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The Refugee Project

12 Bags Full

Caitlin McMullen, Christine Byllaardt, Tara Smith and Derek Schlennstedt

Walking through the bamboo crops and gravel paths of the Hasa Valley, faint voices and sounds of streaming water can be heard.

We turned a corner and crossed a stream where we found a woman crouched down on the riverbank, washing wool.

She was kneading the wool in the shallow water, creating clouds of grey mud, which floated away as she worked. On the bank were several white bags, each full with matted fleece.

Fatima Al Hamid told us she comes to the river to wash her wool one day a year and that she had twelve bags with her, all collected from the farm where she works.  

She has been staying in the Burbeyta region of southern Jordan for a year. She lives with her five children in a tent, 35 kilometres north from Hasa valley.

The Syrian-born refugee has lived in Jordan for six years, after fleeing the northern Syrian city of Hama with her husband and children.

One year after moving to Jordan, Fatima’s husband passed away following complications after an operation.

As Fatima said, her husband’s death “has been difficult, it’s only me to look after the kids.”

The United Nations-funded farm where she works produces pears, tomatoes, potatoes and watermelon. She also shepherds sheep and makes goats’ cheese.

The wool is being used for mattresses and clothing.

“I’ve learnt to wash wool since living with [the villagers]. They shear the sheep and then give it to us. We wash it, and make mattresses for the children to sleep on, instead of sleeping on the floor.”

Orphanages in the Refugee Camps

Stefania Di Paola, Derek Schlennstedt, and Chad Phillips

Photograph by Juliette Strangio

Photograph by Juliette Strangio

Education and well-being are difficult issues for the children of the Irbid refugee camp.

The camp holds 30,000 Palestinian refugees, 35 per cent of which are children aged from birth to 16.

The camp is very poor with no sewage, rubbish maintenance, and clean water. Medical clinics see up to 1,500 patients a day.

Omar Derbas has been a member of the Al-Daleel club, an orphanage in the camp, since the 80s and is the head of the culture department.

The camp was one of the four camps established after the Arab-Israeli war for those fleeing Palestine in 1948.

Derbas was born in the camp which was established in 1951.

As a part of the job he organises cultural festivals and voluntary work such as cleaning the roads.

The orphanage has 150 children in its care and relies upon sponsorship by individuals and organisations.

“We can’t find a sponsorship for everyone, so they are put on a waiting list, and the conditions are very poor”, said Derbas.

Another orphanage in the Irbid camp called Orphan Care Centre has been operating since 1986.

This organisation relies on volunteers and donations from Jordanians and companies, but also has the support of UNICEF.

However, this funding is limited to Syrian refugees and does not include Palestinians and Jordanians.

UNICEF provides a special program for the Syrian child refugees to make up for the lack of education.

These children received minimal education upon fleeing Syria.

Syrian children in camp. Photograph by Juliette Strangio

Syrian children in camp. Photograph by Juliette Strangio

Wissam Yusuf is the head of the culture department that focuses on providing educational and social programs to those children.

“Programs are specialised for girls and boys, and include camping and computer skills.”

Over the past 10 years there has been an increase from 400 to 1,000 orphans and the organisation has to team up with other orphanages to cope with the growing numbers.

They also provide Palestinian and Jordanian students with non-educational programs, focusing on ethics and social education skills.

Both organisations provide basic needs such as clothing and footwear, meals and water.

As the increase in orphans continues to rise, orphanages across Jordan cannot cope.

The Jordan government has not yet contributed funding to these orphanages.

“The orphanage does not receive any funding from the Jordanian government”, said Yusuf.  

Reflections from the Street

Aaron Ralston, Michael Thompson, and Thomas Wharton

Palestinian brothers Saleme Ata Ahmed Idris, Ziyad Adrees and Taisier Ata Mohammad Idries. Photograph by Andrew Dodd

Palestinian brothers Saleme Ata Ahmed Idris, Ziyad Adrees and Taisier Ata Mohammad Idries. Photograph by Andrew Dodd

Ziyad Adrees’ carpentry business lies down a shaded road next to the Irbid refugee camp. In a room layered with sawdust he crafts tables, beds and doors with his son and two others.

