Palestinian Camps in Jordan

(© iResist 2023 – both images and text are not to be reproduced in any circumstance)

In the arid landscapes of Jordan, converge the hopes and resilience of displaced Palestinians in multiple refugee camps across the country. These camps, established decades ago, serve as a bitter reminder of the ongoing plight faced by generations of Palestinian refugees. A sense of bonding, compassion, curiosity and a desire to understand the stories etched into the fabric of these refugee communities had paved my way from the UK into these forgotten sections of this history rich land. During my visit in December 2022, being a guest of a Palestinian rights activist, Bint-e-Najjar, I had the opportunity to spend time with these refugees in the Baqa’a , Jerash and Al-Nasr camps. I had planned to spend time in the Wahdaat camps as well but unfortunately I couldn’t obtain permission to do so. 

The sprawling camps, characterized by densely packed concrete to provide shelter, narrow alleys and limited infrastructure are home to thousands of Palestinian families uprooted from their own lands in 1948 and 1967 onwards. Families kept growing in number, generation after generation but the available space remained the same, forcing them to keep extending their houses upwards.
Since Nakba, in the last 75 years of exile, the temporary fabric tents have been replaced by plastic tents and then gradually with bricks and concrete but alas the building material is the only element that has changed. Their struggle to survive, socio-economic hardships and their political resolve remains the same. 

The community is holding on to the longing and desire to return as intensely as if the displacement was just yesterday, with most of the shops being named after towns in Palestine as are most of the . Palestinian resistance symbolism is found in every aspect of household and businesses. These refugees have made a vigorous effort to keep the claim over their lands as well as to keep their passionate romance with Palestine burning in the hearts of the next generation. Their success in this struggle is a textbook example for teaching the world how to keep the resilience for a cause intact generation after generation. 

I witnessed this commitment empirically as I asked an old Palestinian lady in her mid 80s who left her village in Palestine when she was a child: “After spending your whole life here, if you are given a chance to go to Palestine, would you still opt to go back?”. Without taking a fraction of a second to think, she responded : “Without my shoes” (I won’t even wait to wear my shoes). This lady belonged to a wealthy family and after arriving in Jordan, her father bought a house in a comfortable . But as she grew up, she opted to come and live in refugee camps, knowing that the lacked facilities she had enjoyed outside. Now it’s her third generation living in the same area while being with and belonging to her own people. 

I asked an 8 year old Palestinian boy: “You were born here and you have all your friends and family here. Won’t you forget about Palestine when you grow up, you have no one there”. He didn’t let me complete and responded with a surprise over my naivety: “How can I forget Palestine, Palestine is my heart, Palestine is my life”. That is the intensity of resilience that I have never witnessed anywhere else in any other community amid spending time with multiple refugee communities around the globe including Iraqi, Syrian, Rohingya, Afghan and Bihari refugees. This was a worthwhile experience for me as I could never understand how you could carry a cause for three generations with the same zeal.

Palestinian women have played a vital and dynamic role in keeping the struggle for the right to return and the pursuit of justice and liberation alive. Their contributions have been instrumental in various aspects, from passing down inheritance of resistance, grassroot activism, leadership positions, cultural and identity preservation and community empowerment, among many more. They have been standing as an unwavering support beside their men in every aspect of their freedom struggle. Their involvement ensures that the struggle for the right to return remains a central focus in political discussions and decision-making processes. They have endured all the painful struggle of displacement converting the pain into their political determination. Their role has been further strengthened by the strong family and tribal system in Arabs.

Despite all that the Palestinians have endured in more than seven decades, the
living conditions in the camps remains a constant struggle. Cramped spaces, inadequate sanitation and a lack of medical facilities pose significant mental and physical health risks. The majority lacks reliable financial resources, access to clean water, reliable electricity, proper waste management systems, good quality education and healthcare systems. The stifling heat and scarcity of resources exacerbate the hardships faced by the residents on a daily basis. 

Unemployment remains a pressing issue, with limited job opportunities within and outside the camps. As a result, many residents rely on informal and low-paying jobs, perpetuating cycles of poverty and dependency. The Jordanian government, along with various international humanitarian organizations and NGOs, play a crucial role in providing aid and support to the camps. But the need is much greater than the scope of NGOs whose funding has already been cut in recent years. Without citizenship rights, these refugees have no access to free education, free healthcare and jobs which has a major impact on the community’s overall progress.

In the 1950s, the West Bank was put under the administrative control of Jordan and its residents were entitled to Jordanian citizenship. But this excluded Palestinians from the Gaza Strip because they were living under the Egyptian domain. During the 1967 war, people displaced from the Israeli-occupied West Bank were residents of Jordan, while those fleeing the Gaza Strip were not. When Jordan cut administrative ties with the West Bank in 1988, those originally from the West Bank living in Jordan’s pre-1950 lands maintained full citizenship rights, while those from Gaza remained foreigners. There is fear among Jordanians that if you open up citizenship for Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Jordan will become the “alternative homeland” to Palestine, a fear I witnessed in every other host population.

