Jabal al-Hussein Camp is the first refugee camp established in Amman. Founded in 1952, Jabal al-Hussein Camp is unique in that it is an urban camp whose location has largely shaped the city’s socioeconomic and spatial development.
History of the Camp
Prior to the establishment of the camp, the hill known as Jabal al-Hussein was a sparsely populated neighborhood north of downtown Amman. The camp was established at the eastern side of Jabal al-Hussein (hence its name) on a plot of land that was later leased from private landowners for 99 years. The majority of the refugees settling in the camp came from Ramla, Lydda, and Jaffa; while some were from Bayt Dajan and al-Walaja. Many of the refugees who settled in the camp had taken refuge in the caves of Joufeh, Zuhour, and other areas in Amman before being granted a shelter unit in the camp. Two years after the camp was established, it had a population of 8,783 inhabitants (1,608 families).
At the time of its establishment, the camp covered an estimated area of 0.42 square kilometers, but over the years it expanded to cover nearly double that area. The layout of the camp is centered around one main street that runs across it (Ein Jalout Street), with fifty alleys that cross it perpendicularly. Schools and other UNRWA-affiliated buildings were built around the main entrance of the camp to the west, while the rest of the camp consisted of shelter units.
Refugee camps in Jordan (including Jabal al-Hussein Camp) were perceived as temporary spaces that facilitated the transitory and abrupt settlement in the city. This is also evident in how refugee camps were excluded from any planning schemes in the city or even in the surrounding neighborhoods. It is worth mentioning that the 1955 King and Lock plan proposed moving Jabal al-Hussein Camp towards the south of Amman to create one neighborhood for refugees, the move would have been possible at the time as the camp consisted of tent structures that housed the refugees at the time. However, the plan was dropped and the refugee population continued to grow in Jabal al-Hussein and the camp, as Palestinian refugees arriving in the 1950s and 1960s settled in the neighboring Safh al-Nuzha and other part of Jabal al-Hussein. By 2012, there were around 30,000 inhabitants in the camp, and over the years the camp expanded outside its initial perimeter in all directions, which changed its position in the city: from a peripheral entity that housed refugees to a central space within Jabal al-Hussein and the city.
The Development of the Camp’s Infrastructure
Over the years, the camp in Jabal al-Hussein saw rapid transformations in its development. Several events and factors helped in shaping the socio-spatial structures of the camp in particular and nearby spaces in the city in general. Perhaps the main factor shaping these transformations can be attributed to Jordan’s policies. Palestinian refugees were granted Jordanian citizenship, which means they were able to buy and sell land and properties outside the camp and move freely, thereby facilitating their socioeconomic integration in Amman. The development and transformation of the camp can be traced through the morphology of the camp’s built fabric and services. During the first decade for example, water was collected daily by women from a point near Ras al-Ain in downtown Amman, about a four-kilometer walk from the camp. However, thanks to efforts to improve the camp, nearly all units in the camp got access to citywide services such as water, sewage, and electricity, except the floors exceeding the two-story limit.
The units of the camp were set up on a 10x10 meter grid, and each family was allocated a tent on a plot of land referred to as numra (“number”), a term that is still sometimes used in the camp. The types of shelter units were constantly developed either by UNRWA or the residents. Over the years, many refugees started building small rooms from concrete and bricks to provide better shelter during winter. These rooms would later transform into one- or two-story houses within the initial 100 square meter plots. Through this process, the fabric of the camp become more organic in its composition, with certain alleyways and roads disappearing as people expanded their houses.
Because of its limited space, the camp extended vertically, which ultimately contributed to the increase of the population density. The configuration of typical houses in the camp nowadays reflects the decisions and restrictions imposed on the camp by the host authorities and UNRWA through housing regulations. Between 1970 and 1984, only one-story structures were permitted. When residents were allowed to add a second story, the staircases were built externally at the front or side of the house. The Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA), which has oversight of camps in Jordan proper, adopted a flexible attitude toward unauthorized extensions at the time; this has meant that housing units were developed relatively quickly, which eventually led to a more urbanized fabric of the camp.
Expansion of the Camp
Due to the limitations imposed on the built environment of the camp and the small size of units, many residents opted to move out of the camp when they needed bigger houses to accommodate their growing families. Many remained near the camp. Those who could afford to rent an apartment would resettle in Jabal al-Hussein, while those who could not afford to rent would build informally in Safh al-Nuzha. As a result, in the areas adjacent to the camp a form of parallel settlement occurred; refugee spaces increased outside the borders of the camp. Over time, areas such as Safh al-Nuzha were seen as an extension of the camp: both areas shared similar building materials as well as a similar social fabric. Although both areas were inhabited by Palestinian refugees, the services and dynamics of each developed differently because they are subject to different governance systems; the camp is under the management of the DPA and UNRWA, while Safh Al-Nuzha was under the jurisdiction of Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). However, the construction of Jordan Street (al-Urdon Street) in 2005 separated the camp and Safh al-Nuzha, as the new street allowed for more commercial activity on the edge of both settlements.
