Talbieh camp is located in al-Jizeh village, approximately twelve kilometers south of the Queen Alia Airport. The camp (commonly known as Zyzia Camp) is the economic center of the village. The highway offers access to the main entrance to the camp; a mix of commercial activities and services on both sides of the highway developed around and because of the camp.
Residents claim that the camp adopted the name Talbieh (an affluent neighborhood in Jerusalem prior to the 1948 Nakba) because of the good living conditions it offered compared to other camps at the time.
Establishment of the Camp
The camp was created by UNRWA in 1968 as an emergency camp a little south of the current location. Heavy winter rains necessitated moving the camp to its current location on a small land rise above the water pathways and wadi. The refugees were housed in tents.
The camp residents are refugees from the 1967 war, primarily from Bir al-Sabi‘, Gaza, Hebron, Ramallah, and Jericho, but also from central and north regions of Palestine (mainly Jerusalem, Nablus, and Jenin). Many of the refugees had lived in other refugee camps in the West Bank, especially the Jordan Valley, prior to their arrival, which means they had been displaced two or three times in a single generation. In 2009 UNRWA reported that 87.6 percent of camp residents hold a five-year Jordanian passport; in 2013, Fafo reported that 91 percent did. UNRWA considers them “displaced,” but some of them may have refugee status as well.
The camp originally housed five thousand refugees on a plot of land that was expanded in the mid-1970s to house additional arrivals. The current area of the camp is 132,655 square meters. Comparatively to other Palestinian camps in Jordan, the camp is the largest in terms of the state-owned land, smallest in terms of the population, and middle-sized in terms of area. Locals state that the plot of land belonged initially to Al-Fayez clan, who donated it to the government.
While UNRWA is responsible for providing basic services, the Jordanian government manages the camp and sets basic rules in relation to the vehicular and pedestrian grid network, number of floors, and construction materials allowed, which resulted in Jordanian camps having the distinguished grid network of blocks and streets. In the 1990s, the Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA) (a government agency representing the Jordanian Government) initiated several projects to improve the services in all camps, including shelter construction and street improvement. The DPA coordinates with international donors and UNRWA to conduct development projects, including income generation skills, shelter construction, and physical improvements. Talbieh received a donation from the Royal Court in 2009 that improved public buildings and services.
The expansion outside the camp parameter took place in increments. Aerial photos indicate the slow growth of the area around the camp until the 1990s, when the influx of returning Palestinians from the Gulf region resulted with major construction around the camp, especially in the area north of the camp. The immediate periphery of the camp grew incrementally as squatters, but the organized areas north and west of the camp include well planned and better-constructed neighborhoods. The camp also includes some migrant workers (from Egypt) and Syrian refugees, but they are usually more attracted to camps inside Amman.
By 2006, all streets had been paved and all shelters connected to the electrical, water, and sewage networks, excluding the squatter area immediately adjacent to the camp. However, a 2009 study by UNRWA revealed that 32.5% of shelters did not have regular water service and 4.6% experienced interruptions in the power service. Rainwater poses a problem in the alleys and adjacent shelters, because only streets have rainwater gutters. The accumulation of solid waste in Talbieh is a major environmental issue due to the limitations of the current system of collection by UNRWA.
There are four UNRWA schools for Grades 1-9 (referred to as “basic education schools”) within two buildings working under a time-shift system. In a study by UNRWA in 2009, one third of the residents felt that the school buildings were dilapidated. This prompted several projects of upgrading, expansion, and improvements in both buildings in the period 2011-2022. According to a Fafo study in 2013, about 98 percent of boys and virtually 100 percent of girls were enrolled in school.
Older children attend one of two government high schools. The girl’s school is adjacent to the camp and the boys’ school is within walking distance to the south of the camp. The camp has four privately run kindergartens.
Studies in 2013 indicate that approximately 25 percent of men and 22 percent of women aged 25-34 completed post-secondary education, 86 percent can read and write easily, and 38 percent of children aged four and five are enrolled in kindergarten. The education level of residents is within the range of other camps.
Refugees who arrived in the camp were either from a rural or nomadic background, bringing skills that allowed for work in herding or agricultural labor. Over time, the number and variety of people with skilled labor increased. This was a result of substantial UNRWA basic school education, UNRWA vocational training programs, and public education for males and females. This provided variety in skills and allowed for more refugees to seek higher education. As of 2009, about 26 percent of camp residents worked in the public sector; 54 percent worked in the private sector; 4 percent were UNRWA employees; and the rest were either freelancers, business owners, or interns.
