Last month I worked at a 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 from other parts of Palestine in 1948, meaning that they have lost their homes twice in one lifetime. The majority live on under $2 a day. About a quarter live on less than one.
Entering the camp is quite the experience. 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 curious. Numbers haunt the life of every refugee; on one hand, there are passport numbers, national identification numbers, and social security numbers that are denied to them. On the other hand, you have 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 wanted to know from which Palestinian town my family was. “Jerusalem, although I’ve never really lived there and my parents were born here,” I said, assuming it was necessary to qualify. “I’m from Jafa,” chimed one boy. “Nabulsi and proud,” boasted another. They had probably never seen the places to which they claimed loyalty except through 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 the uprisings passed them by?
“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.”
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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 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 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 just above starvation and just 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.