But there is another aspect to it. Although Jordanian citizenship can open many corridors to financial security and stability for refugees, most of them do not opt to get citizenship because it will weaken their claim for the right to return to Palestine. When they first arrived in Jordan in 1948 or 1967, they found it humiliating to be referred to as refugees, for them it meant that they were poor, waiting for aid from the relief agencies and they had no land or house. But with passage of time, the word refugee changed its meaning to them. Now they take pride in identifying themselves as refugees as it is a way of expression that they still have a homeland and they are living in temporary exile.

On a comparatively cold morning, my taxi driver was driving me to the
Jerash camp and listening to the international political news updates on an Arabic radio channel . It is locally known as Gaza camp as most of its residents were displaced from Gaza. It is one of the poorest camps out of 10 recognised and several unrecognized Palestinian camps in Jordan. The camp covers an area of 0.75 square kilometers and is situated five kilometers from the famous Roman ruins of Jerash. When my refugee host Bint-e-Qannas joined me midway, I was lost in the dry landscape with houses built over each other as far as I could see. We were constantly going downhill and my host in Jerash camp enlightened me that most of the refugee camps are in the valleys because it gives the authorities a better position to keep a watch and control on them. My host runs a small organization working on keeping every aspect of Palestinian struggle in the present memory. She was born in a fabric tent on a rainy winter night when her mother had hardly anything to keep the newborn baby warm and the rainwater was seeping through the tent. She narrated the story of her mother’s struggle and her father’s active participation in resistance.

As we entered the camps, my host had advised me to look like a local, stay quiet unless I have to talk or unless my host allows me and not to take my camera out at any point unless I’m inside a house. My host had specifically instructed me not to mention her name at any point during or after my visit. There was an overall feeling of fear of Jordanian authorities that I could feel on every corner of the road and on every unknown face I met. Most of the people did not want to get into the conversation regarding difficulties they were facing, politely smiling at me and saying that they don’t want to go through any investigation. Although it’s the third generation of Palestinians living in these camps who share the religion, the language and the ethnicity with the host country, a feeling of outsiderness was very obvious. That’s an integral part of being a refugee with very very few exceptions in known history.

Nasr camp
was the poorest of the camps that I visited. It consisted of a maze of narrow streets, forming a complex entanglement of interconnected living spaces for thousands of refugee Palestinian families. Without my host, a resident of Nasr Camp, it would have been impossible for me to find my way in and out of the camps. Being a small community and not being a registered camp, it reflects a strong sense of cooperation and resilience. 

At Nasr camp, locally known as Mukhayyam al Nasr, I saw a strong display of resistance art at every other wall of the camps. The walls had random beautiful paintings of young men fighting oppression, Palestinian flags and slogans of resistance. The shops had framed pictures of freedom fighters, old and new. It was rare that someone from outside their own world had come to meet them and they honored my presence as a special occasion. I was told that a day before my visit, the whole market street had been cleaned, as for them a guest was coming to meet them. I was offered traditional palestinian Qehwa and their traditional red cold drink in the market place and the shopkeeper refused to accept their money despite the fact that these people are living with tough economic challenges. Umme Salah, the mother of my host, Abu Hatim, at Nasr camp was the daughter of a guard of Al Quds in 1948. She narrated the journey of her forced displacement and how she remembers everything about young muslim girls abducted by Israelis, the chapter of history that had not been talked about much. I could relate to the story from this end of the world as this is what my grandfathers’ generation had been through in the same timeframe i.e. 1947 when during the partition of India, thousands of Muslim girls had been abducted by Sikhs in Punjab. Umme Salah was angry with her son and other guides as to why I was not staying at her house during my visit to Jordan. This overwhelming display of affection had certainly left me indebted to them for the rest of my life.

Nestled in the outskirts of Amman, the
Baqa’a Refugee Camps was one of six ‘emergency’ camps set up in 1968 to accommodate Palestinian refugees and displaced people who were displaced from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The camp, which is the largest in Jordan, lies about 20 kilometers north of Amman. Between June 1967 and February 1968, the refugees and displaced people were housed in temporary camps in the Jordan Valley, but had to be moved when military operations escalated in the area. Baqa’a was already a large camp at its founding, with 5,000 tents for 26,000 refugees over an area of 1.4 square kilometers and now it is home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees living in cramped conditions. 