Like many of the 30,000 people in the camp, Ziyad is a second generation Palestinian refugee.

He was born in Jordan along with his two older brothers, Saleme Ata Ahmed Idris and Taisier Ata Mohammad Idries.

The brothers all spell their surnames differently, for the simple reason that Arabic names can be written in various ways using English letters. 

When official documents are created it is down to how the bureaucrat interprets and writes the name.

Taisier and Ziyad were taught carpentry by their father, and in time took over his business.

Palestinian carpenter Ziyad Adrees. Photograph by Andrew Dodd

Palestinian carpenter Ziyad Adrees. Photograph by Andrew Dodd

Their parents left their home in Wadi Salib, in downtown Haifa following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. 

They joined a steady flow of displaced Palestinians heading towards Jordan.

Ziyad said of his father, “He came with 10,000 friends and brothers.”

The Jordanian government opened its doors to the Palestinian refugees, granting them citizenship.

Many Palestinians have remained in camps like the one in Irbid in part to retain their national identity.

Taisier said, “Life in Irbid is very difficult, everything is high price and the government every time increases the cost. The work is little, not like before. Before the Syrian war and the Iraqi war.

“The problem is... no good services, no good streets, nothing. We have many challenges. People need many things. Really you cannot say what you want.”

The perceived corruption problem is compounded by the reality of a slowing economy.

Taisier said that business is declining this year for both him and Ziyad, “All the business now is not good, all business.”

The conflict in neighbouring countries has taken it’s toll on Jordan’s economy. 


Jordan is home to over 1.4 million Syrian refugees. The influx of Syrians has brought with them tales of life under the regime, the rebels and Daesh.

Taisier is confident that the regime will not last, “Assad will not stay more than three months, not more. In every battle his army try to run.”

Given that Irbid lies 40 kilometres from the Syrian border, Taisier has had first hand experience with those leaving to fight with rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra against the regime and Daesh.

“There is many people in Irbid fight in Syria, from Irbid, from Amman, from South of Jordan, there are many… Some come back dead, and some don’t come back. They burn him there.

“They believe it’s a religion order to fight against everyone who kill muslim, who kill the people.”

A Jordanian media commentator who spoke to us two days earlier suggested that the government has prepared itself for the return of its citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq.

He said that militants coming home are being tried in military courts under expanded anti-terrorism laws. 

Despite this, Taisier is scared for the security of Jordan, “This whole area after not a long time will be more danger, all the area. Fighting.”

Tale of Two Camps

Krystal Mizzi, Tara Smith and Edwina Toohey

Palestinian refugee Nehady Yousif. Photograph by Edwina Toohey

Palestinian refugee Nehady Yousif. Photograph by Edwina Toohey

Jordan provides asylum for people from several countries including Iraq, Syria and Palestine.

Following the 1948 war with Israel, many Palestinians escaped to Jordanian refugees camps, which have now transformed into makeshift towns. Although many have ambitions to live elsewhere, some are content with their lives in the camp. 

When ISIS invaded parts of Iraq in June 2013, tens of thousands of people fled to Jordan. 

This report looks at the experiences of the two groups – Palestinians living in a camp on the edge of the city of Irbid in northern Jordan and some Iraqis living in a Catholic missionary near Amman. First, Krystal Mizzi and Tara Smith compare the two camps.   

Life in the Irbid refugee camp is hard as Tara Smith reports.

Christian Iraqi Refugees in Amman

Salah Beshara is a reluctant refugee.

The 54-year old was the only member of his family to stay in Iraq when ISIS took over in June 2013.

“My father, my mother, all my family are in Europe and have left since the ’90s, I’m the only one that remains,” Beshara says.

However, he fled to a Christian village in Erbil, east of Mosul, when it became too dangerous. He finally left the region after the North-Eastern Iraqi city of Mosul fell.

