A Delayed Homecoming

Palestinians have lived in Jordan’s refugee camps for decades. Palestine, however, will always be their home.

text by Caroline Faraj
photographs by Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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Um Ali sits on the ground in front of her small house in Baqa’a, the largest of 13 camps for Palestinian refugees in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

“We will never turn our eyes away from Palestine. We believe that sooner or later we will go back. Even if I die before seeing that happen, my children or grandchildren will carry the dream until it comes true,” 65-year-old Um Ali (“Um” meaning “mother”) says with determination.

The belief in the right of return has become a sacred trust, passed from one generation of Palestinians to the next. Old men in camps still keep the keys to the houses they left 53 years ago. When asked, even young women who grew up in Jordan say their home is in Palestine.

Of the 3.4 million refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), approximately one third found refuge in Jordan. The Kingdom’s location played a key factor in this tale of displacement: Jordan shares a 230-mile-long border with Palestine.

British withdrawal from what was then British-mandate Palestine in May 1948, followed by the establishment of the state of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, prompted the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 triggered another refugee crisis, the results of which have yet to be resolved.

To provide shelter for the refugees in the first wave, five camps were established: Zerqa in 1949, Irbid in 1951, Al-Hussein in 1952, Wihdat or New Amman Camp in 1955 and Madaba camp in 1956.

Eight camps were established between 1967 and 1969 to shelter those displaced in the second wave, including Al-Baqa’a, Jerash or Gaza camp and Souf. Today, more than a million Palestinian refugees remain in these camps.

Even in their displacement, Palestinians try to maintain the fabric of their traditional way of life. Village leadership, vital for the maintenance of village infrastructure and stability, follows a pattern. Though material help is rare, there is always a ready ear and word of hope for fellow villagers through the sheikhs, or village leaders.

Eighty-year-old Abu Sameer is one of these leaders. As a sheikh, he is expected to offer advice when needed, display courage and maintain objectivity and fairness when disputes are brought before him. He makes a point of telling younger generations at Baqa’a about the suffering of the families who left their villages during the uncertain, troubled years leading to the war in 1948.

Abu Sameer has held his position as village leader for many years:

“I accompanied my people on the trek over the hills to the West Bank in 1948 [then under Jordanian control].”

He describes how, for the second time, less than 20 years later, he led his village along dusty, crowded roads. With sorrow in his eyes, he relives the second journey:

“In 1967, more uncertainties occurred. Shellfire and bombings from the Israeli side became nearly a daily routine. So in 1968 I returned with my village to Jericho. After going through several stages of pain, fear, blood and sorrow, we finally settled here in Jordan.”

Sabri, 75, also lives in the Baqa’a camp. A widow born in Cyprus, Sabri married in 1937 when she was only 11 years old. She too came to Jordan seeking refuge.

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Tags: Refugees Children Palestine Jordan Refugee Camps