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A River Runs Through Them Jordan’s Palestinian Refugee Camps: Check Your Stereotypes at the Door

October 13, 2006
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AMMAN, Jordan — It’s another hot, sunny day here, but the people plowing through the crowded shopping district at Al-Wehdat don’t seem to notice. Trailing children or husbands, women push their way in and out of stores filled with expensive shoes, skimpy lingerie and Islamic garb ranging from fashionable hijabs to plain black chadors.

A gleaming navy blue SUV with plates from Abu Dhabi crawls along one of the thoroughfares, its driver squinting at the colorful billboards lining the avenue. Nearby, just beyond an open-air fruit market, the noisy shopping scene gives way to tranquil, narrow streets lined by homes whose single common feature seems to be large satellite dishes atop each roof.

If not for the running commentary provided by a local guide, a visitor to this neighborhood easily could miss what is perhaps its most unusual feature: This is a Palestinian refugee camp.

A lot has changed in the nearly 60 years since tens of thousands of Arab refugees began pouring across the Jordan River during Israel’s War of Independence, settling in hastily erected refugee camps in what was then known as Transjordan.

Their host country shortened its name, additional wars ensued and refugees kept coming until the West Bank was severed from the East Bank of the Jordan River during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The most significant change, however, has taken place in the camps themselves. Once provisional tent cities filled with transients awaiting repatriation to their homeland, the refugee camps in Amman have been transformed into permanent urban enclaves that are virtually indistinguishable from the neighborhoods around them. There are no walls around the camps, there are no welcome signs or barbed wire, and many ordinary Jordanians frequent the camps’ clothing and food markets.

“I don’t see any difference between the camp and not the camp,” said Lana Abu Snaneh, a magazine journalist whose family moved to Jordan from the West Bank in 1954. “The most beautiful thing — the satellite dish — is on top of all the homes.”

Blending in — and standing out

Many of the camps’ original residents have since moved out, a few have become quite wealthy, and the Palestinians and their children have assimilated into Jordanian society.

Yet they have retained their refugee status and rights even as the vast majority have become Jordanian citizens. Their children and grandchildren, too, are considered refugees according to the United Nations, extending a sense of displacement to each succeeding generation.

Once on the outskirts of Amman, the refugee camps have become interwoven with the fabric of the capital city that has enveloped them. Some are located just minutes from downtown, and their high real estate values have benefited their Palestinian owners. One camp, Al-Hussein, is just a few minutes’ walk from the king’s palace.

Instead of tents, the camps are now filled with concrete houses and even some apartment blocks. Some of the homes have small gardens in front or trees in the back. Where once stood single-room cinderblock homes with tin roofs, there is the odd new multi-story limestone apartment building. Where there were pushcarts and debris, there are now gleaming glass-front clothing shops displaying the latest fashions from Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

“It’s expensive to rent a shop here,” said Saleh Sobhi, who opened his own clothing shop in the Al-Wehdat refugee camp in Amman, one of Jordan’s oldest, five years ago. Sobhi pays about $300 a month in rent, which amounts to three quarters of the average monthly income in Jordan.

Some of the homes in Al-Wehdat run for upward of $140,000, residents say.

To be sure, there is still plenty of grit in the Palestinian refugee camps here, even those with fancy shops and pricey real estate. The streets are dusty and narrow, the residents are mostly poor, and some homes still have the flimsy tin roofs provided years ago by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which administers 10 of Jordan’s 13 camps.

However, they also don’t look much different from poor neighborhoods in Arab cities elsewhere in the Middle East — including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In Jordan, where the plurality of the Palestinian refugees live — more than 1.8 million, according to UNRWA statistics — only 316,000 or so still live in the UNRWA-run camps. An additional 300,000 or so live in surrounding neighborhoods, which are also served by UNRWA. Other estimates put the Palestinian population here at about 3 million — or slightly more than half of Jordan’s residents.

Those who can afford to move out of the camps do so, and as real estate values in the camps have grown, more and more Palestinians have rented out their homes or sold them and moved out. A few poor Jordanians have even moved into the camps.

The primary difference between the camps and nearby neighborhoods, residents say, is that in the camps UNRWA collects the trash, operates health clinics and runs the schools, not the Jordanian government. UNRWA also administers camps in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Syria and Lebanon.

UNRWA: Problem or solution?

Critics of UNRWA fault the U.N. agency for helping keep the Palestinians as refugees, rather than letting them assimilate into their host countries.

“The Palestinian refugee issue could have been solved decades ago, like so many other cases, if only the Arab states stopped using UNRWA to keep the Palestinians as political pawns,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors the United Nations. The Arab regimes use UNRWA, he said, to “abnormally maintain Palestinians as refugees over generations, thereby sustaining a permanent grievance against Israel, all with the hope of distracting their own populations from the daily repression and misery inflicted by corrupt dictatorships.”

Matar Saqer, UNRWA’s public information officer in Jordan and himself a Jordanian-born Palestinian refugee, denied that the organization is a puppet of Arab states. He said it is the United Nations, not the Arabs, that safeguards the Palestinians’ rights in the absence of a political resolution of the refugee issue.

The Palestinians’ refugee status entitles them to international humanitarian assistance and the possibility of repatriation or compensation in some future political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

UNRWA counts as refugees not only those Arabs who fled across the Jordan River during the 1948 war, but also those who left Israel for the West Bank in 1948, then migrated by choice to Jordan proper during the years 1948-1967, when the West Bank was under Jordanian control.

The vast majority of Palestinian refugees in Jordan today are second- or third- generation Jordanians who have never visited Israel or the West Bank, much less lived there. Arab leaders routinely assert these Palestinians’ right to return to “historic Palestine.” Israel repeatedly has said it will not allow them to flood the Jewish state.

‘Oh God, I am very happy’

Mahmoud Yaghy’s family is typical of many Palestinians living in Jordan today.

His family came to Amman from Jericho during the 1967 war, having first fled the family’s hometown near the Israeli city of Ramle during the 1948 war.

In Amman, Yaghy’s father bought a tent and pitched it on a patch of scraggly, barren land. He scraped together a living by helping farmers with his horse-drawn carriage. After about a year, the family moved into the Hittin refugee camp, established by UNRWA on the outskirts of Amman.

Over the years, the family upgraded to a stucco home with a tin roof — like everyone else in the camp, they got about 100 square meters to live on — and the kids slowly moved out. Yaghy eventually married and became a truck driver. Four years ago, he bought a plot of land just outside the camp and built himself a new home.

“Until two years ago, I didn’t sleep under a concrete ceiling. We had only tin or wood,” Yaghy said. “When I slept the first night in my home, I thought, ‘Oh God, I am very happy.'”