Reflections on Refugee Camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria
It may have been a strange time to visit a Jordanian Palestinian camp for the first time: after the Wahdat camp's team won the Jordanian National Championships. Our arrival - we were three American girls - did nothing to cool emotions.
My time in Jordan sparked an interest in Palestinian refugee camps in the region. When I travel, I always go to the camps, in addition to Lonely Planet's recommended sites. So outside of my first adventure to the Wahdat camp, I also visited the camp during the day to see it during normal working hours, and I visited the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, as well as a camp in Damascus. Despite local citizens’ warnings about the dangers of visiting Palestinian refugee camps, I never feared for my safety.
Because many Arab politicians use the Palestinian issue to bolster their legitimacy, I think the camps themselves reveal much about the political situation on the ground, separated from the political rhetoric in a specific country. My experiences in each of these camps turned out to be more enlightening personally because of what it revealed about the day to day lives of Palestinian refugees.
Out of all of the refugee camps that we visited, I felt most overwhelmed by the Jordanian camp. The people there were more outspoken and angry. Not only because it was the first camp that I visited, but also because of its distinct contrast to hospitable Jordanian culture, my experience in Wahdat was by far the most shocking.
During my time in Jordan, I lived with a half Palestinian family. I also met several Palestinians in various social situations. While most of them consistently expressed their views on the evils of the Israeli state, they seemed content for the most part about their current situation in Jordan. Out of the three countries, Jordan is also known for treating its refugees the best- even extending to them Jordanian citizenship. So upon entering this camp, I had much experience with Palestinians, but never had I felt so unwelcome.
Another shocking aspect of the camp was the lack of direction in their anger. There was very little political paraphernalia, and very little talk of politics. A lot of talk about hate. They hate America, they hate Israel, they hate the West, they hate being in Jordan. The graffiti did not particularly reflect support of one party or the other- just depictions of violent scenes- bombings, guns, oppressive Israel.
The goal of my study abroad program in Jordan was to expose me to all of the issues Jordan had faced during modernization. We studied the refugee issue from several angles, but I could not reconcile what I actually experienced with what I had learned in the classroom. Even now, after living in East Jerusalem, the anger of the Palestinian refugees at the Wahdat camp is more extreme than anywhere else I have visited.
I feel now, that these people’s anger and desire to express themselves in whatever way possible is a direct result of feelings of being forgotten. In discussions of the refugee problem in Jordan, people focus on the positive things that Jordan has done, compared to Lebanon or Syria. Even the Palestinian taxi drivers talked about how lucky they were to live in Jordan. It seems they forgot about their fellow countrymen in the camps. These people do not feel lucky, but rather forgotten, by all people in Jordan. Because Jordan feels that it has done enough for their refugees, they do not contribute significant funds to the refugees that are still in camps, many of which are from Gaza (refugees from Gaza after 1967 did not receive citizenship).
The next camp I visited was the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon. In the Sabra camp, the tension in the air was palpable. The camp was decorated throughout with pictures of Yasser Arafat, Hasan Nasrallah, and other political posters. Amongst these vibrantly colored signs, huge colorless buildings bear the scars of the many Lebanese wars. Bullet holes mark the buildings like pock marks, and several buildings are literally falling apart from bombings.
The people themselves seemed more desperate, yet more resigned to their destinies. No one yelled at us as they did in Jordan. Their silent stares were almost eerie. After walking around for about an hour, one young boy finally approached us. He wanted a picture with us. We also met an elderly woman who offered to walk with us if we were scared.
In my opinion, their resignation is unsurprising considering their surroundings. During my time in Lebanon, I came across several people who cursed the Palestinians for ruining Lebanon. Driving through a neighborhood in Beirut, I saw a bombed out building with a huge white sign on which the words “A Permanent Display of Palestinian Folklore” were painted in red. The Palestinians know they are not welcome there. There is no fear of being forgotten, their presence constantly weighs on the Lebanese political situation.
My most recent trip to a refugee camp was in Damascus. Once again my educational experience and background shaped my expectations for camps in Syria. Many Palestinian-Jordanians complained to me about the mistreatment of Palestinians in Syria. But in Damascus, a shopkeeper in the souq who invited us in for tea, talked about how he thought that the Palestinians were the best Arabs, that they were the nicest people of all Arabs he had ever met. He also offered to take us to the nearby refugee camp. We took him up on the offer, and he walked with us to the camp the following morning.
I was shocked at the beauty of this camp, as well as how friendly and hospitable everyone was. It was not noticeably different from the surrounding neighborhood. It was a Friday, so everyone was coming home from the mosque, but I did not feel even slightly uncomfortable because everyone was so friendly.
While this is not meant to be an in-depth analysis of the treatment of Palestinian refugees in each country, it was enlightening for me to see how each group of refugees responded to a group of Americans visiting their camp, and what they felt was most important to express to these foreigners.