GERMANY — When patriotism and self-identification as a refugee become obstacles to a new way of life, would it be time to make the important step from refugee to immigrant?
Visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. The camp has existed since 1951 and is not what you imagine from a refugee camp: There are no tents or provisory food supply. Instead, there are asphalted streets, shops, food takeaways, ATM’s, two schools, cemented houses – a normal part of the city you might think.
However, this impression should not deceive: one cannot but notice the endemic poverty. The streets are maybe two meters wide and dirty; the houses are built wall-to-wall, and there is an absolute lack of privacy. The people here live together in small rooms. On average, four to six people share one sleeping room. The condition and quality of sanitary facilities are devastating. Children play on the streets in dirty clothing. Real, compulsory school attendance doesn’t exist. The water pipes of the camp only function once a week, Wednesdays, and then only for a few hours.
Accordingly, it is no miracle that the hygienic conditions are not the best. You cannot buy newspapers in the camp, which complicates access to information and news and furthers the camp’s isolation from the outside world. Frustration and resignation are a part of daily life here. The camp is officially sponsored by the UN. However, every trace of humanitarian aid is lacking. The inhabitants here do feel forsaken, forsaken by the Jordanian government as well as by the international community.
The question arises to how can it be that people now of the fourth generation, who live and were born in Jordan, and are the owners of Jordanian passports, still live in refugee camps and are not integrated into the Jordanian society? There is no cultural or language barrier. Jordan is an Arab country; 83 percent of the inhabitants are Muslims.
It is an inner barrier that exists. The inhabitants identify themselves as Palestinians; strangers in this country. This national confidence and its constant expression turn them into a foreign body of society and makes them also perceived that way by others. Politics are everywhere. It comes at you from all sides, out of all corners. It seems here in Jordan, the neighbor country of Israel, you can literally breathe in Middle Eastern politics.
However, the situation in the Middle East has roots in a complexity so deep in history and political entanglement that a solution seems to lay far away. Still, the exiled Palestinians hope to return to a homeland in which they were not born, which they have never seen, and which they only know from stories of their parents or grandparents.
Considering the poor living conditions in which they live, this hope of a Palestinian utopia is comprehensible, but in the wrong place: This hope steals from refugees – who actually should have been immigrants a long time ago – the sense of reality, their reality. The life of a refugee who actually doesn’t have to be one. It would be important to gain a foothold in a new country, to leave the refugee camp and all connected social conditions, and to integrate into Jordanian society. This doesn’t mean that they should ever forget or abandon their roots or family history.
While walking through the camp we meet Mohammed, a friendly man dressed in a jeans jacket. He was busy cleaning the streets but interrupted his work to talk to us. Initially, Mohammed introduced himself with the phrase: “My name is refugee.” Only later in the conversation, did he tell us his real name. He invites us to his house, to meet his family.
Inside was five-year-old Shirin, paralyzed and seemingly in a waking coma. Nobody seems to care for her or her two younger brothers, nor support her parents. The five-person family lives together in the smallest space. The bedroom, which is shared by the whole family, is cold, has no beds, and is only supplied with thin mattresses on the floor. One small room serves as the kitchen; the only sink is outside at the wall. There is no real bathroom; a little wooden warehouse behind the two rooms has to be sufficient.
Mohammed, the father, works part-time for the community center. He cleans the streets in the refugee camp, as we saw when we met him earlier. He – as well as his wife – dream of a better future in their own Palestinian state.
“I would do everything to return. I came with nothing, and I will go back with nothing if the chance is given,” he says with empty eyes. “My dream is to return. Even if they give me one million dollars in one hand and a little bit of soil of Palestine into the other hand, I would always choose the latter one.”
The consequences that this patriotic and wishful thinking has on their current life, their future, and their children’s future, does not seem clear to them. Both parents are treating their children affectionately, but one can notice that they are completely overwhelmed with the present situation.
“We care for ourselves,” says Mohammed.
But who will care for Shirin, when she grows up and when her parents are not able to take care of her anymore? Will their children ever get to know a life outside of the refugee camp?
To the question of what the future for their children – especially Shirin – looks like, we always get the same answer: “Everything lies in Allah’s hands.”
However, after our conversation, after saying goodbye, Mohammed shouts with a sarcastic but joking undertone, “Obama, Obama.”