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Palestinian Refugees Remain Hopeful About Returning Home - 2003-06-20

Since the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, millions of Palestinian refugees have been living in a perpetual state of flux in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the neighboring states of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. For three generations, they have dreamed about returning home, a dream most observers believe is unlikely to come true.

Ahmed Mohammed Hamdan is one of an increasingly small number of residents who remember the creation of the Jabal el-Hussein refugee camp. He was 18 and newly married when he arrived in Jordan. Today, he is in his 70's, with 11 children and more grandchildren than he can count.

Standing in the market stall where he sells vegetables by the side of the road, he remembers what the area looked like back then.

He says it was just a camp, with tents. It was a bad situation.

Today, Jabal el-Hussein is almost indistinguishable from other low income neighborhoods in Amman. The tents are long gone, replaced by cement buildings that in some cases tower several stories high. Shops line the streets, selling everything from radios to fabric to gold jewelry. The camp is built on a large hill, and some residents climb steep staircases to reach their homes.

A spokesman for the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees, Mattar Saqer, says, when the Palestinians arrived, they did not sit idly by and depend on the United Nations for handouts. No, he says, they worked hard, and concentrated on educating the next generation.

"I was born in a tent myself, in a refugee camp," he explained. " I opened my eyes, found myself as a refugee. The indoctrination and the hammering-on-the-head by my parents was that, 'well it's you who will grow up, it's you who will deliver us. It's you who will go to college, it's you who will help us buy a new house, leave this tent and live a better life.' "

A resident of Jabal el-Hussein has invited visitors into her home to talk about life in the refugee camp. She gives only her first name, Arcade, and says she made sure all of her seven children went to school, either a university or a community college.

She thanks God, and says she has worked hard, so four of her children are teachers and one is an engineer.

For many Palestinian refugees here, helping their families means leaving Jordan to work in Europe, America or one of the oil-rich Gulf states, where they can make more money to send back home. Arcade's family is no exception.

She and her daughters are busy cleaning the house in preparation for a wedding. Her youngest daughter is getting married. Most of her children are coming home for the big event, and the house is full of grandchildren.

One daughter has already arrived from Saudi Arabia, after two years away. A son, also working in Saudi Arabia, is on his way back soon. But another son who works for an automobile company in Austria will not be here. He has not been able to come home since he left. Arcade's voice chokes, and her eyes fill with tears, as she holds his picture.

She says, "I miss him. I miss him. It has been 15 years since I last saw him."

Arcade is hoping she will be able to visit her son in Austria next year.

There are roughly 1.7 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, more than anywhere else in the region. About 20 percent of them live in camps such as Jabal el-Hussein, which is home to more than 27,000 people. Residents say life in the camps is hard. Arcade says, compared to other people she knows, her family lives relatively well.

Her daughter-in-law, Leila Hamed Shahada, says the continued existence of the refugee camps after more than 50 years is connected to the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She says most of the people who live here could afford to leave the camp and live in another part of town. But they prefer to stay, because keeping the camps alive helps keep their cause on the world agenda. The refugees want to go back to the land that they or their parents or grandparents came from, which is today in the state of Israel.

Palestinian negotiators have insisted on a right of return as a core component of a peace deal with Israel. Israel says that Palestinian refugees should be resettled in a mutually negotiated Palestinian state, not in the State of Israel. The "right of return," is one of the thorniest issues continuing to block a Middle East peace deal.

Since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that created the first group of Palestinian refugees, Jordan has been the only Middle Eastern nation to grant the refugees citizenship. Most have permitted only limited resettlement of Palestinians.

Israel says an influx of millions of Palestinians is not viable and would both pose a threat to the nation's security and destroy the country's Jewish character. And so generations of Palestinians around the region have remained refugees. Most of them are technically stateless.

Palestinian refugees are the only ones in the world with their own U.N. agency. The UNHCR handles asylum-seekers in the rest of the world. But in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugees are in the hands of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA.

The agency runs 190 schools and 23 clinics in camps around the region, as well as other relief programs. Its spokesman, Mr. Saqer, says the funding never quite keeps up with demand for the agency's services.

"More money is a solution, but the ultimate solution is to reach a solution to the refugee issue, so that there will be no need for UNRWA itself to exist. That's the most important task," he said.

In Jabal el-Hussein, Arcade continues to long for the land she left behind when she was less than two-years-old, too young to remember it.

She says, even when people call this home, they still feel that Palestine is their original home.

Arcade and her husband have worked hard to build their house here, and worked hard to educate their children here. But the walls of their house are decorated with large mosaics of the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy place in Jerusalem. They are still hoping one day they will be allowed to leave behind this life they have worked so hard to build.