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The elders can still smell their homeland; they can still smell Palestine 

December 29, 2020 at 1:41 pm

Jerash refugee camp in Jordan, 29 December 2020

Palestinian refugees remain one of the largest and longest-suffering groups of displaced people in the world. The refugee issue originated in the 1948 declaration of independence by the state of Israel in occupied Palestine; it is still at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Millions of Palestinians are still in exile due to the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe). Most live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), more than 2.2 million Palestinian refugees live in ten official camps in Jordan. The socio-economic conditions in these camps are mostly poor with high population density. A number of studies have been conducted to explain the precarious life of Palestinian refugees who have been in exile for almost four generations.

People share fears, challenges and pleasures through their personal stories. They sometimes find common ground to connect and communicate with other people around the world. Some of these stories have the power to motivate and inspire us. I came across one such story when I stayed in Jordan from March to October this year.

Jondiaa Awwad Al-Dheini, 48, is one of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who live in Gaza (Jerash) Refugee Camp. Her parents moved to Jordan following the 1967 Six Day War, and have not been allowed to return to their land due to Israel’s occupation. As the name implies, most of the refugees in the camp came from the Gaza Strip.

Jondiaa Awwad Al Dheini, a Palestinian who live in Jerash refugee camp in Jordan

Jondiaa Awwad Al Dheini, a Palestinian who lives in Jerash refugee camp in Jordan, 29 December 2020

Born and raised in the camp, Jondiaa has been a social worker for more than ten years with international and national organisations in Jerash. She understands the situation well.

“I have been working in humanitarian organisations for many years,” she told me, “and I have to know how I can increase the socio-economic welfare of our people [Palestinian refugees] in the camp. This is one of the main reasons why I always try to improve my knowledge.”

READ: UNRWA, the EU and humanitarian aid all have a political agenda

Five of Jondiaa’s siblings have died in Jordan. Life has not been easy there. One of her brothers was only eight months old when he died. “He was the youngest in our family,” she explained. “I was very sad because I was the person who was looking after him when my mother was not at home. I was always excited to see him and to play with him. I still have memories of him.”

It was a poor family; Jondiaa’s father worked in construction. She grew up in a shelter — UNRWA doesn’t call them houses — in which the kitchen and bathroom were in the same room. Have things changed over the years?

“It is still difficult today; all of our life is just difficult. We do not have universal human rights as regular people. For instance, I cannot work in a job which matches my skills. High-skilled jobs are closed for us. I have to pay more than Jordanian people to have a driving licence. There are many problems that I can mention.”

Between 1948 and 1967, the Gaza Strip was administered by Egypt, while Jordan covered the West Bank. This is why the Jordanian government does not feel any responsibility to provide citizenship and equal rights to the refugees in Jerash Camp, without which they face restrictions on where they can work, and in what occupations.

Jerash refugee camp in Jordan_4

Jerash refugee camp in Jordan, 29 December 2020

Despite all the difficulties, Jondiaa has a passion to improve her skills so that she can contribute positively to the refugee community in the camp. She is one of those people who never gives up. With two foundation degrees already, she is studying for a third. When I asked what motivates her, she told me, “We are people who have been forced to leave their homeland due to the Israel invasion. We have to improve our skills. If we are not educated people, this will not be good for the Palestinian cause. Education is our only power to create a better future.”

Due to the lack of employment opportunities, Jondiaa works mostly with humanitarian organisations on short-term contracts. She is currently working with a local organisation in Jerash Camp to empower the elderly. She has been organising some social events for elders who have no families in the camp.

“I enjoy working to provide services for the vulnerable people in the camp, even if I do not get any payment. I particularly work for the elderly as they are among the most vulnerable. Some of these people were born in Palestine, and some lived through two wars in 1948 and 1967. They were forced to leave their homeland, and they came here for safety. I can see that they are suffering. I want to help them. I want to show that they are not alone. What’s more, the elders can still smell our homeland; they can still smell Palestine.”

READ: The international narrative about Gaza, the illegal blockade and Covid-19 

This sense of identity is very important, because Palestinians who have no Jordanian identity documents are basically excluded from society beyond the camp. Such documentation would, Jondiaa believes, solve a lot of problems that the refugees face. Despite the many barriers and obstacles that she faces as a Palestinian refugee, though, she is optimistic. Furthermore, she hopes that she will go back to her homeland to live in peace one day.

Jerash refugee camp in Jordan_4

Jerash refugee camp in Jordan, 29 December 2020

As a first step, perhaps the government in Amman should reconsider its policy for refugees originating in the Gaza Strip, many of whom, like Jondiaa Al-Dheini, could make a valuable contribution to wider society, and not just to the refugee community in which they live. She truly is inspirational, so the Jordanians should give some thought to the words of the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

As you fix your breakfast, think of others. Don’t forget to feed the pigeons.

As you fight in your wars, think of others. Don’t forget those who desperately demand peace.

As you pay your water bill, think of others who drink the rain.

As you return home, your home, think of others. Don’t forget those who live in tents.

As you sleep and count planets, think of others. There are people without any shelter to sleep.

As you express yourself using all metaphorical expressions, think of others who lost their rights to speak.

As you think of others who are distant, think of yourself and say ‘I wish I was a candle to fade away the darkness’.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.