en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 20, Number 3May/June 1969

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

A Day In The Live Of Ibrahim Badran

Written by Elias Antar
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Not all refugees live in camps.

In the past 20 years, in fact, two thirds of the 1948 refugees—some 450,000 people—have refused to stay in the camps. They have gone on instead to build new lives in other Arab lands.

But these were the fortunate ones. The doctors and teachers. The masons and carpenters. The educated and the trained.

The others, farmers and laborers, the unschooled and unskilled, could not leave. They had to stay in camps; there were no other options. And although they number about one million now, they still have no other options. They still have to stay in camps.

This is the story of one of them.

According to Cassell's English dictionary, a refugee is "one who flees to a place of refuge, especially one who takes refuge in a foreign country in time of war or persecution or political commotion." In the Middle East, that definition certainly fits the refugees from what was once called Palestine. All have fled to a place of refuge in time of war, persecution and political commotion. And if the Arab countries in which the refugees live are not really foreign, they are still not home.

But beyond that general description, there are many different kinds of refugees. Some are cabinet ministers, politicians, administrators or government bureaucrats. Others, over the years, have become doctors, engineers, educators, lawyers, scientists and businessmen. Many are successful. A few are wealthy.

The well-off, however, are a distinct minority and their daily lives are no different from those of men of their position anywhere else in the world. The rest, unfortunately, fit only too well the general concept of the refugee: penniless, destitute, bitter people who live in teeming, squalid camps, who work when they can find any but usually cannot, and who spend their days in hopeless discouragement. People who have done their best in a situation where their best was of no avail. People like Ibrahim AH Badran.

Ibrahim Ali Badran is a farmer. Until 1948, he grew olives, figs and grapes on seven acres of land in Beit Suosein in the Ramleh district of Palestine near Tel Aviv. With the creation of Israel and the outbreak of war he fled across the mountains to Jericho, and ended up in one of the three great refugee camps that soon grew up there.

Ibrahim was sure then that he would return to his farm when the war was over. But when the war did end he learned he could not go home. He tried, he said, but found he could not, and the years began to go by.

In Jericho, on the West Bank of the Jordan River, there was not much for another farmer to do. Ibrahim had no money and in any case there was no land for sale. From time to time he hired out as seasonal help to some local farmers, but there were already too many men for the little arable land available and now there were thousands of refugees looking for work too. As the years went by, however, the refugees, with the help of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), developed an economy of sorts and a peaceful, if not bountiful, life.

Then two years ago, in June, 1967, the Arab-Israeli war broke out for the third time and again the refugees fled, this time across the Jordan River to the East Bank, and sought shelter in an emergency tent city thrown up as soon as the fighting was over by UNRWA and the Jordan government. Later they moved to a camp in sight of Jericho.

In the new camp it was as though the hands on the clock had been turned back 19 years. Except that it was worse. Now the best land was on the other side of the river, along with the empty houses, the deserted schools and clinics. On the other hand, there was no better place to go, so Ibrahim stayed on—stayed on, that is, until February, 1968 when the unceasing Israeli-Jordanian clashes across the river began to mount in fury. Then he and his family fled one more time, settling at last in a camp a few miles outside Amman, the capital of Jordan. There in an UNRWA tent 12 feet long by 9 feet wide, he again took up the monotonous day-to-day existence that is the lot of refugees from Vietnam to Biafra.

One day, this spring, Ibrahim and his family awoke early. Farmers to the bone, they had never quite broken the habit of waking before sunrise. While his wife fed the baby Ibrahim dressed, went outside and walked 50 yards to the nearest latrine. It was a corrugated iron and cement cubicle that served its purpose and may even have met the minimum standards of health and sanitation. But the stench was overpowering.

Returning to the tent, he found his wife had prepared a breakfast of bread and cheese and placed it in two aluminum plates on the canvas floor. The family sat in a circle and ate silently, the children rather reluctantly. Ibrahim's eldest son, 16, got up first, said goodbye and walked to the line of buses waiting outside the camp, waiting to take passengers to Amman.

Ibrahim's son often went to Amman. There was little else for him to do. He tried to look for work occasionally but it was so obviously useless that after a while he rarely did more than go through the motions. There were just too many people, and too little work.

The children left next, the older ones off to their tent school, the younger ones outside to play in the brown dust. Some children did not go to the school tents set up at the edge of the camp, but Ibrahim insisted that his children go. His wife left last, hoisting an empty petrol tin onto her shoulder and trudging off to a pump to get some water. Ibrahim was alone.

