By Alex Ray
“The Kebabs are ready dad!” Faris yells over his shoulder. His father, busy preparing the bread and tomatoes cannot hear him, so he calls again. “Dad, they are ready!”
Taking matters into his own hands, Faris locates a near-full jerry can of water and drags it across the grassy picnic ground to douse the coals on the barbecue. Faris is only four years old and the jerry can is only slightly shorter than he is. But like most of Jordan’s refugee children he is fast learning to be independent.
Faris’s home is the impoverished Gaza Camp near Jerash in Jordan’s Northwest. Its Palestinian residents are classified as refugees, even though most of its current generations were born here. Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and several smaller refugee communities constitute the majority of Jordan’s population.
Their intended transience is reflected in the messy sprawl of Jordan’s cities and towns. Why put much effort into footpaths, rubbish collection, housing, infrastructure or public transport when you have no intention of staying long?
Across Jordan, most children experience life practically, on the streets, with the cats and car horns, the dust and plastic bags hauntingly animated by the occasional breeze. Scenes inside school classrooms can be just as chaotic, with many schools running double-shifts to cope with the overflowing numbers. Around a quarter of all school enrollments are Syrian children.
With large families considered a sign of God’s blessing, the children’s energy often forces them into the streets to find a space to play. In both quiet rural streets and Amman’s plunging lanes, middle and lower class children fill the evenings with laughter and shrieks, but there is often a disquieting maturity and cynicism to their demeanour. They already know the world is not a kind place, that there are so many wrongs, and few ‘good guys’.
These children are the bearers of historical narrative, mythology, grievance and cherished identities. Their surroundings – whether Roman ruins, the suburbs bearing the names of camps they grew from, or buildings pockmarked with bullet holes from uprisings past – are physical reminders of the region’s tumultuous history.
Some may make it to university – a hugely proud moment for their families – only to become taxi drivers, shopkeepers, tailors, barbers and vegetable sellers. They can regale you with stories of the beauty of their homelands conjured from their imaginations. Young and old will almost always ask you how they can leave Jordan, to whatever “clean, calm, organised” Western country you come from.
Back at Gaza Camp, Faris and a busload of children have enjoyed a day full of bright smiles and childhood innocence, thanks to local volunteers helping to develop the children’s social skills. On our departure, a choir of girls under 10 gives us a well-practised rendition of ‘Small Girls of Palestine’. “I am a small Palestinian girl … with a pure heart and mind” the song begins.
Palestine’s famous lemon trees and bountiful land get a mention, but it is not long before the lyrics speak of families dispossessed of their homes and battling Israeli soldiers with rocks. This is the inherited identity in Gaza Camp – a stark example of Jordan’s accumulation of crisis communities.
The camp’s oldest residents arrived in Jordan from Gaza in 1967, where they had already been seeking asylum since 1948. This double-shift and Egypt’s loss of Gaza in 1967 resulted in a complicated and seemingly-permanent state of legal limbo for these Palestinians, who unlike most do not hold Jordanian nationality, nor any other form of official identity. This means they do not get Jordanian health care, education benefits and work permits.
Yet their ambition for a ‘normal’ respectable life persists. The first time I met the children of Gaza Camp , they were lined up in the late-summer sun at a volunteer-run community centre, ready to introduce themselves and their life aspirations. Engineer, Doctor, Teacher, Policeman they shouted. Faris, with hair that would make the Beatles envious, made everyone chuckle with his declared ambition to be a barber.
The question for Jordan, with its struggling economy and increasingly unstable tribal and religious mix is when will the denial of those innocent dreams turn to apathy, then sour into resentment and rage?
Mostly in private, elders of many Jordanian communities like Gaza Camp blame various parties for their predicament: Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians, Shi’a, Americans, Zionists, Saudis. The Hashemite Monarchy remains off limits for the most part, with an easily replaceable parliament providing a useful buffer for criticism.
Many of the older brothers and sisters of these children have lost that youthful innocence too soon and perhaps forever. Jordan is now the highest per-capita contributor to recruits for ISIS and Al-Qaeda, among other armed groups in Syria and Iraq. This is perhaps unsurprising given the breadth of factors – including economic stagnation, substandard religious and school curricula, conflicting identities and repressive family environments – contributing to radicalisation in Jordan. For its Palestinian residents, Jordan’s long-standing but increasingly obvious cooperation with Israel is so upsetting that many seem relieved that the subject is rarely discussed in public.
There has been a proliferation of little-reported intelligence raids on jihadist cells across Jordan in the past 12 months, with planning for several terrorist attacks disrupted. Universities are increasingly common locations for jihadist recruitment, rioting and out-of-control tribal clashes.
Jordan’s 95 per cent Sunni population appear to have overwhelmingly condemned ISIS’s immolation of Jordanian Air Force pilot Moaz al-Kasaesbeh in early 2015. Yet around 10 per cent of Jordanians do not consider ISIS a terror group, and many more consider its sibling rival – the Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra – Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to be revolutionaries fighting injustice.
Faris’ ambitions have already shifted from cutting hair – though thankfully only to becoming an airline pilot, not a mujahid. How Jordan stops extremism’s carefully crafted call to arms among such a vulnerable population may well determine how long Jordanians and their regional ‘guests’ will be able to say, ‘Jordan doesn’t have much but it is safe’.