representation of the thousands of chronicled histories of Beersheba-based people who had no choice but to flee war and persecution to Gaza, and then Jerash. ‘Leila’ encapsulates the struggle.
Now, as many of these refugees remain in limbo without citizenship recognition from any nation’s government 70 years after al-Nakba, dozens of questions linger over the future of Jordan’s forgotten people.
Muhand Salem is a 22-year-old student who grew up in Gaza Camp. One of the many refugees with Beersheba origins, his father was brought to Jordan from Gaza in the hands of his own mother at just 12-months-old.
“I never knew that where I was living in Jerash was not usual, until I saw the other side. Everything was normal for me because this is what we knew,” says Muhand.
“At school, I was in a class – they call it fly-class – which means I didn’t have a classroom. They made a table for us, and when some other classes left to play football or played outside, we went to this class.
“My class was 50 students; it’s a huge number. It’s not okay to study with 50 students in the same class.”
Currently in the midst of the final semester of his Mechanical Engineering degree, Muhand did suffer the setbacks that so many Jerash residents lament. But the 22-year-old’s strong spirit and resilient attitude saw him finish high school, keeping his bright hopes alive.
“I was dreaming of becoming a lawyer, but I saw it was not possible for me to study it, so I turned to mechanical engineering and put a lot of effort in, because it’s not easy to reach a government university.
“When I entered the university, I wasn’t thinking about working, I just like mechanical engineering! Then I found out that it’s hard here to work, as there’s many students who study engineering here in Jordan.
“I’m thinking to work outside Jordan, but it’s difficult. If you want to work outside Jordan, you have to sign with the [employing] company before you leave, and they need experience. But here in Jordan you can’t find a job, so how are you going to get experience?”
Muhand has an inspiring father figure to draw motivation from, though, in Dr Mousa Mabrouk. Mousa left Jordan at the age of 21 with a degree in teaching, finding work in the United Arab Emirates for several years. Now teaching back home, Dr Mabrouk has a PhD in the Arabic language. Both he and Muhand spend quality hours volunteering within the undefined borders of Jerash camp for an organisation called One Love.
One Love is a grassroots organisation of volunteers from all backgrounds, working together to better Gaza Camp in whatever ways possible.
Some of the wide variety of operations that One Love offers include education for both children and adults, training courses, renovation projects and recreation.
Hiba Khoury, a Jordan-born Palestinian, is one of the co-founders of One Love and the charity’s General Manager. Khoury, whose family originates from the West Bank city of Jenin, admits she had something entirely different in mind when she first entered the camp.
“I had this idea that I need to go and help these people, but after I met them and spent time with them and saw how full of life and hope they are, I realised they were – in a way – helping me,” says Hiba.
“When you see a lot of difficult situations around, but the people still manage to educate themselves, seek different opportunities and engage in community work instead of giving excuses about their misfortunate surroundings, it makes you want to do more, provide more and count your blessings even more.”
The 31-year-old credits the Palestinian identity for the spirit of hope inside Jerash camp.
“I believe Palestinians are born this way. They adapt to the circumstances around them, the struggles in their lives, and they continue to bring hope around them.
“It’s very inspiring knowing some of them may never see their land again but still strive to work positively toward the cause by working on themselves.
“There is a very famous quote that says: ‘Everyone lives in their homeland except for the Palestinians, but no matter where they are around the world, their land lives within them.’”
One Love turned its focus to Gaza Camp due to the lack of rights available to its residents. The camp has the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees with no national I.D. numbers in Jordan, severely limiting the abilities of the residents to secure education, healthcare, jobs and so on.
The severe overcrowding of the land means there is no available space to build extra facilities. The two schools in the camp run double shifts, with each shift catering for a staggering 1,000+ students.
An astonishing 88% of the refugees are not covered by health insurance. Unemployment is high as refugees are unable to work in several sectors, including for the nation’s primary employer: the Jordanian Government.
Jerash residents are also unable to open a business outside of the camp unless they have a Jordanian business partner.
“I actually started appreciating my national I.D. number when I saw how many obstacles people who I am not better than have,” says Khoury.
“When I get sick, I take my health insurance and walk into any hospital I want and get all the services I want.
“Someone [from Jerash] who is exactly my age, my status, everything, is unable to have this basic human right.
"It’s irritating, yes.”
Khaled Al Shaka’a is another crucial member of the One Love team. The co-founder also has strong opinions on the issue of citizenship.
“If you don’t have a national number, you cannot become a lawyer,” says Khaled, directly referencing Muhand’s experience of being prevented from pursuing his initial dream at school.
“These people are third- and fourth-generation here, but they cannot work in certain sectors. It is a big issue.”
The history behind the matter is complex. Palestinians who fled from the West Bank were all granted full Jordanian citizenship, as the region was once a territory of the Hashemite Kingdom.
