The Wihdat Camp (officially known as the New Amman Camp) is the more recent of the two camps established in Amman. (The other is al-Hussein Camp.) The Wihdat Camp was built by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the form of “housing units” (wihdat; hence its name); refugees never lived there in tents after moving in from other camps and areas. Although it was set up some years after the Nakba, the Wihdat is an official UNRWA camp, and it is the largest of the ten camps in Jordan that UNRWA has recognized and to which it provides services.
The Origins of the Camp
The Wihdat Camp was set up in 1955 southeast of the Jordanian capital and within the administrative borders of Greater Amman. It is about six kilometers (four miles) from the city center and covers an area of about 479 dunams (47.9 hectares). The land belonged to the Jordanian state and to Jordanian families, such as the Hadid family, which rented the land to the state. UNRWA initially built 1,400 houses in the camp, adding another 1,260 units in 1957. Each family was given a housing unit with a land area of about 100 square meters as a usufruct and not a freehold right, because residence in the camp was seen as a temporary arrangement. As time passed and families grew larger, they started to add rooms to their houses at random.
The camp initially held about 5,000 refugees registered with UNRWA. They had come from the villages and towns in the districts of Lydda, Ramla, Haifa, Jaffa, Hebron, and Bir al-Saba‘ (Beersheva); a few families came from the village of Beit Dajan in the Nablus area. The population of the camp grew rapidly to 60,000 refugees registered with UNRWA, as well as 8,000 people displaced from the West Bank after the Israeli invasion of 1967 and several thousand Gazans with Egyptian identity papers. Many non-refugees live in the camp for financial reasons, since rents in the camp are lower than in other locations. By some estimates, non-refugees make up about 40 percent of the camp's total population. One part of the camp, known as Hayy al-Nour, is inhabited by Egyptian workers, Iraqis who fled their country at the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and others. Because the camp is close to the city center and contains a large shopping area, strong relationships developed between the camp residents and the surrounding area. Every day large numbers of non-refugees, whether immigrants to Jordan or Jordanians themselves, come to the camp to shop or visit.
In the 1990s, the camp had expanded as much as it could; further expansion could only occur vertically, through the construction of extra floors on top of the original houses that UNRWA had built. This was especially true when many people born in the camp came back from Kuwait after the war of 1991. They brought money, which stimulated building activity in the camp and prompted the Jordanian authorities to allow householders to build up to four floors and convert the ground floor to commercial purposes. (Previously the buildings had been wholly residential.) Camp residents bought land next to the camp and registered their ownership officially. Since most camp residents have Jordanian citizenship, they have the right to own land. This constituted a sort of de facto expansion of the camp.
The Greater Amman municipal authorities have tarmacked and lit some of the streets in the camp and paved some of the side streets with concrete. They oversee the cleaning of the main streets in the camp, while UNRWA supervises the cleaning of the side streets. The Wihdat Camp has ten bakeries, seven mosques, a post office, and a police station. The Jordan Water Company provides the camp with drinking water to the same standard of purity as in the rest of the city. The municipality provides electricity, so that the residents can live without the kerosene lamps that used to pose a fire risk. Wastewater from the houses used to run down open channels in the lanes and discharge into septic tanks that were not firmly sealed and even open at times, but the vast majority of houses are now connected to a sewage system. UNRWA takes responsibility for garbage removal from the camp.
The big commercial center in the camp is the principal resource for the economic activity of the camp. It attracts many visitors from outside the camp, who come seeking better prices than they would find elsewhere. There is a fruit and vegetable market in the camp and about 2,500 stores of various kinds, selling foodstuffs, clothes, agricultural equipment, accessories and bric-a-brac, linen, furniture, and jewellery. The businesspeople in the camp are represented by a committee that oversees their activities. The market includes hundreds of stalls and carts selling fruit, vegetables, and secondhand clothes; traffic jams are common. Some of the camp residents are engaged in basic trades through which they earn at most only a few dinars a day.
UNRWA provides technical and financial support to two centers in the camp that train young women to do the kind of work that is considered appropriate for them, such as weaving, sewing, hairdressing, and flower arranging. About 413 female refugees benefit from these services each year. Since unemployment and poverty levels are high, hundreds of families receive assistance through UNRWA's Social Safety Net program, which provides foodstuffs and a financial grant of about $10 a month per person.
