It’s almost 10:00 AM as we arrive at Mujamma Shamal in north Amman. As we walk our way towards the station, screams of bus drivers reach us: “Jerash, Jerash!”. It seems drivers recognize us already well enough. Ahead of us is an hour-ish drive, another day of activities planned in our EVS schedule. Bustling Amman left behind, we drive though a picturesque, quite idyllic landscape of green hills, here and there scattered with little settlements. In a short while, road signs direct us to Jerash, gradually introducing its particular districts: “Jerash entrance” , “South Jerash”… 35 minutes later we’re in the centre of the city, which is not yet the end of our trip. The bus pulls up for a while next to the key tourist attraction – “Archaeological site of Jerash”, a stop for most foreigners every now and then travelling on our bus. We nod our heads to the driver: today as well we do not get off here.
We move on and turn left at the first traffic lights. Already here, new road signs appear, directing us to what is our daily destination. The bus climbs up winding roads, distancing us from the city of Jerash. Around 10 minutes later, we enter a paved road lined up with characteristic grey coloured blocks of houses. The horizon fills up with car repair shops, gradually grocery stores, a bakery, butcher shop and hens peeking out of cages stuffed in a neighbouring stall. We seem to be entering a small town, reminiscent of a city yet so much different from neighbouring urban Jerash. “Hatha Mukhayyam Ghazza” [this is Gaza camp] the bus driver informs us. Dust rises up from the dirt road that leads us to the over 45 years old camp.
Mukhayyam Ghazza [Gaza camp], officially called Jerash camp, was established in 1968, a year after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It was planned to be an “emergency” shelter for 11,500 up to as many as 14,000 (according to Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – SDC) refugees fleeing the Gaza Strip. In 2002 the camp’s population was estimated at around 15,000, that is: 2,800 families living in 2,100 houses. Today, it is thought to host “more than 24,000 registered refugees” (as stated by UNRWA), or more precisely 28,000 people, the latter seeming to be the most popular estimation. But some even say that 50,000 refugees live here. As one compendium says (Voices from the Camps: A People’s History of Palestinian Refugees in Jordan), it was originally established around 7 km from the city of Jerash on an area of 531,4 dunums (131,3 acres). Today it is said to occupy an area of around 750,000 square metres (UNRWA estimation) up to 1 square kilometre. But in fact it is hard to define its boundaries. It is also difficult to imagine that from the original 1,500 tents that stood here in 1968, it soon evolved into 2000 “prefabricated shelters” built with emergency donations (1968-1971) which in turn over following decades refugees themselves developed into more solid structures. All these houses, once constructed as temporary shelters for Gaza refugees, today are their permanent home.
It’s 11:00 AM as our bus arrives at what seems to be the bus terminal: a busy crossroads, dominated by a tall creamy colour mosque and quite worn-out gas station. Standing here is a board sign informing about the “Jerash camp project” – new underground sewage network, Swiss-funded project launched in mid 2013 which is to replace the open channel sewage system the camp has had for the past 45 years. We turn right and head to the Community Development Office. The office, opened in 2007, is only part of a series of recent camp developments, including, as UNRWA states: ”1 community-based rehabilitation centre, 4 schools in two double-shift buildings, 1 health centre, 1 women’s programme centre, 1 food distribution centre”. We find ourselves on a relatively well-looking, straight road, lined up with grocery shops and smaller service points. But as we climb up the delicately sloped path, now busy with children heading to their second shift at school (it’s almost noon), through the line of shops show hidden alleyways leading to the depths of the camp.
And this is where a maze of dirt alleys begins. From a pedestrian’s perspective, it seems that the camp spreads out on what once used to be an orthogonal network of little streets. We step into a paysage of low brick houses covered with sheet metal roofs, at first glance all seeming to melt into a solid beige structure. As we walk along, we find ourselves entering a dense network of houses and realize that each has its own number – 1984 1985, 1986…. Below our feet, a labyrinth of sewage canals, some concrete and some naturally carved out in the paths’ surface. From behind one of the brick walls emerges a colourful balcony with clothes drying. A mix of sounds reaches us: sounds of cooking, something being repaired, a baby’s cry. Our nostrils experience a blend of scents: recently made coffee and fresh vegetables accompanied by the unpleasant smell of sewage beneath our feet.
From a shaded path we step into an alley over flooded with sunlight. A group of children crosses our path, running around with carton boxes and plastic bags, whatever at hand suitable to play with. This is in fact their playground. It seems every alley here lives its own life. The silent dusty labyrinth gradually leads us to a wider path where shops loom out: stationery, drugstore, second hand shop… It’s possible to sense a hustle and bustle somewhere close. The next minute, a small vegetable souq emerges out of the centre of the quarter. We find ourselves in the commercial “heart” of the camp. And we discover that only seemingly is this a homogenous quarter as it appears to be from the outside.
Crossing the road where the bus “terminal” is situated brings us to the second “wing” of the camp. This sector seems to live at its own, somewhat more tranquil tempo. A few alleys later, we once again stand inside a scheme of similarly looking house blocks. The landscape is broken up with mosque minarets rising here and there. And ahead, another seemingly endless path, leading through to the farthest edges of the camp.
Every visit brings another piece into the puzzle-like image of the camp. It seems there is no single picture that can capture the diversity of life that can be seen here. And of the camp’s yet-undiscovered area, so familiar to its inhabitants.
The history of the Gaza camp and memories of those living in the camp are now being registered and will be published within the documentary campaign – “Remember Us” project, some of them are already online (link: http://vimeo.com/tag:jerash).
By Gosia & Kata