Gaza,(DRAH.ps)-- Jerash camp, one of 10 across Jordan, was set up 50 years ago as an ‘emergency’ to give shelter to Palestinians forced out of the Gaza Strip due to the Arab-Israeli war. Now, after Donald Trump withdrew US aid, people who have lived their whole lives in the camps are facing poverty, unemployment and a future without education
“We’re going back...” As I walk the main sun-beaten road in the Jerash camp, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), with my translator Khaled Shara from Amman, our conversation is interrupted by the striking of a glossy walking stick on the broken tarmac road and the chatter of the elderly gentleman who carries it. His black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh is arranged immaculately and drapes down from his head, framing his tidy white beard, and down onto the shoulders of his pristine dark corduroy blazer. “Rah Nerjah…” [We’re going back...] he chants.
Nabeel Salem left Gaza with his family at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, and to this day he recalls his father telling him to only bring a handful of his belongings as they would be sure to return to the West Bank in a few short months. Nabeel, 62, still walks the crumbling pavements and dirt roads of the camp in which he arrived 50 years ago. He is one of 370,000 Palestinian refugees across 10 camps in Jordan hosted by UNRWA, which was set up in 1949 in response to the first occupation of Palestine in 1948, known as ‘Al Nakba’ or ‘the catastrophe’, which saw 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes. The second wave of refugees came in 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, know by Palestinians as ‘Al Naksa’ or ‘the let down’, in which as many as 325,000 Palestinians fled. Nabeel and his family were among them.
I meet Mohammed Abu Syam, who leads the community development office in the camp, working in parallel with UNRWA, looking at a variety of funding streams inside and outside of Jordan to improve the quality of life for its residents. Mohammed invites us into his home and we enjoy the cool shade of his living room and surrender to rather tired looking purple floor cushions. As we sip the scolding sweet mint tea, he begins to explain that 97 per cent of Palestinian refugees in the camps do not have a social security number, and most of them are unable to afford the hefty renewal on their two year temporary passports, which saw an increase from around 50 Jordanian dinar (JoD) to 200 JoD (approximately £200) in 2017.
The absence of a social security number for these refugees poses enormous difficulties for a life outside the camp. Their scope of employment has reduced dramatically. The Jordanian government’s restriction on employment is creating catastrophic results. A now animated Mohammed says 46 per cent of people in the camps are now living below the poverty line, surviving on a dollar a day, the crack of his hand slapping the top of his thigh in frustration. I stare at the bottom of my now empty tea glass for some understanding here, and an awkward silence swallows the room for what seems to be an eternity. A slightly more subdued Mohammed slumps back against the cool white-washed walls of his home. He says unemployment is running at 39 per cent and those lucky enough to find work are limited to low-paid jobs as welders, cleaners and agricultural labourers in farms outside the camps.
Mohammed explains UNRWA’s commitment to education in the camps caters for children aged six years old through to 16. The government provides two more years of education, through to about 18, but after that you are on your own. A Palestinian without a social security number is treated as an international student, and their university fees are more than 4,200 JoD per year (about £4,300) – twice that of Jordanians. Unless you are particularly gifted enough to qualify for the handful of scholarships available to Palestinians, many students are forced to skip alternate semesters, while attending university, to work and fund the next semester. “There are no student loans here,” remarks Mohammed.
We catch up with Muhand Salem, 22, with his surfer cool appearance, as he emerges from his family home and walks with us, the glow of the late afternoon sun casting a thin veneer of light down the narrow alleyway walls. He was born here at Jerash camp, and his family originates from Beersheba via Gaza. Muhand is a university student in his second year, reading mechanical engineering on a merit-based scholarship. As he shades his piercing green eyes from the light and flicks back his brown hair that now is resting just above his shoulders, he says: “Hey, it is not easy being a refugee from the camps.” He explains how Jordanian classmates shunned their very presence, and how they were made to feel vastly inferior. Muhand’s dreams are thousands of miles away from the camp and Jordan, and he hopes of one day working and settling in Europe.
Only 37 miles from here, in Amman’s ‘new downtown’ district, is a $5bn project at Abdali boulevard and shopping malls, with its acres of sprawling glass and metal building draping over the landscape. This is Jordan’s big roll of the dice to try to attract outside investors into the capital. W Hotels group, Starbucks, Sunglass Hut... they are all there, even Aston Martin proudly shows off a glass box in which to display its V8 Vantage for sale, price tag £200,000, of which government tax is an eye watering £110,000. I walk and talk with Ahmad, the manager, as he slides around the showroom in his suede driving shoes, squeaking as they kiss the polished glass floors. He welcomes me to his office with his half-burnt cigarette now back between his pursed lips, as he frantically locates brochures and price lists for me. Through the haze of his cigarette smoke now filling the room, he excitedly explains all the new models are sold out for the next 12 months, his eyes now fixed upon me searching for a congratulations or a high five.
Jordan has always been a country of incredibly high sales taxation – it’s not surprising that in a nearby supermarket a box of Doves Farm cereals is around £10, a tin of Napolina chopped tomatoes costs £3.25, and a ball of supermarket own branded mozzarella comes in at £4.50. With average the Jordanian salary hovering at around £400 per month, is it any wonder that the new shopping malls remain empty?
As my mind returns to Jerash camp, and away from the Dubai-esque monstrosity growing out of the ground in downtown Amman, I wonder what on earth can be done here to help change the course of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians trapped in these camps across Jordan. With the country’s GDP growth hovering at 2 per cent, as opposed to 6 per cent a decade ago, and inflation running at 3.3 per cent, the government’s focus is now solely on the increased security of Jordan and climbing out of this financial black hole, which seems to be sucking the life and spirit out of its people. They appear to have given up as they struggle to get by.
As for UNRWA, they have their own battles to fight. Step into the ring Donald Trump who, as of January 2018, decided to hold back $65m from its $125m aid to the organisation as he felt the Palestinian people demonstrated little gratitude and respect to the US. This is having a direct and catastrophic effect on the already challenging existence for the Palestinian refugees. Jerash camp has 30,000 inhabitants, and of the 43 workers collecting rubbish keeping the streets clean only 10 remain after the cuts. The smell of rotting rubbish everywhere is encouraging rats, and the camp air is thick with flies forcing many of its residents to start burning rubbish in their streets and alleyways.
I approach a group of young school-age boys rooting around among the piles of rubbish. I ask them what they are looking for. Ibrahim Bassam, 11, proudly holds out his blackened hands to reveal his prize, an empty cigarette box. He then proceeds to frantically rip and tear the box apart with great precision, then places the cardboard with several more pieces he found earlier, producing a thick wad of cards from his pocket. He tells me they are his money and that he is now very wealthy. This is one of those situations where you honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I stare up towards the clear blue sky over the camp looking for an answer to this problem. The sight of black and white plastic bags that have risen up off the camp floor are now dancing in the sky, rising and falling like flocks of pigeons. I can’t help but feel the time for burying our heads in the sand has passed, so too have the years wasted pointing fingers. We are where we are. However, with some renewed energy to find a solution, and the resilience and defiance of the Palestinian people, maybe Nabeel Salem is right, maybe he is going back after all.