For a few minutes he sat quietly in the tent, sipping his coffee. Then he moved to a rock outside the tent and lit his first cigarette of the long day. Now what?

For Mustapha Hussein, a portly 45-year-old field laborer from the Jerusalem area, that question did not arise, at least for today. He had work to do. He was going to dig a latrine.

With two friends, Hussein had managed to land a subcontract to dig five latrine pits in their section of the vast camp. The contract had been awarded by UNRWA to a contractor, and he in turn had handed it to the three men. They would get half the money and the contractor the other half.

Hussein and one partner, his friend Abdullah, mere already halfway down the third pit that morning and their partner was starting on the fourth. Hussein met his friend at the worksite, and Abdullah dropped down into the hole and began digging with a pickaxe. They were supposed to share the digging, but in fact Abdullah did most of it. A lean and grizzled 60-year-old, he fitted into the cramped 7-foot hole much more easily than the portly Hussein. But Hussein was not idle. Hitching his striped silver-and-blue ankle-length robe to his belt, he began to carry the earth away in a rubber bucket made from an old truck tire. "It's hard work in this packed earth," Hussein said. "If we strike rock halfway down, we have to start all over again and we don't get paid for the unfinished hole."

The three men would each get the equivalent of $3.20 for the whole job—"barely cigarette money" as Abdullah put it—but for that day at least they had work and they made the most of it.

Ibrahim finished his cigarette and walked to the administrative and food storage sheds at the edge of the camp. Maybe something new was happening. As he walked, he remembered that his turn to collect his family's monthly rations was coming up in two days. He was used to the routine, and it did give him something to do, but he didn't like it. It meant rising at 4 a.m. to get a place in line and then waiting until 10 a.m. when the food distribution began. He knew that by the time his turn came he would be sweltering, his headcloth would be brown with windblown dust and he would be cursing the U.N., the government, the police—everyone, in short, who could remotely be blamed for the fact that he, Ibrahim, had to stand in line for food for his family. Besides, he felt like everybody else that the rations weren't enough. The biggest item for each member of the family was 22 pounds of flour, plus small amounts of beans, sugar, rice and 13 oz. of oil. On rare occasions there was some jam, or a couple of tins of preserved fruit.

At the administrative section of the camp, all was as it had been the day before, and the week before, and the month before. Nothing new. He turned back past the UNRWA supply sheds the usual crowd of men and women milling around them, and walked through the market place of the camp to a makeshift coffee house of canvas and wooden poles which had been erected by an enterprising refugee with a little capital and was run by another. There, in the din of the blaring radio and the cries of the vendors outside, he sat down with some friends for a cup of coffee.

As usual, the talk was of the latest developments in the Middle East. Ibrahim didn't own a radio, so he asked what the morning newscasts had to say. There wasn't much but they discussed it anyway and decided as they did every day that this state of affairs couldn't go on for much longer. Something had to happen. They had to go back home soon. They had to.

The wistful ritual over, the men retired to the shade of a large tent in a quieter part of the camp for a game of sija, a variation of checkers. They usually traced out the pattern for the game in the dust and played with white stones and bottle caps for counters, but recently they had gotten hold of a real set. Ibrahim played a bit but then became restless. He withdrew and walked over to a noisy crowd of refugees he had been noticing for some time.

The people were gathered around a group of visiting officials from Amman, clamoring and reciting their woes. Ibrahim thought of pressing forward and asking them if they could provide any work but decided against it. In his experience, such visitors never could.

At another camp 25 miles away, Hafez Khomayyes was not so diffident. He stepped forward eagerly and invited a visitor from the city into his tent for a cup of coffee. His expansiveness was automatic, for Khomayyes had been a candidate from Bethlehem in the last general elections and despite his reduced circumstances, the smooth air of the politician still clung to him.

A man in his 50's, Khomayyes was an incongruous figure in the general drabness of the camp in his long white robe and city shoes.

"I have no money," Khomayyes said simply. "I brought some with me when we left, but I have spent it all. Now I live on U.N. rations, and some friends from Bethlehem who live here in the camp also help me out. They are refugees too but they are more fortunate than I am. I do nothing all day," Khomayyes added. "What is there to do? I almost never go to the city because there is no work to be had there. There is none here either."