Approximately 55 small businesses are located within the camp boundaries; if adjacent businesses on the highways and streets around it are added, the total number of businesses in and near the camp exceeds 150. About 30 percent of the businesses within the camp are rented, sometime by locals. The businesses in and around the camp include various services, finance, information technology, household goods, minor industrial activities such as carpenters and blacksmiths, private health services, entertainment, storage, travel, agriculture, wholesale, construction, transportation, and restaurant services. Talbieh is the economic center for the villages of the south of Amman extending from the south border of Amman city to Madaba.
Household income varies widely; the income for one third of the camp residents falls below the national absolute poverty line, and 50-60 percent fall under relative poverty lines. The extended unemployment rate inside Talbieh is 15 percent for men and 14 percent women; the mean annual household income is 3,699 Jordanian dirars. About 47 percent of households are in the lowest and low middle quartiles, while 33 percent are in the highest and high quartiles.
The camp has one UNRWA health clinic and two NGO clinics run by Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Islamic Center. The Fafo 2013 study showed that 11 percent of residents experience chronic health problems and that 37 percent of the population do not have any kind of health insurance. Health service improvement was among the main needs of the camp.
Talbieh was the first camp in Jordan to replace the tents with concrete rooms. The camp was adopted by the Iranian Red Lion and Sun Society; it provided hot meals to supplement UNRWA rations and replaced the tents due to the winter conditions. It built rooms of hollow concrete blocks and asbestos roofs; at the time asbestos was considered the best option due to its thermal characteristics, but later it was banned because of the health risks it posed. Each family of seven received one room, with a usufruct right to the space. The distribution of the titles was done on a first-come-first-served basis, which resulted in a random distribution of families in the camp that is not based on town of origin. The rooms were organized as rows of five, so every five rooms were adjacent as a row facing south. By 1969, Talbieh camp was composed of a grid of rooms, lined with trees, with a central cafeteria for hot meals, a slaughterhouse adjacent to the cafeteria, a health clinic, a mosque, two UNRWA schools, five shops, and a management office. Later, a post office and sports club were added. A water reservoir was located at the highest point in the camp in the northeast, while latrines and water faucets were distributed around the periphery.
As of 2022, about 10,345 individuals (2,054 families) lived in the camp’s 810 shelters. The average family size in Talbieh is 5.3 individuals. About 10 percent share shelters with other families.
The quality of sheltering in Talbieh has been improving since 2015. Initial studies by UNRWA in 2004-2006 showed that the camp had the worst shelter conditions among all camps; about 70 percent of shelters had zinc or asbestos roofing. International donors funded projects to improve these shelters, supervised by UNRWA or DPA. By 2022 all shelters had concrete roofs on the ground floor. Refugees add one and sometimes two floors to accommodate the growing family size, as children grow and set up their own households.
Crowding remains a problem in shelters. In 18 percent of the households, each resident has less than 8 square meters. (The average total shelter area is 17 square meters.) In about 21 percent of households, three or more individuals live in each room.
All camps in Jordan are managed by the DPA, in coordination with UNRWA. Initially UNRWA provided basic education, health, and relief services. Its responsibility in the camps is limited to provision of basic essential services and managing its installations. UNRWA operates a service manager office in each camp providing reference for residents on issues related to registration and access to services. However, in the 1990s UNRWA took on a socio-development role as well; it created community-based organizations for women and the handicapped in all camps including Talbieh. The creation of the Microfinance Department in UNRWA-Jordan in 2003, and the Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Department in 2008 indicates UNRWA’s realization of the need for better involvement and a change in their role.
The Jordanian Government manages the camp including security issues. The camp is not active politically and had no role in the 1970 Black September clashes.
Civil and Political Organizations in the Camp
Several organizations exist in the camp. The DPA runs the Camp Improvement Committee and the Camp Services Committee, and UNRWA runs community based organizations. In addition, the camp has two sports club, Shabab Al-Talbiyeh Club and Ittihad Al-Talbieh Club, as well as religion-based organizations such as the zakat committee. The camp also hosts local NGOs (e.g., Talbieh Camp Association for Environment and Charitable Development), regional organizations (Medical Aid for Palestinians; Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work).
Several generations of refugees in Talbiyeh have witnessed, negotiated, and facilitated the dynamic transformation of the camp. The refugees are continuously active in the creation of an important node of Palestinian identity, not only representing the materialistic aspects of Palestine, such as the thobe, embroidery, keffiyeh, or food, but also the way of living, the spirit of sumud, and resistance in the face of hardship.
Indeed, Talbiyeh challenges the very definition of the refugee camp, similar to other Palestinian camps in Jordan, as the refugees and displaced Palestinians work to create opportunities, making the camp a story of triumph despite the odds.
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