Middle East

Jordan’s Palestinian refugees live in fear after U.S. cuts

Palestinian refugee pupils wait outside an UNRWA school in the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp, near Amman Sunday. AFP / AHMAD ABDO

BAQAA REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan: U.S. President Donald Trump’s cut to funds for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees has sparked fears in Jordan’s largest refugee camp, where tens of thousands depend on its aid for survival. “Our country is gone and now they’re coming after our livelihoods,” said Zeinab al-Ardaba, a resident of Jordan’s Baqaa camp.

She is one of the nearly 119,000 Palestinian refugees living in the sprawling camp just north of the capital Amman, where snaking narrow alleyways are strewn with rubbish and wastewater.

Her face lined with age and wrapped in a blue headscarf, the 78-year-old grandmother of five has lived in the camp since it was built after the 1967 Middle East war.

“How will Trump face God on judgment day?” she asked.

“Where should we go? They’re even coming after our livelihoods in our camps ... How are we supposed to pay for schools if we can’t even make ends meet?”

The United States, which until last year was by far the biggest contributor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said Friday it would no longer fund the “irredeemably flawed operation.”

Washington has backed Israel in accusing UNRWA of perpetuating the Middle East conflict by maintaining the idea that millions of Palestinians are refugees with a right to return to homes in what is now Israel.

For Palestinians, the right of return for the hundreds of thousands displaced in 1948 and 1967 – and their descendants – is central to their cause.

While most of the Baqaa’s residents were displaced in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, some are refugees twice over, having first lost their homes in the violence surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

“Only God knows the difficult conditions we face in this camp ... how we eat and live,” Zeinab said.

“It’s hard to find work and many people are unemployed and have no money ... live is difficult, very difficult,” she added.

‘We will remain’Palestinians and their supporters say UNRWA provides crucial services for the poor and that it must continue operating until a just solution is reached for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Created in 1949, the agency supplies aid to more than 3 million of the 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

Jordan hosts nearly 2.2 million Palestinian refugees, according to the UN, who make up nearly half of the kingdom’s total population.

Washington’s “unfair and irresponsible decision will have a huge effect on the lives of Palestinians,” said 80-year-old Hussein Abu Shanaan, who lives in the camp with his four children and nearly 20 grandchildren. “But whatever they do to us, we Palestinians will remain,” he added, his voice frail.

Set up as a temporary shelter with 5,000 tents after the 1967 war, Baqaa now looks more like a city, with 16 schools and two health centers.

“If the Americans don’t want to help us, they can return our country, land and property,” 70-year-old widow Najiya Faraj said.

“Our families once owned large houses, farms and animals – today, we’re begging for aid.”

Faraj and her 13 children live on just $150 a month.

“More than half a century after they displaced us from our homes, they’re coming for our lives and our livelihoods,” she said. “What do they want from us?”

Leaving a shop after buying bread for his family, 33-year-old father of two Hani al-Jebarat looked distressed. “God help these people.”

“They can barely find bread to feed their children ... what will happen to these children?” he asked, shaking his head as he walked away.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2018, on page 8.

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