The market is busy, shop and stall owners are shouting to advertise their wares to the crowds on the street; food and essential goods only. Behind the main street more traders sell secondhand goods, mostly clothes and shoes, piled on rickety tables or heaped onto tarpaulins lying on the ground. Shoppers rummage through the piles in the hope of finding clothing at an affordable price.
The sense of community is apparent, everyone has a purpose, many stop to welcome me, or just shake hands and say “hello.”
But just beyond the bustling market lays the reality of Baqaa. Mahmood, my guide, explains — “Four generations of refugees have grown up with little hope of escaping poverty, let alone reaching their true potential; despite their hardships the community remains strong.”
The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), runs services in Baqaa camp, although UNRWA does not itself run the refugee camps. It works alongside all the charities in the camp. The UN, being politically-funded, is restricted to running the school, health center, some food distribution and other projects.
Unlike the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), who are responsible for all non Palestinian refugees world-wide, UNWRA was established with no mandate to assist Palestinians in resettlement, either in Palestine or another country.
Apart from the run-down appearance, the school looks like any other “city center” school. Children play happily on the tarmac surface during their short breaks between lessons. At the entrance fly the flags of Jordan, Palestine and the United Nations.
The school has sixty students in each class and runs four shifts per day; not surprisingly half of the children do not finish basic education. Yet, some do succeed at school — last year the top ten Jordanian graduates came from the camps; there is an escape through education — if you are exceptional and have financial support.
A life in the space of one bed
Today the camp, just 1.5 square kilometers in size, houses 250,000 residents; each family, usually eight to ten persons spanning three generations, is allocated just 96 square meters.
Putting this into perspective, each person is allocated a space slightly larger than a double bed, their space to live in — sleep, keep belongings, wash, cook, perform personal hygiene, study, play — their whole live in the space taken by one bed.
The homes are rudimentary concrete structures with corrugated panels or plastic sheets for roofs, more substantial roofing is not allowed; this would imply the home was a permanent building.
The unemployment, overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation, inadequate garbage collection, poor water and sewage systems make the camp a breeding ground for disease. Mahmood struggles to express his emotion, “Every family faces devastation, then hope, followed by devastation — eventually everyone becomes anaesthetized to hope. The mortality statistics, whether through illness or suicide, are just numbers, they lose all meaning.”
Mahmood takes me to a narrow gateway, the entrance to a small patch of ground between two houses. “Behind every door you find tragic circumstances, orphans, mental and physical illness, widows, birth defects, nothing prepares you,” he says.
In 1948, Fatima was a young girl in her late teens living in al-Dawayima, a small Palestinian village near Hebron. “We were farmers and had land, we grew figs, olives and wheat,” she says. As a reminder of those better days she keeps one solitary olive tree growing in the small yard of her home.
She and Abdul Rahman, her brother, had expected peace and comfort in the years ahead but in the space of just a few hours their lives and the lives of everyone they knew changed forever. She remembers every detail of 29 October 1948.
Al-Dawayima was the site of one of the larger, little-known massacres of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment. “Our parents among the dead, we fled for our lives, leaving our home with nothing more than the clothes on our back.” Sixty-three years on, Fatima still has nothing.
Along with many survivors, they walked to the Hebron Hills where they hid, before walking onto a makeshift camp in Jericho. There would be no peace for Fatima or her brother; during the war of June 1967, along with 300,000 Palestinians, they fled Jericho and the West Bank for exile in Jordan.
Since 1968 she has lived in Baqaa with her brother Abdul Rahman and his disabled son; both disabled by arthritis, neither can walk more than a few tens of yards.
“We walked day and night until reaching Baqaa; this was to be our new home,” she says. Under canvas, many died in the harsh Jordanian winters; steel prefabricated huts eventually replaced the tents. “The huts were dry, an improvement on the canvas tents, but as protection against the cold we dug underground shelters.”
Living underground for twenty years
In September 1972, Israel began aerial bombing of Baqaa in response to Palestinian attempts to recapture their homeland. The underground shelters became protection from the bombing raids; the whole camp was destroyed.
Unable to afford to replace their hut, they lived below their nine-meter by nine-meter plot of ground for twenty years. “Finally, with the help of charity we managed to build a small concrete shelter.” The elderly brother, sister and disabled son now live in this one room, with rags on the floor to sleep on. They can afford no mattresses or furniture.