The expansion of the camp is also reflected in the location of educational and health institutions that serve the camp. UNRWA first built its schools inside the camp; the first structures were large tents, and then asbestos barracks, and later dedicated concrete structures, similar to the rest of the camp structures. New schools were later built outside the camp to accommodate the refugee population living in this area. UNRWA now runs four schools at the entrance of the camp and another ten in the adjacent neighborhood of al-Nuzha for the students living in the surrounding areas.
Employment and Markets
The Palestinian families who took refuge in Jabal al-Hussein camp were of urban origin (madaniyyun, city folk), with skills mainly in trades and crafts. Passed down from one generation to another, this knowledge both influenced and was influenced by the surrounding market. Located in a city, Jabal al-Hussein Camp evolved rapidly and hosted a busy market linked to the main market on Khalid bin al-Walid Street. The camp is also lined with active commercial nodes along its eastern and northern sides, with a variety of retail shops along its main spine. The presence of these markets has created more job opportunities for camp residents who work in restaurants, sewing shops, mechanic workshops, and other professions. As a result, the camp has the lowest unemployment rate of all Palestinian camps in Jordan. This economic development was also shaped by the arrival of Palestinians who had lived in Kuwait during the 1970s and 1980s and who returned to Jordan after the first Gulf War; many settled in the vicinity of Jabal al-Hussein and al-Nuzha. This led to an increase in commercial activity in Jabal al-Hussein, and its main street became a fashion retail area.
Given the work opportunities, the refugees in Jabal al-Hussein Camp were able to improve their economic conditions relatively quickly compared to other camps in the city. This has accelerated the settlement and resettlement patterns of the camp. Former inhabitants of the camp tell how their families moved out of the camp in the 1970s because they could afford better homes in the nearby areas. However, the camp continues to be a shelter, both for refugees and people from lower socioeconomic classes seeking to resettle and improve their economic situation. The camp becomes a utilitarian urban space that facilitates upward mobility of the city’s lower classes.
Local residents explain how the population of the camp has recently changed. Indeed, the cheap rents and prime location of the camp have attracted displaced communities, such as Syrians who fled to Jordan after 2011 and migrant domestic workers (Bengalis, Egyptians, and others) and the lower socioeconomic classes. This situation is further facilitated by the increase of available rental spaces in the camp as many refugees rent or sell their houses and move to other parts of Amman. The camp facilitates movement and resettlement in Jabal al-Hussein, bringing continuous changes in the urban landscape of the area.
Similar to other camps in Amman and elsewhere in Jordan, various modes and bodies of management were in charge of Jabal al-Hussein Camp over the years. Upon its inception, the camp was mainly managed by UNRWA and Jordanian authorities. In the mid-1960s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) arrived in Amman, it took control of the camp, transforming the space from one of shelter to one of political activity. During this period, some called the camp al-Awdeh Camp (the return), a reminder that the camp was designed to be temporary and that the aim is to return to Palestine. However, following the events of Black September in the early 1970s, the camp returned to Jordanian government control and Palestinian factions had little presence there afterwards.
The governmental arm responsible for managing camps in Jordan has functioned under different names over the years. The Ministry of Refugees was in charge between 1949 and 1950, followed by the Ministry of Construction and Restoration (1950–80). Since 1988, the main authority responsible for the camp is the DPA, with the main responsibilities being divided between UNRWA and the DPA. The UNRWA operates in close collaboration with the DPA, because anything involving the infrastructure within the camp needs to be facilitated by the DPA. In general, the DPA is responsible for security and infrastructure maintenance in the camp; it supervises commercial licenses, rehabilitation works, and the opening of shops. UNRWA is responsible for providing services such as relief, health, and education to registered Palestinian refugees. Additionally, the camp is served by a dedicated police station located at its entrance, while the rest of the neighborhood is served by another police station located within a 200-meter radius of the camp. According to local residents, GAM supervises garbage collection once a week in the camp.
Civil and Political Organizations
The camp and its surroundings are home to various organizations related to Palestinian social, political, and cultural life. The Jabal al-Hussein area hosts branches of political parties, such as the Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party (an offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the Jordanian Democratic People's Party (an offshoot of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine), as well as civil organizations formed around local Palestinian villages or cities (such as Lifta, Lydda, and Ramla). Within the camp, the Shabab al-Hussein Club organizes cultural and sporting events, and many aid organizations, mainly NGOs, assist vulnerable people living inside the camp and its vicinity.
Since its establishment, Jabal al-Hussein Camp has shaped the socio-spatial structures of Jabal al-Hussein and the surrounding areas. The camp’s development was the product of several social, economic, and political factors as well as migration dynamics that extended the camp outside its initial perimeter. The rapid changes in the socioeconomic conditions of the refugees has led to continuous transformational patterns that have affected its social structures. The camp is thus frequently associated today with poverty, drugs, and other socioeconomic problems. Even though the camp is constantly undergoing transformation and change, former inhabitants of the camp continue to engage in its social life and cultural events, demonstrating that the camp continues to produce a sense of belonging and identity around Palestine and the right of return.
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