Turning in sudden irritation, Ibrahim strode past the crowd and headed back to his tent. On the way he met two of his children just leaving their classes. They were going to the camp kitchens for their hot noonday meal, a service provided by the Jordan government through UNRWA's facilities. He started along with his children, then stopped, his eye caught by an unusual sight in the new camp: a small patch of ripening tomatoes.

For Moussa Jibrin, who tended it with loving care, that tomato patch was a tenuous link with home. Originally from a village in the Hebron area, inhere he had owned a few acres of land, Jibrin had fled to Ramallah in 1948 and was lucky enough to become a tenant farmer, even though he no longer owned land. But when he fled once again in 1967, he ended up practically penniless.

He had planted the tomato patch, about the size of a large dining-room table, to supplement his rations and to sell the surplus. A kilo of tomatoes brought in the equivalent of 22 cents on a good day.

Jibrin protected the tomatoes by erecting a thornbush shelter around the patch to keep out grazing goats that belonged to the people in the adjoining tent. His father, a stooped old man in a red fez and long silvery robe, also sat by the patch during the day to keep an eye on it. Zainab, the eldest of Jibrin's children and a graceful figure in the traditional embroidered robes, watered the plants whenever Jibrin was away on his occasional visits to Amman to look for work.

Since the tomatoes fetched so little money, was the effort worth it? "We have to plant something," Zainab said.

Glancing at the sun, Ibrahim realized it must be time for the noon broadcast. He saw a group of men huddled around a radio against the side of a ramshackle grocery store and joined them. They listened to one station, then another, then heard a couple of songs and switched to a third station to hear more news. Nothing new.

When he returned to his tent for lunch, Ibrahim found his children playing outside and his wife sweating over a kerosene stove with a tin pail on it. From all the tents nearby came the hissing of stoves, the chatter of women talking, the whining of children. The family sat down to lunch on the floor, the pail now on a cement block to raise it from the ground. The food was the same as yesterday—a simple stew of rice and beans with a few pieces of meat. They ate in silence, one of the children occasionally shooing a curious hen away from the entrance of the tent.

The meal over and the children out at play again, Ibrahim began to doze, the baby next to him. His wife picked up some clothes that needed patching and went to see a friend who had somehow managed to bring her sewing machine with her when she had fled across the river.

Later, Ibrahim decided it was time for a look at the papers. He went to the coffee house, where some refugees returning from Amman had brought a newspaper with them. They passed the paper around. Everyone looked at the pictures. Somebody read a few items out loud. Some of the stories aroused interest and there was a discussion about whether it would be better to leave the camp and try to live in Amman. They knew the city was terribly overcrowded but if they were on the spot, wouldn't it be easier to find work?

Soleiman Issa could have told them it made no difference. He had been living in Amman ever since he fled from his farm near Hebron,, and had been just as luckless as the camp refugees in finding a job.

A spare tall man of 60, Issa and his family lived in one room and owed several months' rent on it. But he didn't complain much. Despite the cramped quarters, Issa knew he was more fortunate than other refugees, some of whom lived in caves in the rocky hillsides overlooking the city.

"I am an old man now," said Issa, a timeless figure in long gray robes and a skullcap on the back of his head. "Too old to fight, too old to emigrate and start again. I can do nothing but farm, and I have lost my land. There is nothing for me to do."

As the discussion went on, listlessly, mechanically, Ibrahim sat and listened, sometimes participating, sometimes just staring into space.

By this time it was dusk, and Ibrahim got up and returned to his tent. He found that his wife had taken the baby to have its tuberculosis shot at the camp clinic earlier in the afternoon and still had not returned.

Ibrahim lounged at the door of the tent and smoked yet another cigarette. At this time of day in his village, he reflected, he might be sitting at the door of his house gazing out over the undulating fields stretching to the horizon. Here there was no horizon. There was only the next row of tents.

Not all refugees live in camps.

In the past 20 years, in fact, two thirds of the 1948 refugees—some 450,000 people—have refused to stay in the camps. They have gone on instead to build new lives in other Arab lands.

But these were the fortunate ones. The doctors and teachers. The masons and carpenters. The educated and the trained.

The others, fanners and laborers, the unschooled and unskilled, could not leave. They had to stay in camps; there were no other options. And although they number about one million now, they still have no other options. They still have to stay in camps.

This is the story of one of them.

Elias Antar, an AP correspondent, writes regularly for Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the May/June 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1969 images.