“We keep hens in the yard, feeding them stale bread; eggs are our main diet. Two to three times a week, more fortunate Baqaa residents provide us with a meal. Many hundreds of people in the camp live in the same poverty as us.”
Despite the hardship, Fatima is a joy and inspiration. She is now in her mid-seventies, but as I left her home, smiling, she told me that when she returns to Palestine she will be ready to get married.
With every family we meet, the stories keep coming. The narrow alleyways between the houses are cold, dark and damp, very little sunlight reaches the streets or into the homes. Toilets, bathrooms and excess rain water empty into the same sewage pipes, too small to meet demand in heavy rain, raw sewage overflows into the roads. No matter how hard the residents try, keeping their homes and the camp clean and healthy is almost impossible.
The houses are in dreadful condition inside and out, the personal stories even worse: illness, death, finance, or other tragedies.
“We’ve kept our keys”
In 1948, Abdullah’s grandparents, married just five years, were raising their young family in the coastal city of Jaffa. “My grandfather came from a trading family, buying and selling citrus fruit from the orchards for export,” Abdullah says. “We were not rich, but we wanted for nothing. As the escalating violence reached Jaffa, my grandparents decided the family should leave the city.”
The family packed for a short trip, they would return home in a week or two when things settled down. They covered their furniture, locked the door and left, heading for Ramallah on foot, carrying just the provisions they could manage — and the key to the door of the house.
Every family I visited showed me their house keys. The key has come to symbolize the right of return for Palestinian refugees worldwide.
“Countless people walked together towards an unknown destination, we walked until dusk, resting in orchards overnight. My mother was six months old and very ill, doctors had said that she would not survive.” The family was in great difficulty, carrying four young children and provisions. “On the first night, my grandparents begged the owner of an orchard to care for their dying child until she passed away.” Another refugee intervened, leaving his few possessions, he carried her for two days until they reached the safety of Ramallah.
Finally, the refugees arrived at the emergency shelters, home from 1948 until 1967. “My grandmother, with help from the Quakers, supported the family by selling crochet and knitting to people in Ramallah.” In 1967 the Israelis again declared war on the Palestinians, forcing a second wave of expulsions. “Again we were refugees, left with nothing.”
Exhausted, after days of walking, they arrived in Baqaa on the Jordanian East Bank; home was to be a canvas tent, allocated to the family by the United Nations.
“By 1972, most tents had been replaced by steel shelters, but we were not left in peace to rebuild our lives, Israelis continued fighting Palestinians. In September of that year Israel again attacked us, this time dropping bombs from aircraft onto Baqaa, killing thousands and destroying the camp.”
Abdullah’s mother survived; she is now 63 and lives with him, his wife, their four daughters and three sons.
Just two weeks before I met Abdullah and his mother Ayishah, Abdullah’s five-year-old daughter had died of cholera. Fighting tears, Abdullah told me, “Cholera is very common in all the refugee camps, caused by sewage in the streets when we have heavy rain.”
As a Palestinian refugee arriving in Jordan after 1967, Abdullah has no nationality and can only find simple work outside the camp, for which police approval is needed. “Palestinians, even those with Jordanian nationality, have differently-colored identity cards; we face discrimination everywhere in our lives. Once a refugee, always a refugee.”
Abdullah now works for an imam in a mosque. “I earn very little money, but it is better than nothing and reduces my dependence upon charity.”
The edge of Baqaa to the roundabout of the main Damascus-Amman highway is fewer than 20 meters. Few people know what lies behind the tatty shops, workshops and second hand tire stands fronting the road. Not many from Amman turn into the camp, unless they want to buy vegetables from the market stalls at a fraction of the price they would pay in supermarkets.
Our car turns onto the highway, in less than five minutes we are in Amman, driving past the highly respected Queen Rania Hospital for Children and the upmarket City Mall. Baqaa is just far enough outside Amman to be forgotten. The world may look away but the forgotten people of Palestine will still be there.
John Ridley has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than thirty years. Based in Bahrain and Beirut, he can be contacted at john A T johnridley D O T nu.
Note: This article was amended to correct language which suggested UNRWA runs Baqaa refugee camp. UNRWA does not run refugee camps, but provides services to refugees living in the camps.