Volunteering at Refugee Camps in Jordan

Author: Katherine Latham

Date: September, 2016

Last spring, I found myself facing several hurdles, and trying to get established with volunteer projects in Amman Jordan, having been turned away at the Allenby Bridge crossing into the West Bank by the Israeli authorities.  While it was a big disappointment to have my passport stamped “denied entry” plus a big red line drawn across the page designating very clearly that there was absolutely no welcome mat for me, I gradually got my bearings, found my way, and even found myself smiling time and again when I was greeted by the national mantra, “Welcome to Jordan.”

My journey last year had been backed by a solid invitation to do health care rehabilitation and trainings in Palestine. I felt much more prepared for my role in this work, than I had 25 years earlier, during the first Intifada, when I first volunteered in a Palestinian village health clinic.  Over the years, my clinical skills had improved, as had my appreciation for the struggles, the ever increasing squeezing of the Palestinian people, and how the military occupation severely affected the health status of the people.

jordans-finest

I had returned to Palestine several times, for brief periods, to do informal work. Now, disappointed to be cut off from the many friends in Palestine, there I was in the big, impersonal city of Amman, scrambling in my search for some alternative projects that would be a good match for my skills. 

Through the miracle of the Internet, introductions from far and wide quickly came in.  Soon I was lined up with 3 different projects, in Amman, Salt, and Gaza Camp.  I never felt completely the foreigner; I’d come in solidarity and I experienced a strong welcome.  Work was arranged, and I had some structure to my days.  But it was the kindness of a refugee family that helped to give me the feeling of being at home for those few months.  This family became the face of Jordan for me.

Each time I visited in Husn Camp, I found a very welcome break from the noise and anonymity of Amman. 

I felt at home in Husn camp. The traditions of the families I met there mirrored the life I had known in the West Bank villages where I’d stayed countless times.

Husn Camp is one of six “emergency” refugee camps established in Jordan in 1968 for 12,500 Palestine refugees and displaced people who left the West bank and Gaza Strip as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.  Now home to more than 20,000 registered Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA figures, the camp also shelters some Syrian refugees that have been welcomed in.

I felt at home in Husn camp. The traditions of the families I met there mirrored the life I had known in the West Bank villages where I’d stayed countless times. I found a social, welcoming scene, family time, and opportunities for lots of visiting!

One memorable meal had 14 of us, of every generation, seated on the floor around the big tray of mansaf, Jordan’s national dish.  While the head of the household slowly poured the gravy on top, I felt grateful and so honored to be included in this family meal.  We acknowledged the cook, herself a refugee from Haifa by way of Gaza, as the yoghurt gravy slowly absorbed.  The bread was shared and the meal began. 

I always had a good time in the camp! I piled into the cars like everyone else, slept sprawled out like a cat in the heat of the day, and came back to life in the evenings after the air had cooled a little.  One felt the burden of the heat, and lost all ambition several hours every day, while waiting for some relief. 

We greeted everyone we passed on the narrow streets.  It was crowded but quiet.  I poked my head out the door to see the children playing in the streets. I saw a fair bit of the camp from the car when we came and went, making the rounds to visit. Narrow streets, very close quarters, next to no green areas/gardens, houses that had grown bit by bit as families grew.  Everything appeared orderly, extremely modest and cramped.

At the house, floors were swept and washed at least 3 times a day, plus children and countless household chores attended to. For entertainment, the young women stayed very busy taking selfies while trying out different poses and fashions. The young children were remarkably quiet, until there was a problem, and then they cried out loudly. Lots of beautiful children!

When I think of Jordan, it is my friends in Husn Camp that come to mind. We shared meals and laughs and love for the children. In their company, my long dormant Arabic language skills slowly revived.  This family really was my anchor and helped me interpret the life that I saw around me.  They shared a much appreciated, warm and genuine “welcome”. 

Katherine resides in Northern California, and has worked in the rehabilitation field for 30 years. She has been involved in Palestine solidarity work with different groups for over 25 years.

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