Visit to Jerash – the Gaza refugee camp

During my time participating in the Forum (a 5 day adventure run by East West Initiatives – a sort of ‘cultural exchange’), we visited a refugee camp housing over 30,000 Palestinians from Gaza. It’s become one of the largest cities in Jordan, and yet the people live amongst rubble and practically in squalor – it’s a camp, not a city. And yet this camp has been here since 1967 – to house those who fled from Gaza long after the 1948 separation of Palestine. These people don’t have a proper home, they have no Jordanian ID card, they have no passport, no legal way to work, no adequate medical treatment and no rights. They are unable to become Jordanian citizens because they came too late – and so the camp continues to expand with little promise of improvement. These people will be here until they die, or until they are able to go home – back to Palestine.

There is tremendous hope that one day they will return home – to the houses and cities they left behind decades ago – and that hope is so alive and prominent in their day to day lives. The elderly man who we had lunch with – the grandfather of the entire family (4 sons, their wives and around 20 children, who all live in 5 or 6 rooms) – still believes he will return in his lifetime. He showed us his Jordanian ID card that he was finally able to obtain after over 40 years living in the country.

We listened intently to his story of how he came to live in Jerash. He fled to Gaza in 1948 from his hometown with his family when he was a child. Here they lived for almost 20 years until he fled to Jordan in 1967, leaving the rest of his family behind (who he sent for later) – sadly two of his young children died during this time – and settled in the camp where has been ever since. Because of this massive influx of refugees, Jordan has had to learn to protect it’s own people. Therefore, any more refugees from Palestine who came after 1967 have been unable to obtain Jordanian citizenship. This means that these people are unable to work, and unable to leave. They have to be clever with the ways they make money, and they have little opportunity of gaining proper education to improve their chances of getting jobs.

On our arrival we listened to the story of one woman – which was loosely translated into English – who had managed to get a job working for ‘Save the Children’. She’d worked hard to get the education training she desired for a sufficient job, but when applying for any jobs outside of camp no one would hire her because of the area she lived in and who she was. Instead, she tried applying to jobs without any information on her background or her address – she was offered a position instantly. Even after ‘Save the Children’ discovered where she came from, they not only upheld their offer, but gave her a better job that she was more suitably qualified for. Another woman spoke of how she owned a small piece of land – but it was in the name of a Jordanian friend – she had a goat and sold it’s milk and cheese for money. The things people do to survive, the sheer willingness and creativity necessary to make a living was awe-inspiring.

One of the little girls in the family we had lunch with was clearly suffering from cancer – she was extremely thin and didn’t have any hair. We tried to find out what kind it was, but I think it got lost in translation. The miraculous thing though, is that she is receiving treatment – chemotherapy – only made possible because they applied for aid. There are so many other people who aren’t as lucky as her, who go without treatment for serious illnesses because they don’t have the funds or the residency to make it possible. It’s completely heartbreaking.

It’s difficult to comprehend the daily grind that these people have to go through to simply live everyday. It’s not as simple as waking up, going to work, going to sleep – they have to think about so much more than that.

With around 35 of us participating in the Forum, we naturally split into groups of 5 or 6 to share lunch with different families. As I mentioned previously, our group visited an elderly man and his extended family – it seemed like he’d invited everyone to meet the ‘special guests’. All 6 of us, including 3 Jordanians who nicely acted as translators, listened intently to his stories.

For lunch, the men and women split into two separate rooms. The women came alive with chatter, laughter and even took off their Hijabs – it was fantastic. The food was excellent, albeit simple, and they’d clearly gone all out to impress their international guests – offering us Pepsi and giving us the best pieces of meat. The two boys in our group were both Jordanian, leaving Haneen as the only translator for the rest of us girls – but she did an excellent job. Despite the language barrier it was simple enough to communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions and a few words of English and Arabic here and there. The whole experience with these women will be something that stays with me forever. They seemed amazed that we all had such small families, and were so happy that people from England and America were interested in hearing about their story. One woman told me that they know the people are behind the Palestinian cause, it’s the governments who aren’t helping the situation. This may not be absolutely correct, but it is true that people are becoming more aware of the conflict and more willing to see a peaceful outcome.

I wished I could’ve stayed there for hours. Sharing food, listening to stories, laughing with these women – they have so little to give, so little to stake a claim to – and yet they offered such a warm, loving and hospitable environment to be in. I’d take that over a rich person’s lonely swimming pool any day. I wrote the women a note on the back of a London postcard, asked Haneen to translate it and offered a small box of shortbread as a thank you. My offering felt so meagre in comparison. These few hours will stay with me a life time, and I pray that one day the hope they have to return to Palestine will become a reality.

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