JERASH CAMP – A squalid Palestinian refugee camp near the Roman ruins of Jerash offers an incongruous backdrop to the surrounding scenic mountains.
Known locally as Gaza camp, Jerash camp, 40km north of Amman, has narrow alleyways that cut through crumbling houses. There is a pervasive stench from the effluent that runs through open ditches in the hilly shanty town.
Sewage and waste water is either released through holes in the floors of refugees’ homes into a concrete maze, or dumped straight into ditches running under their homes. Residents regularly pay significant sums to have the excreta pumped into special tankers.
Suffering and deprivation is apparent from the vacant looks of the residents, most of whom live well below Jordan’s poverty line. The foul smell, coupled with their dull and dusty surroundings, reflect what refugees feel about their lives, say residents.
"When we arrived 40 years ago, our dream was to return to our home towns in Palestine, but for now our dream is to have a decent life," said Abu Ahmed, a 40-year-old driver who hails from Beersheba, southern Palestine.
"Senior officials or visitors to the camp are often escorted to see the main roads, where things are somewhat better," said Abu Ahmed.
The camp was built in 1968, one year after the war with Israel which led hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee to neighbouring countries, with most settling in Jordan.
Unpaved roads strewn with litter and animal faeces and filthy water channels are a playground for children.
"Children do not get sick if they play in the dirty water. They have developed a strong immune system,” said Abu Ahmed, who has a blackberry tree in his yard from which his children eat.
"When the berries fall on the ground and into the channel, my sons and other boys pick them up and eat them but do not seem to get sick," he said.
Residents also complain of sleepless nights in summer as the area becomes infested with mosquitoes and rats. In winter the streets are flooded with dirty water.
Abu Hassan, 53, a refugee from Gaza, lives with his nine children and wife in a 96 square metre unit.
Last winter he and his family awoke in the middle of the night after dirty water flooded from the streets into their rooms. "We have been hearing promises from officials that they will address our problem… but as you see it seems the world forgot about us," he said.
Previous Efforts Hampered
Previous efforts to construct a sewage treatment plant were hampered by the absence of a desalination plant to purify waste water and release them into the environment again, in the area, according to officials from the Department for Palestinian Affairs, the government body responsible for infrastructure projects in Jordan’s refugee camps.
Officials said they could not begin building a sewage network unless a treatment plant is built nearby, but this was the responsibility of the Ministry of Water.
"The discharged water that would go through a sewage network needs to be pumped into a sewage treatment plant, which the area lacks," said Yassin Abu Awad, head of projects and planning at the Department for Palestinian Affairs (DPA)
Currently, effluent is released into valleys near the camp, causing serious environmental and health hazards.
The DPA is planning to rehabilitate the camp, which would get a sewage network, paved roads and a new water supply system – at a cost of US$5 million, said the DPA’s Abu Awad. The project is due to start by the end of November and would take at least a year to complete.
"We have plans in place, but we will only start when the government gives us the green light, after completion of the planned treatment plant," Abu Awad told IRIN.
The DPA has already built sewage networks in 11 of Jordan’s 13 refugee camps.
Officials from Jordan’s Ministry of Water said the contract had been awarded to a local firm, which is expected to complete construction of the treatment plant before the end of the year.
In the meantime, residents fear their ageing homes might collapse when construction work begins. They said most houses were not sufficiently well-built to withstand major excavation work, and feared they could fall down.
"Our houses were built 40 years ago as temporary shelters. Now most of the units are on the verge of collapse and any movement of the foundations could lead to their collapse," said Ali, a father of three, who lives on welfare handouts from the Jordanian government.