Jordan Pulse

Palestinian refugees in Amman use painting to challenge UNRWA

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Article Summary
After the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East erased Palestinian symbols and slogans painted on the walls of a refugee camp's school in Jordan, artists gathered to duplicate messages on the structures facing the school.

Palestinian refugees at the Husn Camp north of Amman, locally known as Martyr Azmi al-Mufti Camp, have covered the walls facing a school with Palestinian symbols and slogans after similar art painted on the school itself was erased.

The coordinator of the initiative, Azzam Abu Malouh, told Al-Monitor, “The people of the camp came up with the idea. The refugees donated money to buy the paint while 10 Palestinian artists, both from the camp and outside, volunteered to paint. They believe it is important to remind the refugee children of the Palestinian cause and their homeland and to keep it alive in their hearts.”

He continued, “Painting on the walls of houses and shops surrounding the UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] school is only the first stage. Later on, we will work on changing the names of stores to the names of Palestinian towns and villages, adding some symbols and banners related to the Palestinian cause and the right of return.”

The initiative came in response to the decision by the UNRWA to remove various drawings and symbols from the walls of the school at the end of August. In a spontaneous, unorganized activity, professional and amateur artists in the camp had decorated the walls with the names of Palestinian towns and villages whose residents were driven out and displaced in 1948 and 1967 during what is known as the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) and Naksa (Setback). They also painted flags and slogans in support of the right of return.

The unsolicited art was painted over in a few days and replaced with slogans promoting science and education.

The artists responded by organizing an event Sept. 3 to paint the walls of the houses in the camp with graffiti, flags and banners. The camp's residents, including elderly people and young girls, sang Palestinian songs as they painted the walls white for the artists to work upon. Meanwhile, women prepared and offered meals for those who gathered. Artists drew Palestinian symbols such as Handala, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Palestine map on several shops and houses facing the school.

Painter Mohammed Mreyjib told Al-Monitor, “I painted Handala, a character created by Naji al-Ali, the famous Palestinian cartoonist. It is a 10-year-old boy who always has his back turned to the viewer, representing the defeat and weakness in Arab regimes. I also wrote, ‘no peace, no negotiations, no recognition.’ I added the names of the refugee camps in Jordan, as well as drawings depicting our right of return. I believe I sent a clear message to the UNRWA that they should not continue to ignore our Palestinian identity.”

The UNRWA, which is often criticized by both the Israeli and the Palestinian authorities for failing to maintain neutrality, maintains that the policies it has in place to ensure that both the agency and its employees remain impartial are critical to its mission. Earlier this year, spokesperson Christopher Gunness said that the organization's entire staff undergoes training in neutrality and social media. The UNRWA requires strict neutrality from its staff and facilities and forbids any action that could be interpreted as inciting or encouraging violence, conflict or racism.

According to UNRWA data, Jordan has more than 2 million registered refugees residing in 10 recognized camps and three others unrecognized by the UNRWA. The body recognizes and provides services for two types of Palestinian refugees: those who left their homes in 1948 and those displaced by the 1967 war. Nearly 22,000 refugees live in the tiny Husn Camp, established in 1968.

The Husn effort is not the first of its kind in Jordan. The refugees of Al Baqaa, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, gave their neighborhoods the names of Palestinian towns such as Jerusalem, Nablus and Hebron to keep the memory of their homeland alive.

UNRWA spokesperson Sami Mshasha did not return calls for comment. However, a source in the UNRWA press office told Al-Monitor that the UN agency had removed the Palestinian slogans and replaced them with “slogans encouraging education, which is more suitable for the school.”

The artists that participated in the event also criticized the educational curricula in Jordan that have been amended following the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1997. They accuse the Jordanian authorities of omitting certain texts and lessons, “which made the new generation of children oblivious of their Palestinian cause,” according to Mreyjib. He said that they have written letters to the UNRWA and refugees in the camp, urging families to ensure their children learn about Palestinian history and the land their ancestors were expelled from.

Kazem Ayesh, head of the Jordanian Society for Return and Refugees, told Al-Monitor, “The UNRWA is the biggest witness to the crimes committed against the Palestinian people. Its existence reflects the responsibility of the international community for what happened to the Palestinian people and is a reminder to the Palestinian generations of their cause.”

Ayesh asserted, “The UNRWA was not being neutral when it removed the Palestinian national slogans, as this is a bias against the feelings and national rights of refugees. The slogans did not represent a political position as much as an expression of national rights and a national cause." He added, "Some have bet that the new generation of Palestinians will forget about their rights and their Palestinian cause. One ought to recall the statement [attributed to] the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who said, 'The old will die and the young will forget.'”

Found in: Citizen protest

Mohammad Ersan is editor in chief of Ammannet.net and Radio al-Balad. He also reports for Arabi21 from Jordan, trains future broadcast journalists at regional symposia and has contributed to establishing independent broadcast stations in Istanbul and Syria. Ersan focuses on covering Islamist groups and political parties. He completed his bachelor's degree in journalism and media with a minor in political science at Yarmouk University.

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