Most of the camp residents have less medical protection than they need. Sixty-six percent of them have no medical insurance, and there are no government hospitals or dispensaries in the camp. The health services available in the camp are limited to the first aid and preventive medicine provided by UNRWA for free to refugees in two centers. UNRWA also provides medicines and treatment for people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart ailments. The UN agency opened one of these centers in the autumn of 2011 and it has modern medical equipment, a clinic for heart diseases, an eye clinic, a dental clinic, a non-contagious chronic diseases clinic, medical laboratories, and a maternity and postnatal clinic that treats children up to age three years. Each doctor at the center receives about 100 patients a day, and a medical team from the center carries out regular medical checks on the children in UNRWA schools.
Some medical organizations in Jordan sometimes organize free treatment days, and several charities provide health services to the camp residents, including the camp’s Zakat committee, which reports to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, Islamic Affairs and Holy Places. The committee has set up a health center called the Charitable Comprehensive Health Center, which employs thirty-six doctors and other staff. Since 2008, the Wihdat Camp branch of the Islamic Center Charitable Association has been running a health center with support and financing from the Japanese embassy in Amman. This center provides healthcare to camp residents at nominal prices. The camp also has eight pharmacies and twenty-one private clinics that provide services at generally reasonable prices and.
UNRWA is the only entity providing education in the camp. It runs about twenty schools for boys and girls. Although most of the camp residents have Jordanian identity cards, which entitles them to enroll in Jordanian government schools, most of the children study in the UNRWA schools, which follow the same curricula as the government schools and educate students up to 10th grade, after which they move to government schools in neighbouring areas. UNRWA also runs two nurseries and three kindergartens. Some Arab and other foreign organizations subsidize the UNRWA schools in the camp. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, for example, undertook in September 2018 to finance maintenance of the first and second Wihdat Camp preparatory schools for girls, which have about 1,500 students from 4th grade through 10th grade and run morning and afternoon shifts. In late 2021 the Saudi ambassador to Jordan opened a new school for boys in the camp in the presence of UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini.
Some students drop out of school in the primary and preparatory grades (Grades 1-9), and female students are sometimes prevented from completing secondary school (Grades 10-12) and find jobs instead. Many talented students who complete their secondary education cannot enrol at universities. Apart from poverty and unemployment, camp residents face a wide range of problems: early marriages; divorce; overcrowded housing; dilapidated housing; and the absence of gardens and other green spaces, playgrounds, recreational facilities, and public libraries.
Administration and Security
The Wihdat Camp and the other Palestinian camps in Jordan are supervised by the Department of Palestinian Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. The department coordinates its activities with UNRWA and with the Greater Amman Municipality, since the camp lies within its borders, and with Camp Services Improvement Committee, which is made up of prominent residents known for their probity.
The camp was the scene of serious security events during the clashes between Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions and the Jordanian army in the last three months of 1970 and the first half of 1971, the period known as Black September.
Political and Civil Society Organizations
Palestinian factions ceased to have a presence in the camp after the conflict of 1970-71, and they still have no public activities. However, their presence is evident in some elections, such as the elections to the board of management of the Wihdat Club, where supporters of various Palestinian groups compete with protégés of the Jordanian government. (Islamists are not members of the Wihdat Club.) Some Palestinian factions have merged into the Jordanian political parties that started to form in the early 1990s, such as the Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party, which was set up in 1990 as an extension of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Jordanian Democratic People's Party, which was set up in 1993 as an extension in Jordan of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Camp residents are socially engaged. Some of the families and clans have set up associations to strengthen the bonds of social solidarity between their members, such as the al-Safiriyya League, which includes the al-Banna family, which has a diwan (meeting hall) in the camp; the Qandil family's Tell al-Safi League, which also has a diwan; the al-Abbasiyya League, which includes the Hourani and the Bayari families; and the Beit Nabala League, which includes the Heet family. The former residents of some Palestinian villages (for example, Kafr ‘Ana, Deir Tarif, Salama, and Beit Dajan) have also set up social clubs and associations that provide a variety of social and cultural services to their members. Members of some of the clans in the camp, such as the Kouz clan, have been elected to the Jordanian parliament and to the Greater Amman municipal council. Several prominent writers and artists have come from the camp, such as the novelist and poet Ibrahim Nasrallah, the cartoonist Emad Hajjaj, and the writer Dr. Yasser al-Zaatreh.
The Wihdat Club, which was founded in 1956, is the most visible face of sport in the camp. The club plays soccer, volleyball, and chess and organizes many social and cultural activities. It was under UNRWA’s supervision until 1966, at which time it was transferred to the Jordanian Ministry of Youth and Sports. It has taken part in several events abroad under the Jordanian flag and has won a number of sports championships in Jordan and the Arab world. The camp also has discussion groups and associations that focus on cultural matters, such as the Wihdat Cultural Forum (set up in 2007), and on social matters, such as the Islamic Center Charitable Association/ Wihdat Camp Branch and the al-Dawayima Association for Social Development.