Palestinian Refugees in Jordan


On our first day in Jordan, we also met Mona, the director of the Jordanian Center for Civic Education Studies. Mona has been doing groundbreaking work in Jordan, having been the first in the region to translate Project Citizen text into Arabic. In addition to being present in more than 100 public schools, Project Citizen is starting to be adopted in the universities. Mona also explained some of the projects that local students have taken on: recycling, traffic congestion, heavy backpacks—in other words problems that young people all over the world face. Mona noted, “The issues are the same from culture to culture.”

Most interesting, perhaps, we had chance to speak with Mona about her life and her personal insights into Jordan. Discussion quickly turned to the Palestinian issue, as it is the dominant issue in this country and pervades many aspects of life here. Mona’s father was born in Palestine. An owner of significant parcels of land, he left his home in 1948, under threat of slaughter if they did not leave. At that time, most left with the understanding that it was a temporary evacuation and that they would soon be able to return to their homes.

Mona’s father, like tens of thousands of Palestinians, was never able to return. Many of them still hold the keys to their homes, which may no longer be standing or may now be home to Israelis. Mona explained that Israel to this day still has records of her father’s ownership of land.

Mona talked about the issues of citizenship, which admittedly are perplexing—at least for this outsider. Mona has citizenship. Her children do not, even though they were born in Jordan. I believe this is because their father is not Jordanian, but Algerian, and Jordanian citizenship is linked to the father and not the mother. Some Palestinians living in Jordan (the numbers seem to vary widely depending on who you ask and how people choose to identify themselves) are Jordanian citizens. Many—and I gather most of these are refugees who were forced to flee in the 1967 Six-Day War—are not granted citizenship. Part of the reason the neighborhoods of Amman that are home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians continue to be called “camps” and their inhabitants “refugees” is because to do otherwise would be to accept a reality that no one on this side of the Jordan River wants to accept. Refugee camps signal to the outside world that there is indeed a Palestinian plight or crisis that needs to be addressed.

Jordan has probably done more than any other country to accommodate displaced Palestinians. And their infrastructure and school system has felt the burden. There is a sense that other Arab states, which will refer to the Palestinian issue as a significant hurdle to regional peace when convenient, should do more to help support the Palestinians.

Meanwhile the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) picks up much of the slack, providing some food, schools, and health clinics for the refugees.

And while Jordanians seem to express solidarity with the Palestinians, we’ve also heard that the refugees here are more “pampered” than they are in Syria and Lebanon. We heard that some of the UNRWA schools are actually better than the Jordanian public schools. When I asked Mona whether there was any resentment toward the refugees, particularly from low-income Jordanians, she quickly responded that there wasn’t.

Many Palestinians, less likely to be considered refugees, are fully integrated into Jordanian society and for them, the return to their homeland is less urgent or is more a matter of principle than practicality. Our driver Fayez, whom I’ll speak of later, was born in Jerusalem. His family seemingly left sometime in the early 1950s (our conversation, mostly in English and occasionally in Spanish, was somewhat strained by the language barriers). He explained that he has little desire or intention to live in Jerusalem again—“I have my business here,” he notes.

For the many Palestinian refugees in Jordan (estimates start at 1.5 million and go up from there), they live in something of a no-man’s land. They aren’t Jordanian citizens. They cannot travel. They cannot vote. They cannot visit family members who have remained in the West Bank or Gaza.

On our agenda is a visit to an UNRWA school and further discussions about the seemingly intractable issue of Palestinian refugees and the prospects for lasting peace with Israel. Of course, because our itinerary is limited to Jordan, we’ll only be hearing one side of the story.