Camp and not camp

One of the main distinguishing features of the camps as opposed to other modes of refugee settlement is that the camps make out readily identifiable localities. As one Palestinian puts it:

You don't need to live in a refugee camp to be a refugee. The most important thing is that you have a refugee card. The card proves that we are entitled to UNRWA services. It also proves that we were kicked out of our land. Who likes living in a camp, in one room with your parents, and your brothers and their families in other rooms, all sharing one kitchen and one toilet? No one enjoys such a life! Many would move if they had money to buy better houses. Still, the camps symbolise that our people do not own the land they live upon. They own another piece of land.

The camps are here portrayed as important symbols of the Palestinian plight. To some extent, refugee camps represent Palestinian cultural and national islands where social interaction with the native inhabitants in the host-society are much less frequent than outside the camps. Although Palestinian refugee camps have the same facilities as other living areas, to settle and live in a refugee camp symbolises a situation of emergency, a political situation of being in exile. Despite the fact that Palestinians residing outside camps have strong national aspirations and are frequently national activists, moving out of a camp symbolises assimilation into the host society. Likewise, leaving the camp also implies leaving the refugee community, and to some extent, the status and possibly, the identity as a refugee in the long run.

However, the speaker also paints a bleak picture of the conditions in the camps. The focus on overcrowding is by no means unique. The lack of space is acute, as the population in most camps has grown more or less uninterrupted. The geographical boundaries of the camps are fixed, so all space for new houses has generally been used. Similarly, the available space for enlarging houses is severely limited. UNRWA regulated the enlargement of houses in the camps, so that refugees needed permits in order to undertake enlargements of dwellings. However, UNRWA regulations were not followed in times of crisis, such as during the civil war in Lebanon and following the mass influx of Palestinian returnees to Jordan following the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait. People enlarged their houses vertically without permission. Nevertheless, the physical boundaries of the camp put limits to the building activities, and in many camps there is not enough land to build new houses.
A case study from Askar illustrates how one family has coped with the space constraints:

Maher's family came originally from the village of Yamasin near the port-town of Jaffa. In 1948 his family fled to the West Bank. Maher has lived in Askar with his parents, four of his brothers and one sister. When he married he settled in his father's house where his wife and he had their own room, but they shared the kitchen and the bathroom with the rest of the family. Maher's household was an extended family type of household, with multiple families residing in one house. They got three children in four years, thus increasing the number of household members. Maher and his wife grew dissatisfied with their housing conditions and started looking for a new dwelling.
Maher worked as a driver and housekeeper for a rich man in Nablus. This man gave Maher the 1,500 JD he needed to buy a house in the camp and establish his own separate household. The owner of the house had left the West Bank in 1967. UNRWA allowed Maher to move into the house and to build two rooms. After living in this house for 11 years, Maher and his wife decided to move out of the camp. Different factors made him move. He had by now seven children and the house was too small. He felt that his neighbourhood in the camp was too noisy. The houses were too close- he could hear the neighbour's radio and what they were arguing about. When his boss gave him 35,000 JD (56,000 USD), he had the means necessary to buy an apartment in 1987. He sold the house in the camp to his nephew for the same price he bought it for.
However, Maher and his family lived in the apartment for only three years before deciding to move back to the camp. He felt as a stranger in the apartment living outside the camp, he explains. His family did not know the people there, and did not feel familiar with the traditions of their new neighbours. His wife felt secluded in the new apartment and missed her old neighbourhood with her relatives and friends living close to her. The children spent most of their time at their grandparents in the camp. They wanted to be together with their friends from school. In the first years of the intifada, it was better to live in the camp, according to Maher. They knew people, and if any problems occurred in the street, everybody could enter any house in the camp.
When a big house of good standard was for sale in the camp, Maher decided to buy it paying 13,000 JD (20,800 USD). The house has three floors, and is too high according to UNRWA's regulations. As most houses in the camp, it was enlarged during the intifada. His wife was glad to move back to the camp, and is happy that the house is big enough to house the eldest son when he marries. Two of her brothers are close neighbours and her husband's family lives in the same quarter. However, they have kept the house outside the camp because they expect prices to rice in the future, besides, one of the children might move out of the camp.

The case illustrates some of the main decisions and considerations regarding residence choice. The developmental cycle of the domestic group emerges as important. The concept refers to cyclical changes in the size and composition of the family. Households are created when a couple marry, they are enlarged by the bearing of children and reduced in size through death. The cycle is completed through the creation of new households for each of the children (Fortes 1971). In the case of the Maher family the stages of the development cycle brings to the front the decisions concerning where to stay.

