Fifty Years of Refuge in the Gaza Camp

This article is part of the Maintaining Refuge series. 

For Palestinian refugees in Jordan, ordinary life can be an extraordinary accomplishment.

The Gaza Camp (mukhayyam Gaza) is home to approximately 30,000 Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1967 War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Located just a few kilometers southwest of the ancient ruins of Jarash in northern Jordan, its residents are almost exclusively Palestinians displaced from the Gaza Strip in 1967 and their descendants. Known locally as “Gazans,” their name is a misnomer. Most Palestinians in the camp are not originally from Gaza. Displaced from areas in southern Palestine in 1948, they fled to Gaza hoping to return after the war. Instead, after two decades of exile in the Gaza Strip, they were displaced again—this time to Jordan.

The Gaza Camp seen from the surrounding hills. Known officially as the “Jarash Camp,” it was established in 1968 to shelter Palestinians displaced from the Gaza Strip. Elena Boffetta

Today the Gaza Camp is one of 58 United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) camps in the Middle East and one of thirteen camps in Jordan. A small fraction of the 2.1 million Palestinian refugees living in the Kingdom, the Gazans are a unique case. Unlike other Palestinians displaced in 1948 and 1967, they lack Jordanian citizenship and are therefore stateless. Statelessness for these refugees has meant a variety of exclusions in Jordan that render life difficult and precarious. Palestinians from Gaza cannot vote, work for the government, access national healthcare, or own property. They are also unable to attend national schools or pay domestic tuition rates. Given these limits, it’s no surprise that Palestinians in the Gaza Camp are the poorest in the country with high levels of unemployment and a majority living without health care. Yet despite the hardships of life, Palestinians in the Gaza Camp endure. Every day, they confront the harsh realities of statelessness and strive to make an ordinary life from extraordinary circumstances.

This photo essay engages the lived experiences of stateless Palestinian refugees in the context of long-term displacement. A collaborative effort between an anthropologist and a photojournalist, it offers a visual ethnographic account of the daily efforts that make the Gaza Camp a site of community and refuge. Palestinian refugees repair their own homes and sell produce at the local market. At their businesses, they fix shoes, brew coffee, and prepare popcorn for children. Excluded from the national soccer league, Palestinians also manage their own team offering youth a source of competitive sport and entertainment. The images may appear mundane, uneventful. They capture familiar activities common to the world of labor and leisure under capitalism. Understood from the perspective of 50 years of statelessness, however, the scenes in our essay offer a particular view of the everyday. They reveal the resilience of a people working against their marginalization to stabilize life against the destitution of statelessness. And in so doing, they show how Palestinians constitute the camp as a durable space of indeterminate refuge.

Framed by the theme of the everyday, our essay shows some of the texture of daily life in the Gaza Camp and demonstrates how ordinary practices can be critical sites of agency and purpose. Everyday life is thus much more than the simple reproduction of the mundane. It is, rather, the site for a specific labor of being (Stewart 2016) through which Palestinians contest their dispossession from the world of citizens and rights. Through the routine practices of everyday life, Palestinians engage in the struggle to create viability, or as Povinelli says, to endure as they strive to persevere (Povinelli 2011). Endurance, striving, and perseverance; these are the unseen dimensions of daily life in the Gaza Camp we seek to elucidate in this essay.

Michael Vicente Pérez is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis.

Elena Boffetta is a freelance video journalist and photographer based in Amman, Jordan.

All photographs were taken by Elena Boffetta.

This research project was generously funded by the American Center of Oriental Research-Council of American Overseas Research Council Senior Research Fellowship.

The Committee on Refugees & Immigrants (CORI) focuses on the global problems of forced dislocation, the provision of asylum and resettlement to refugees, and the adjustment of immigrants. The first series of Maintain Refuge articles from CORI is available on AnthroSource.

Cite as:  Pérez, Michael Vicente, and Elena Boffetta. 2018. “Fifty Years of Refuge in the Gaza Camp.” Anthropology News website, August 30, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.954

Man on wooden platform coats a brick wall in cement.
Palestinians in the Gaza Camp work to rebuild their homes and improve living conditions. Elena Boffetta
Fruit and vegetable stalls in a shaded market with sunlight beaming through the awnings covering the stalls.
The camp central market runs daily providing local Palestinians an opportunity to buy, sell, and congregate. Elena Boffetta
Man sits with a black boot that he's mending in his lap.
A cobbler works on a customer’s boot. Every day he sits here working rhythmically and consistently with rare pause. Elena Boffetta
Woman in a light-colored scarf sits in front of a wall filled with canned and packaged goods.
Small convenience stores are abundant in the camp. This old woman or “hajja” runs her own shop on the northern side of the camp. Nearly blind, she is one of the camp elders originally displaced in 1948. Elena Boffetta
The profile silhouette of a man shows him making coffee in a small shop.
One of several shops providing fresh coffee, herbs, and spices. Elena Boffetta
Young boy in a blue tracksuit stands behind a metal fence with a wooden walking stick in hand.
A young Palestinian at the camp youth club watches as the older kids play soccer. Elena Boffetta
Man stands behind a large coffee pot in a small, red-walled shop.
Brewed day and night, coffee is central to life in the Gaza Camp. Elena Boffetta
Light from the popcorn cart illuminates the dark passage way, showing children and the popcorn maker.
Few shops remain open in the evening. This man, however, attracts children with a fresh popcorn maker. Elena Boffetta

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