For other Palestinian regions it’s not as straightforward, but a general rule is that most displaced Palestinians received Jordanian nationality, except for those in the Gaza Strip. As this particular stretch of land was formerly a part of Egypt, Amman took no responsibility for the plight of these people.
However, neither did Cairo.
After Israel quickly passed laws to prevent Palestinians returning to their homes, this group of desperately luckless Palestinians became stateless.
“We understand the limitations they have,” says Al Shaka’a.
“We don’t look down on them though, we believe that they have so many things we can learn from.”
For Khaled, the collective unity and genuine happiness they see in the day-to-day life in Gaza camp is thoroughly gratifying.
“Even though everything we see on TV and how we feel is sometimes extremely emotional and difficult, it cannot take away the happiness from our lives,” says Khaled, referencing the unity embedded within Palestinian culture.
“It cannot take away the folklore and the dance and the music and being with the community.
“When you see schoolgirls living inside the camp, they’ve never been out of the camp. They don’t know what Palestine really is, they don’t know politics, but they sing a song for Palestine with so much passion, knowing what each word means and feeling that it means something to them.
“It brings tears to the eyes, emotions that you cannot control.
“There’s always something that involves your dignity and involves your pride. It hurts to see the woman getting slapped by the soldier, or the child being taken to jail for no reason. This breaks your heart.
“But at the same time there are strong things that keep you going. When you see the culture and how people are so entangled and in touch with their culture and preserving it.
“They learn, and they want to go and reach out to their community. They are committed, and they work hard, they forget about what they’re doing, but remember why they’re doing it. They don’t mind picking trash on the streets, they feel proud that they’re doing this inside their community, for their community.”
Basil is a 24-year-old Palestinian living in Amman. Recently graduated from Middle East University, Basil volunteers his time in many of Jordan’s Palestinian refugee camps, including Jerash.
“I feel happy when I help any Palestinian or any other person. I used to live in a camp called Kalandia in Jerusalem myself.
“We visit [Gaza Camp] and run festivals and other activities. It is a very satisfying feeling.”
Speaking of his roots in Hebron, Sharabati admits that there are certain tensions between the Palestinian people. But when all is said and done, Palestine still unites in support of the resistance movement.
“There are some political differences amongst Palestinians. But outside Palestine or the Middle East, when Palestinians meet they feel as if they are members of one family.
“They become friends, because in the end they both live for the same cause and they live the same sufferings.
“For the resistance, those people do what they believe is right. Education is important, as it takes the case of the Palestinian people to more people worldwide.
“But it is difficult to get back your land through only education,” says Basil, questioning how much of an impact spreading awareness actually has on the lives of those affected.
The Palestinian connection to the land and its culture goes beyond religious or social differences.
In 2018, at the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Israel drastically stepped up its security measures around the mosque, adding metal detectors, additional security cameras and stationing 3,000 police officers near the compound.
It resulted in days of uproar, with Muslims peacefully protesting by shunning the security and praying on the street. Palestinian Christians joined them, praying in line with their Muslim brothers in a striking act of solidarity. Churches in Bethlehem closed their doors on the Sunday in support, while leading Christian figures condemned Israel’s inflammatory move.
It was a battle that Palestine won, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capitulating and restoring the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount to its previous condition.
Hiba Khoury reflected upon the event fondly, relating the event to the honour and integrity engrained in Palestinian culture and in her own life.
“Being Palestinian is very honourable,” she says. “In general, we like to think that the Palestinian struggle has become more than just a struggle of the land itself, it has to do with humanity.
“We believe you don’t have to belong to a certain religion or a certain nationality to have compassion toward the Palestinian cause.
“No matter what you believe in, looking at women and children and men and the elderly suffering under extreme occupation. It makes you sick.
“You can’t help but hold responsibility towards them. It’s a responsibility towards the Palestinian cause; it’s a responsibility towards humanity.”
“For me, it’s a burden not to do anything,” Khaled adds.
“If I’m not doing anything, I feel like my existence doesn’t mean anything. I can’t sit and do nothing while the community so close to me [is struggling].
“I eat the food, I speak the language. This is my community, this is my identity.”
For many that live inside its boundaries, Jerash Camp is a place of limbo.
The livelihoods of the refugees there have collectively stagnated over a 51-year-long period of purgatory, with no clear future. The elderly still carry the keys of their homes in Palestine, with little prospect of ever returning to their homeland.
But behind the crumbling walls and below the asbestos-stuffed roofs is a flicker of hope in the hearts of the camp’s youths. Muhand was one of those children, and as a successful student, the 22-year-old has become a shining light to kids across the site.
“I hope for [the children] that they can find a time to find themselves.
“I used to give motivations for the children here. I would say: ‘don’t listen to your father, don’t listen to your mother, just dream and think about what you’d like to do and work for that. Never listen to anyone here. Cause you don’t know what the situation could become, you don’t know what the situation could be.’”
If the passion and works of One Love and its fellow organisations can keep the embers of hope alive in the children of Gaza Camp, its future will be in secure hands, long after the diplomats leave.