Among Palestinian peasants, a woman will move from her parents' household to that of her husband upon marriage. Then, the preference would be that the couple stay in the house of the husband's parents, but they could also set up a new house. The peasant house, the bet, had one room. When the sons married more rooms were added, each with separate doors. The house turned into a compound household, a dar. Maher's case shows that there was not enough space within the family's plot to accommodate all the children's households. The pressure on the common bath and kitchen became too high. Two possibilities emerged for solving the housing problem. The extended family could move together to a bigger dwelling, or they could split up into several separate household units. There were no large houses available in the camp at the time when Maher moved for the first time. Therefore, if the extended family should have kept together, they would have had to move out of the camp. As house prices in Nablus town were much higher than in the camp, they could not afford to buy a big house to accommodate the extended family. Maher, who had enough capital and had more freedom of choice than the other household members, moved therefore to a separate house inside the camp.

Socially, Maher shows an ambivalence concerning where to establish his own independent household as portrayed above: he moves out of the camp, but finds it difficult to adapt to the town neighbourhood. This illustrates how camps have become neighbourhoods and localities where people belong. They are places where people are born, grow up, go to school, marry and establish households. Contrary to what Marx (1971) concludes in his study of refugee camps in the West Bank in which he argues that camps have become regular neighbourhoods where both refugees and non-refugees live, we hold that refugee camps are special neighbourhoods. They are predominantly inhabited by Palestinians with a refugee status who have over the years developed a sense of belonging to the camp community. Of the 2,324 households in Askar, for instance, there were 40 families with a total of 192 persons, non-registered refugees. There were only 5 families consisting of 23 persons who were non-refugees (UNRWA - West Bank Field Office, July 1994). Similarly, for the whole of the West Bank, only three per cent of the households in the camps are non-refugees according to the FAFO-survey of economic adaptations to the border closure (Øvensen 1994). Similarly, the camps are not considered as regular neighbourhoods by native inhabitants living outside camps. Camps are socially defined as neighbourhoods where refugees live.

The camps are not, however, the only way of creating Palestinian communities. Palestinians are spread in different countries and reside in different localities inside countries. Some of these localities have definite geographic boundaries, others have not. An example of the latter is the creation of Palestinian "societies" in Jordan.

In Jordan, numerous societies were established during the 1970s. The societies are named after the original village which members and their parents came from. The "Hebron society", for instance, is open for anyone who can trace his or her descent to Hebron, no matter where they live in Jordan. The societies arrange cultural meetings for members, picnics and other activities for families. Weddings can be celebrated in the halls of the societies. Money is collected from the members to help poorer members, support the victims of the intifada, and erect kindergartens and schools for orphans.

The societies consist of a council with the different hamulas of the place of origin represented. If there are any problems between members of two hamulas in the society, the council has the right to mediate between the two groups. The legal importance of these meetings is illustrated by the fact that a policeman is present at the mediation where the two groups discuss the subject of dispute and takes notes of the agreement arrived at. This may later be used in court.

In some areas, the societies establish their own institutions such as orphanages or kindergartens where only Palestinian children are enrolled. In other areas, such as the mediating role of the councils in case of disputes, the societies are integral part of the legal system in Jordan.

These societies can be considered as localities which provide contexts where people from a common place of origin are able to come together in order to express and reformulate their common identity. In some ways, we can observe the re-emergence of the hamula institution within these societies, and new corporate groups have been reconstituted with the important difference that these groups are based on the geographical place of origin of members rather than their present residence.

We should also not create a picture where the only importance of kinship among Palestinians is seen as that of geographically close communities characterised by lose corporate group formation. According to the World Bank, about 40 per cent of families in the Occupied Territories had family members living abroad (World Bank 1993:xi). The networks built by those relations are clearly important, as the case of Dr. Ja'far shows.

It will be recalled that when Dr. Ja'far's father lost both home and business in Jerusalem after 1948, the family was able to resettle in his grandfather's house in Hebron. When he moved to Amman he stayed with his sister. In Saudi Arabia, however, he rented an apartment which was owned by a Palestinian from Nablus who worked in the Saudi Health Ministry. This man also introduced Ja'far to his niece, whom Ja'far eventually married. Although Ja'far and his landlord were not related, they met as Palestinian friends and fellow emigrants. Except for the period of the intifada both of them have frequent visits from the West Bank which keep family ties alive. Here, the kinship merges with friendship and experience of common hardships, which again is transformed into kinship by marriage.

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