He has been in a Catholic missionary in the hills, 12 kilometres outside Amman in Jordan, for the last seven months.

Iraqi refugee Salah Beshara. Photograpgh by Andrew Dodd

Iraqi refugee Salah Beshara. Photograpgh by Andrew Dodd

“I’ve lost everything. Lost our houses, we have palaces in Iraq,” he says. “We have no salary. ISIS came and took everything.”

Salah is angry about the way he and thousands of fellow Christians were treated. 

“My neighbours are the ones who took my house,” he says. They are “the ones I lived with in good times and bad times.”

Last month Beshara had surgery on his stomach and is now recovering at the Our Lady of Peace Center, where many other Iraqi refugees are living.

He says, “The most difficult thing is emotional stress, no work, no job. We are here relying on the Jordanian churches that have housed us and the organisation Caritas that has helped us with food supplies.”

Many of the refugees at the mission are housed in portable cabins. They are unable to work and homesick. But they have no intention of going back home while Mosul is still occupied by ISIS.

Salwan Muktar, another Iraqi refugee sitting with Beshara, asks, “Who will give me back my dignity? Our churches have been confiscated. Our money has been taken. Our shops have been taken. They have let us leave just without clothes.”

Muktar knew it was time to leave when ISIS rebels spray-painted the words “property of the Islamic State” on the front of his house.  Underneath was the letter ‘N’, labelling him as a Christian to his community.

Muktar showed us a photo of his house. It had two-storeys, high decorative fences and a curved balcony and awning.

Salwan Muktar's home with ISIS sign “Property of the Islamic State”. Photograph supplied by Salwan Muktar

Salwan Muktar's home with ISIS sign “Property of the Islamic State”. Photograph supplied by Salwan Muktar

He had only lived in his house for 10 days before he had to flee.  

He was becoming emotional as he said the photo “brings back memories of my home, of my life.” 

Pointing at Muktar, Beshara said, “His story represents the stories of all the Iraqis.  This is the story of one. There are 35,000 Iraqis that have been dislocated in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

We are feeling that our future is not clear in Iraq we don’t know what to do, and here, we don’t know what’s happening in this life.”

Beshara has applied to the United Nations for resettlement. He hopes to be accepted by a country in Europe to be with his family, which is spread across the continent.

He says, I have a member of my family “in Holland, one in Germany, one in Denmark, one in Sweden and one in Cyprus.”

But he is still waiting for reply from the UN, “I had an interview on the 13th of May and they delayed it and I don’t know what’s going to happen. So my future is unknown.”

Palestinian Art and Culture in the Irbid Refugee Camp

Christine Byllaardt, Caitlin Mcmullen, and Stephen Jones

The Irbid Refugee camp is 40 kilometres from the Syrian border, in the northwest corner of Jordan. The site is spread across 24 hectares and houses over 30,000 people.

The camp began with around 4,000 Palestinian refugees in 1951, after they were displaced from their homelands during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Today it is also home for some of those who fled the Syrian crisis in 2011.

For the last 64 years, the refugees have managed to create a society of their own, in which they can retain their Palestinian identity.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) believes that when groups of refugees are together, “it is important to sustain cultural beliefs” within the camps.

The Palestinians in Irbid Refugee camp have found a unique way of keeping their culture alive through the next generation.

The children are taught to express their feelings about their homeland through street art. Ahmed Nassar teaches the children and is the manager of the graffiti in the camp.

“Here at the camp we do not see Palestine, but Palestine is inside, you live in it,” he says. 

Ahmed Nassar, manager of graffiti in Irbid refugee camp 

Ahmed Nassar, manager of graffiti in Irbid refugee camp 

Between performing shows around Jordan and the region, Ahmad Al Wheby visits the Irbid camp to teach the young generation how to sing. 

While growing up in the camp, Ahmed was in the second generation who were taught to maintain the belief that one day they will have the right to return to Palestine. 

Art bringing home closer

Art bringing home closer