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Living in limbo: Gazans in Jordan long for equality

While most Palestinians have integrated smoothly into Jordanian society, Gazans are acutely aware that not all are created equally
Children play at the Jerash camp in Jordan, known informally as the Gaza camp (Jacob Burns/MEE)

Denied many of the rights afforded their West Bank brethren, Gazans in Jordan say they are still being neglected by the government, half a century after the 1967 war.

It’s seven in the morning, and 200 Palestinian children are standing in a circle on the roof of a kindergarten in Jordan’s Jerash refugee camp.

The sun has climbed above the wooded hills that encircle the camp’s dense huddle of houses, and youth workers are trying to herd the children through a game of call and response.

“I am Gaza!” they shout out, before raggedly attempting to follow the leaders’ pattern of claps, giggling as they fail.

We don’t have Jordanian national numbers, no civil rights, no one cares about us

- Murad Bassem, youth worker

The youth workers here are all volunteers, giving up their Friday to run this extra-curricular programme for children from the ages of five to 14. One of youth workers, Murad Bassem, said that the programme aims to encourage the children’s development in an area that they choose.

“We’ll ask what they want to be taught, what their talent is, whether that’s reading or football, and tailor the programme to them.”

The programme is so important, Bassem explained, because of the status of the camps’ refugees as Gazans.

“We don’t have Jordanian national numbers, no civil rights, no one cares about us. So, if we don’t work on these children, no one will.”

Unequal status

Most of the two million Palestinian refugees in Jordan are naturalised Jordanian citizens, because Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950. This is not the case for those Palestinians who arrived from Gaza after it was occupied, many of whom were already refugees from Bir al-Saba/Beersheba.

In the years between 1948 and 1967, Gaza was under Egyptian control, so the refugees had an Egyptian laissez-passer. Jordan made the decision not to extend citizenship to those with these Egyptian papers, so now, 50 years after the 1967 war, there are 140,000 of them in Jordan who are effectively stateless, and consequently deprived of civil rights.

“In 1986, King Hussein gave all Gazans a temporary passport that we have to renew every two years. But this is just for travel, it’s not citizenship,” said one community leader in the camp, who asked not to be named as he’s an employee of a UN organisation that forbids its staff from speaking to the press.

“We can’t register land, become a doctor, we don’t have health insurance. Gazans in Jordan have many problems.”

The Jerash camp – known locally as Gaza camp – is unique among Jordan’s camps in that its residents are all originally Gazans.

Jerash is the most impoverished camp in Jordan, and one of the most densely populated (Jacob Burns/MEE)
Around 30,000 people are crowded into an area of 0.75sq km, and it is the most impoverished of Jordan’s camps. Public sector employment is closed to Gazans, and a university education is hard to access because they are charged the vastly more expensive foreigner fees.

The resulting difficulties in obtaining well-paid employment means that more than half the camp’s residents are below the poverty line, and 88 percent of them have no form of health insurance, according to UNRWA.

“I’ve been working from when I was 11 years old,” one 15-year-old boy told Middle East Eye.

“I wanted to continue at school, but I needed to bring money to my family. We have 18 children in our family.”

“The Jordanian government does provide water and electricity to the camp,” one UNRWA manager, who asked not to be named, said “so we can’t say that they discriminate in that sense. But the issue here is their civil rights. They enjoy none of the privileges of Jordanian citizens, and there is no move I know of in the government to normalise their position.”

I hate this country and this government. They belong under my shoe

- Gaza camp resident

A request for comment to the Jordanian government’s Department of Palestinian Affairs was not returned.   

Though some basic services are provided by the government, most of the burden is left to UNRWA, an organisation which is currently struggling with budget shortfalls.

Camp residents complain that services often fall short. For example, the schools run a double shift system, with about 1,200 children in each shift, and each class has at least 45 children in it.

This leaves little time for children to receive personal attention. At the youth programme, a group of 10-year-olds was being tested on their Arabic reading skills. Several had great difficulty in making out the words.

Unrealised dreams

Stories of the struggle to be educated and employed are abundant in the camp.

“I wanted to study graphic design at university,” said Ihsan Hassan, 22, who was painting a sky-blue mural outside the camp’s kindergarten. “But I didn’t have the money to do so, so I had to take a job as a school teacher with UNRWA.”

“My son can’t work as a teacher,” said the community leader, “even though he has a teacher’s certificate. He picks olives.”

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Despite all these challenges, some do succeed, he added, citing students who have been among the country’s best in their high school exams.

Unsurprisingly, however, this half-century-old limbo has angered some of the camp’s residents. One, who declined to be named, said: “I hate this country and this government. They belong under my shoe.”

It is a very different picture from that of other Palestinian refugees in the country. For many Palestinians here, there is not a conflict between being both Palestinian and Jordanian, even if fault lines in Jordanian society do exist. At the Baqa’a camp north of Amman, where most residents have Jordanian nationality, those people whom Middle East Eye spoke with were eager to proclaim their love for Jordan.

Palestinians in the Gaza camp do not enjoy the same freedoms as their West Bank counterparts, pictured here in the Baqa'a camp (Jacob Burns/MEE)
Ibrahim Abu Alsaid, a member of Jordan’s parliament who represents the camp, said: “This is our nation and our soil. For us, Amman is as important as Jerusalem.”

Tensions are not entirely absent here, however, either. A camp resident described how police were more likely to single him out for a search when they saw on his ID card that he was from Baqa’a, and said that the Jordanian authorities had painted over a number of murals in the camp that displayed the Palestinian flag.

An initiative to widen the main roads of the camp in 2015 was widely seen as being aimed at allowing security forces easier access to the camp in the wake of violent disturbances.

We want to give these children the childhood that we did not have

- Murad Bassem, youth worker

Such integration, even if imperfect, seems a remote possibility for the residents of Jerash Camp, and other Gazans.

Back at the kindergarten, the day’s programme was finishing up, and the leaders were discussing what had gone well, and what could be improved. Ramadan was coming, so the programme would take a break and reconvene afterwards.

When asked why it was that people there were so motivated to volunteer their time, Bassem replied, simply, that, “we want to give these children the childhood that we did not have”.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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