Despite poor living conditions, Palestinian refugees have some hope, through education, for a better life

Story by Emily Rudisill // Photos by Katie Kriz

JABAL, Jordan – At Mohammed Amin refugee camp in Amman’s Jabal Natheef neighborhood, joyful shrieks come from all directions. Abdullah Hiasat, 8, with a gap-toothed grin and a sandy blonde bowl cut, dribbles a deflated soccer ball past several of his friends. He slices through one after the other, kicking up dust from the shoddily paved road.

Poor living conditions plague the Palestinian refugee camp in Amman.

The game provides a small respite in the grim surroundings of a refugee camp. And it’s all by design. Soccer and other sports like karate and table tennis are used as tools by Ruwwad, a private-sector non-governmental organization, or NGO, located just outside of the camp on the East side of the city, to help Mohammed Amin’s children cope with the hardships of living in an impoverished refugee community.

Mohammad Amin is home to 54,000 Palestinian refugees who came to Amman after the declaration of Israel in 1948. Typical of camps in the region, this place is far from a refuge. It is overcrowded, plagued by drugs, violence, unemployment, childhood delinquency, high unemployment rates, and single-mother families. The high birth rates only compound the problem. The streets are lined with crumbling houses and littered with garbage.

“There are only 52 trashcans for the whole camp. The municipality didn’t help so volunteers from Ruwwad clean the streets,” explained Rahaf Abo Doha, 21, an intern at Ruwwad since 2009 who participates in many of its programs.

According to the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon share the outpour of about 5 million Palestinian refugees who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.  Jordan alone is responsible for almost half of these refugees. The region is home to 58 registered camps currently receiving aid from their governments and other NGOs.

Only 10 of the 14 refugee camps in Amman are registered with the government and in turn receive financial support. But because registering Mohammed Amin meant displacing its population to Wihdat refugee camp — Jordan’s second largest, located in the south east part of Amman— residents refused to go and so forfeited any chance for government support. They were on their own until Ruwwad’s inception in 2005.

The NGO wasn’t immediately well received. “At the beginning of Ruwwad, many people were resistant and called it a Zionist organization,” said Yousef  Hiasat, a 21-year-old recipient of Ruwwad’s college scholarship and older brother to Abdullah. “They were afraid it would break tradition.”

With financial backing from ARAMEX, an Arab-based transportation and logistics company headquartered in Amman, Ruwwad established a multi-building community center in the camp to provide basic needs and a safe place. “The community didn’t have the basics like a post office, health center or police office,” said Abo Doha.

Ruwwad focuses mostly on the educational and emotional health of the camp’s residents through three different core programs focusing on youth and the community.

Sports therapy is one way the Ruwwad school helps children learn social skills and teamwork.

The Mousab Khorma Youth Education Scholarship is a key part of Ruwwad’s youth empowerment program to help students pay for college.  Scholarship candidates must show initiative in their community, get good grades and be willing to devote four hours of volunteer service to Ruwwad each week.

So far, 500 students have received the scholarship and this term, 142 students are accepting aid, according to Abo Doha. “Here the education program is competitive. Last year more than 300 applied,” she said. Abo Doha is a recipient of the scholarship and studies English language and literature at the University of Jordan.

In addition to the scholarship, Ruwwad provides academic help to primary and secondary school students who may be struggling in Amman’s school system. The Jabal Natheef neighborhood is home to 6 of the 17 schools that collaborate with Ruwwad. “The whole education system in Jordan is suffering,” said Abo Doha. “There are huge numbers in classes and not enough qualified teachers.”

On any given day, about 150 children and youth get academic help in one of Ruwwad’s after-school programs, reading in the center’s library or being tutored for Jordan’s college entrance exam. During a tour of the facilities, Abo Doha showcased the center’s Shams Al Jabal library full of donated children’s and young adult books for free reading and story-time sessions. In the library, children sit at two long tables, reading and chattering about their books as Abeer Abu Rumman, the library’s coordinator, looks on. A little girl who had just come from a theater performance dances around the room in a tu-tu until her mom comes to take her home.

Overall, Ruwwad caters to 1,000 children and youth.

“Kids scored lower [on tests] before coming here. We do a quarterly evaluation and when they took lessons here their results were higher,” said Noura Awwad, Ruwwad’s child development program officer.

In Jordan, Palestinian refugees are awarded full citizenship rights and access to a temporary Jordanian passport. But refugee status can cause many psycho-social implications for parents and their children who are trying to keep tradition and find an identity among the Jordanian citizens.

“There are many abused children in this community. We have problems with relationships between parents and children,” said Awwad. “Our indicators are focused on the behavior and expressing feelings.”

Awwad manages therapy programs focused on art, theater, literature and six different sports for youth in three different age categories.  In addition to programs for children and youth, the NGO offers technology and literacy training programs for adults. As part of the community empowerment program, and to help combat high unemployment rates in the camp, Ruwwad established the help desk where adults can come to find career and job advice.

Ruwwad’s programs and community center provide aid to refugees aged 3 to adult with the goal of bettering the entire community. Today, Hiasat’s whole family, for example,  uses Ruwwad’s community center in some way.  His older brother, Hamzeh, 25, received a college scholarship to study hospitality management and now owns a store in downtown Amman. The boys’ mother attended Ruwwad’s adult IT classes to improve her computer literacy.

“Before Ruwwad, kids only had the street,” said Yousef Hiasat, standing outside his home in Mohammed Amin as his brother Abdullah whizzes by with the soccer ball at his feet. “Now they have the securities of Ruwwad and use time more wisely. Parents became more aware of the needs of their kids.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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