The struggle was evident from my host’s household at Baqa’a camp. Her husband had spent years in Israel’s jail in his youth. He shared his traumatic experiences of being in prison. Although he had endured face deforming injuries due to Israeli forces’ brutality, he narrated how the most traumatic experience was medical care that he received in the occupation forces’ prison. He was given stitches to his injuries without receiving any local anesthesia, making it a trauma engraved in his conscience forever. He had not only lost his facial features but he had lost his smile for the rest of his life at a very young age. But his happy young daughter, Sana, an art enthusiast, was a symbol of how indestructible this community’s zeal is. She gifted me her recent drawing, an artwork woven with Palestinian symbolism. 

After the hectic task of meeting old Palestinians and collecting eyewitness accounts of war and displacement, I along with the other Palestinian women from local community spent one whole beautiful evening sitting on the benches beside a tall Key on a wide crossroad at the middle of camps’ narrow streets, cherishing the political determination of community in the shadow of the Key.

For decades, the
Key has served as a powerful symbol of the Palestinian people’s unwavering determination to reclaim their ancestral homes and win the right to return. Rooted in the collective memory of displacement and longing, the Key has become an emblematic representation of their struggle for justice and their quest for a forcibly snatched homeland.

The key symbolizes the Nakba and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. As families were forced to leave their homes, many carried their keys, believing they would soon return. From then onwards, the Key became a powerful symbol of the unyielding desire to reclaim their homes, land and rights and their refusal to accept the dispossession they endured. It represents the Palestinian demand for the right to return, enshrined in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which affirms that refugees should be allowed to return to their homes and compensated for their losses. 

For individual Palestinians, the key holds immense sentimental value, often passed down through generations. It serves as a tangible reminder of their heritage, connecting them to their ancestral roots and instilling a sense of belonging. Just like every household that I visited in the refugee camps, the key appears prominently in Palestinian art, literature, and cultural expressions. It is depicted in paintings, murals, and sculptures, often accompanied by images of homes, olive trees and Palestinian landscapes. The key is proudly displayed at rallies, protests, and commemorative events, representing the collective voice of Palestinians advocating for their right to return.

In the backdrop of the Key at Baqa’a camp, on the benches in that evening, I met Muhammad Usman Abu Khaled, a 91 year old Palestinian who had bravely fought against oppressors in the 1948 war. He narrated the story of war with enthusiasm as if he was still a 16 year old freedom fighter. He showed us gunshot marks near his elbow and told us that he still has a bullet pieces in his pelvis. Abu Khaled read the poems of freedom for us, making the evening a memorable moment to cherish for long. He told me how Muslim fighters from the Indian subcontinent had joined the Palestinians in their resistance to occupation. Pakistan and Palestine were going through historical transformation in the same section of time. The old Palestinian man was excited to meet someone with Pakistani origin and he told how he remembers the freedom struggle against British occupation and how Muslims in India won a country for themselves. It was a profound moment for me to listen to my history from this old Palestinian man. There was a lot that we shared in terms of struggle and pain of forced displacement. As we took some memorable pictures with Key and Abu Khalid, I didn’t know how to express my heartfelt gratitude for the warmth the community offered me. 

In addition to the Key being an integral part of every household decor, other symbols of identity that represent the refugee status are obvious in the ways the houses are decorated from the inside. The walls are often decorated with embroidered pieces with drawings and writings showing their hopes and enthusiasm to go back to their homeland. Embroideries represent safînat al-‘awdah, (the return-boat), the Intifâda (uprising) in the West Bank, the Palestinian kufeyya (scarf) with one line of poetry or the names of specific Palestinian occasions, the old city of Jerusalem and the map of the Palestine in 1948.

Proudly dressed in honorable Palestinian clothing, 90 year old Sheikh Salahuddin Abu Ahmed told me that their family, just like many other refugee families, keep an annual storytelling day at their home to remind the new generation of exactly which village of which area of Palestine they belonged to, how they were forced to evict and how their hearts still burn to return to their lands. His house was one of the most beautifully decorated houses I visited, with a wall decorated with Palestinian map from 1984, a detailed map depicting exactly where their village was and the map of their village, a key and several Kufeyyas with Al Quds embroidered on them. 

A small organization of women in Baqa’a refugee camps treated me with Palestinian Qehwa and gave me a key to display in my house in London alongwith a map of Palestine from 1948. As they presented me with these goodbye gifts, they got indulged in the map themselves, telling each other which small dot represents the village where each of them belongs to and I felt fortunate to witness this beautiful aspect of their unmatched struggle as I felt being part of this invaluable moment of ever evolving history of the resistance.

The journey towards achieving the right to return remains a complex and arduous task. Political, legal and practical obstacles have impeded progress in resolving the Palestinian refugee crisis but this is certainly not an issue that will fade away in the past unresolved. The struggles faced by the residents are a stark reminder of the need for lasting solutions and a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee crisis. As the world continues to grapple with complex geopolitical challenges, it is imperative to remember the section of humanity present in these camps and work towards a future where every individual can enjoy their fundamental rights and live with dignity.

Author: Aisha Ghazi (Founder – iResist)