Ramadan In The Camps

الأحد 07 تشرين الأول 2007

Written By: Naseem Tarawnah

The Action Committee is a part of the Family International organization, and focuses a great deal of its efforts on the kids by taking them out on outings or to lunch. Very much a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” attitude. The committee has only been around for about 3 months so visiting the camp and distributing these packages was a big step. All its founders and members are young 20-something volunteers who dedicate a lot of time and effort to putting big smiles on a lot of faces.

I had only been to the camp once before, many years ago, so this was my second visit. The collection process was a bit hurried, but online venues like Facebook helped spread the word quickly. The number of packages pretty much doubled in the past couple of days, so a big thanks goes to the all the donors that pitched into help. We went from one pickup truck to two. So once again, thank you.

The Baqa’a camp was an emergency camp set up in 1968 after the second wave of Palestinian refugees came to Jordan. Nearly 40 years later, it is now home to well over 100,000 people, the majority of which are registered as refugees. The birth rate is very high and so is unemployment. Many of the residents travel to Amman to find work. You actually don’t need statistics to believe any of this as a simple 4 hour visit will do.

To clear one thing up, most people who are not aware of these realities will tend to picture a camp consisting of tents. Although all refugee camps start out that way, the longer they last, the more they begin to turn into a village. All the homes are made of stone like ordinary village homes of Jordan, but the one difference is, none of them have roofs. The camp is still technically land belonging to the Jordanian government so by not having a roof, you are not claiming it as your own. Hence, pretty much all the homes are covered with what we locally call “zinco” sheets. Some of the more unfortunate homes are made entirely out of these sheets as well as lumber.

Stopping the pickup truck at any given point throughout the camp will involve crowds of people gathering around to try and get a food bag within seconds. Literally, seconds. In other words, by the time we opened the truck door, a small crowd was already approaching.

The problem is that these bags were going to specific families that were on a list. Um Rami, a community teacher, was our guide for the day. She, along with her daughters, know the camp inside out and also knows who the most needy families are. It’s kind of hard even say “the most needy families” out loud. Every woman and child that surrounded us and the truck, were pleading for us to give them a bag or a toy. Every woman would say she’s a widow and every child would say he or she was an orphan, before giggling with their friends. There is a culture of donations and dependency on donations in Jordan’s largest camp and both the kids and women know that the more sympathetic they come off as, the more likely people are to give them something.

The kids will make up the most absurd stories about their mother dying and father being mentally retarded. That sort of thing. The problem is, you really don’t know if the story is true or not because in the Baqa’a camp these are very common true stories. And truth be told, there are even worse stories than that. This takes me back to “the most needy families”, because by comparison to my own environment, everyone here is easily labeled as needy. Every now and then we had a guy pass by and tell us something like “none of the people on this street are needy, they’re all wealthy bastards. Go down the block, there’s a blind lady with 7 kids and a husband with no arm”. That sort of thing.

The men generally did not approach us. There is a mechanism of pride here that keeps them at bay. As I passed two men who watched us deliver food to a house at the end of a street, I said “Salam wa aleikom”, to which I received a reply that is to foul for publication. If I put myself in their shoes I would feel the massive unemployment, the helplessness, and I would see well-to-do Ammanis coming into the camp to pity the locals and give them enough food to last a week, just to feel good about themselves. While that may not be true, I can empathize with the misconception.

The kids on the other hand are relentless. Many would hold on to the pickup truck and refuse to let go when we started moving. 90% of the time a group of 7 kids would chase us as the truck attempted to speed off. One of these kids, who was no way over the age of 9, had amazing determination and literally, I kid you not, chased after us throughout the entire camp. When we first met him, he asked my friend how he could get a bag. “These bags are only for people whose names are on the list,” my friend said. So the kid leaned in and practically whispered in his ear, “you watch how I’m going to get one”.

He did.

The homes we visited were in terrible shape and inside the familiar stories were even worse. You have everything from orphans, to the mentally retarded, to the widows, to the father with no arm, to the father with the heart problems, and the stories keep going and going. At the door of every home, Um Rami would tell us these stories as a way to mentally prepare us. She herself, was insulted on more than one occasion from women who she refused to give a bag to. The plan was to go by a list of names, and as a way of dealing with the crowds of people, Um Rami would take down more names, with promises to come back. But to the camp dwellers, this measure was well known, and they also knew if they didn’t get a bag now they wouldn’t ever again (from us). At one point Um Rami, who described herself as a girl-of-the-camp, yelled at them that their misbehavior would make us never want to return. But to this, most people shrugged and said ‘who cares’. Again, there is a culture of donation here and the residents know they may never see us again, but others will come. This is especially true during Ramadan.

Another thing to note is that while these people are very conservative, with every single woman covered up in hijab, the general society is not very religious. Most appear to be not fasting; either smoking or drinking. And many of the men would make low-life comments about the females in our group. The Baqa’a camp, locally called Bag3a, is known for it’s misbehavior. Most people even use the name “Bag3a” or “Bag3awi” (someone from Bag3a) as an insult for anyone acting badly. Um Rami at one point, in reference to the misbehaving kids who yelled out obscenities at us and hurled themselves on the food bags, told me “Don’t think for a second they do this out of need or hunger. They act like this because they’re raised poorly.” In the Bag3a camp, the streets and community do most of the raising.

Every home we visited had people who couldn’t wait to tell us their story. Their complaints were along the lines of thinking that we were some higher authority with the ability to change their lives dramatically. Alas, none of us possessed such powers. But we kindly heard their stories, and asked if we could take pictures as a way of documenting their lives, to which most would kindly oblige, if not encourage.

Many complained to us about the likes of us. Being the largest camp in Jordan, the Action Committee is a drop in an ocean of visiting donors who look just like us. Every week there’s a new visitor, if not every day. It’s the same old story, with the same old people. And nothing changes. The roof still leaks, it’s still too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. There’s still little food. Little work. Nothing changes. The heavy bag of food we bring might last a week in families this large and this poor.

On the other hand, there are homes where you might find 3 young men, none of which work, and none of which is interested in finding work. One of these young men even complained that there were “too many hijabis” in the workplace, alluding to his desire not to work with women. On the other hand still, one mother of 6 doesn’t work anymore because she was almost raped in the workplace.

The camp itself is a mix of people and this is one of the reasons I continue to have mixed feelings about the camp itself. Everyone is needy, but some are in need more than others. Some are more greedy than others. Some have no family members to act as breadwinners, while others bum around waiting for handouts. Some despise donors and volunteers; others embrace them. These mixed feelings were shared by many of those in the committee whom I joined and had more experience in visiting the camp than I had.

Experiencing the Baqa’a camp will render you instantly humble if not grateful for what you have; especially in Ramadan. It also gets you thinking that these people need help and while delivering food from local and international NGOs, committees, schools, etc, is a step, it’s not the solution to the bigger problems. How do you cure a culture such as this? Where chaos breeds chaos, and poverty bears poverty? A lot of money is poured into the camp from various parties but none of it seems to reach the right people. According to Um Rami, much of the funding from either UNRWA or the Jordanian government, tends to go to administrators, and that never seems to benefit anyone.

The macro problems are puzzling, and its been 40 years already with some of the most relevant people failing to think of a practical solution. And while I would never claim to speak for anyone else, on my part I’ll say that I’m not done yet.

Check out more photos in this Ikbis album.
All photos used in this article are courtesy of Naseem Tarawnah and Sara Al-Sharif.
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