Life and struggles in Jordan's Palestinian refugee camps

5 min read
27 June, 2024

With damp, narrow streets and houses low and tightly packed together, the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Wehdat — located in the southeastern part of Amman — remains overcrowded and poverty-stricken.

It was built in 1955 by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and is one of the four camps set up to house refugees from the 1948 war.

Currently, Al-Wehdat houses over 61,795 refugees according to the agency's figures.

The Al-Wehdat refugee camp [Lavinia Nocelli]

Abdel*, a Jordanian with six children, lives with his family in Al-Wehdat because they cannot afford life in the city. He describes the situation in Al-Wehdat as “miserable.”

He explains that unemployment is rampant, many struggle to find food due to scarce money, and more than half of the residents do not have health insurance.

UNRWA runs the schools there, but not everyone can complete their education.

According to the Interactive Encyclopaedia of the Palestinian Question, non-refugees make up about 40 percent of the total camp population.

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There are more than two million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan. While most have been naturalised, Gazans who arrived in 1967, and their children, remain in a kind of limbo, holding only temporary Jordanian passports without a national identity number or Jordanian nationality.

The Baqa'a camp, the largest in Jordan, is located 20 km outside Amman, nestled between valleys dotted with low, arid mountains.

"I was born in 1943 in Hebron... I remember our house, my village, and our land: Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side in peace”

Once made up of tents, UNRWA later replaced these with temporary shelters that inhabitants rebuilt over time with cement, a more resistant material.

Samira* waits inside the information office of the UNRWA school. She has six children and attended university but interrupted her studies to get married.

“I don't want my daughters to live the same way I did,” she says, explaining that they are also enrolled in university but expressing her wish for them to leave the country because “opportunities are limited here.”

Samira says that her father went into debt for her studies, and now she lacks the money and skills to put her daughters through university. “My dream is to see them graduate one day.”

 Souk of Baqa'a [Lavinia Nocelli]

In the souk of Baqa’a, there are butcher shops, spice shops, bakeries, barbers, and clothes shops. Crowds bustle through the camp's narrow streets, with many children running wildly.

"I was born in 1943 in Hebron (al-Khalil for Palestinians), but my family moved to Jericho in 1948. I remember our house, my village, and our land: Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side in peace,” says Hamdallah Naim, reflecting as he makes his way home.

Arriving in Baqa'a in 1967, he started working at the Palestinian Embassy in Amman after completing his studies and travelling the world.

"I visited Paris, Rome, Egypt, Syria... while my father and brother here still wondered if I had eaten or not. I counted the days until my holiday to return to my family.”

The future for Hamdallah is bleak, yet things could be simple: “In life, we are all brothers. If I have something extra, I give it to others who do not. We must live like this. We have only one land to live life as it deserves to be lived.”

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Early marriages and divorces are another problem faced in the camps.

"I was born here," says Ayman Alwawi, pointing to the roofs of the Al-Wehdat refugee camp. His parents came to Jordan after 1948. "I'm almost divorced. I have a son and a daughter."

Ayman lives in a small, damp house wedged between two narrow, poorly lit alleys. While his sister Halima prepares coffee, his brother Khaled arrives.

“Living in the camp as a refugee has taught me to trust myself and to live in this country as a citizen,” he explains.

Nakba painting [Lavinia Nocelli]

Ayman works in a hotel not far from the old part of Amman, but admits, “The income is low. We work day by day. If the opportunity arises, I will be the first to leave for Palestine. I am not happy here.”

The Marka camp is located in Russeifa, a town in the Zarqa governorate. Established in 1968, it mostly hosts Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.

Like other refugees living in official Jordanian camps, the inhabitants of Marka have the right to use the land but not to own it.

From the balcony of Mohammad Youssef's house, one can see the whole camp: unfinished buildings, others in need of repair, distant mosques, and approaching evening clouds on the horizon.

"I worked as an Arabic language teacher in the schools of the Ministry of Education in Jordan," Mohammad explains, motioning towards the distant buildings.

"One day, beauty will return to us. For now, all we have left is misery"

Born in Jericho in 1957, he arrived in Marka in 1968 after living in Al-Wehdat for a year.

“At first, we lived in tents, later replaced by more resistant units provided by UNRWA. It was then that Palestinians in the camp started building houses with their own hands,” he explains.

In the living room, Mohammad has placed a painting depicting a man with his back turned to a key symbolising the Nakba, an expression of Palestinian identity and the cause, representing the people's determination to one day return to their homeland.

“I remember the water flowing, the scent of nature and flowers, the majestic green trees,” Mohammad recounts.

Other paintings feature women's faces, landscapes, and abstract figures, reminders of Palestine's identity, struggle, and loss.

“It is in our blood,” he says. “One day, beauty will return to us. For now, all we have left is misery.”

*Name changed to protect identity.

Lavinia Nocelli is an Italian journalist working on migration, human rights, and mental health with reportage from refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk, Albania, Romania, along the Balkan route, Ukraine, and Palestinian refugee camps. Her work has been published by Italian and international newspapers such as EUobserver, Avvenire, The Independent, Il Manifesto, La Stampa, RSI, and SkyTG24