From refugee to rescuer: bringing food to the masses in Al Baqaa

We meet the former resident of Jordan’s most populous refugee camp who has returned ‘home’ to deliver more than 500 much-needed hot meals to poverty-stricken families still living in its squalid conditions

Mahmoud Alghniemat was born and raised in Al Baqaa refugee camp. Courtesy Charlie Faulkner
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Pulling the car up alongside a concrete wall that acts as the final frontier before the valley below in a north west district of Amman, Mahmoud Alghniemat turns off the ignition and climbs out. Making his way to the wall, he points to the sprawling mass of buildings in the distance, surrounded by hills and farmland, and explains that it is Al Baqaa refugee camp – Jordan's largest camp in terms of population. A highway snakes through the middle of the view and Alghniemat identifies the original camp, formed in 1968, which lies to the right of it. To the left are newer buildings, where the camp's swelling population has overflowed to escape the increasing suffocation, he tells The National.

Everyone who lives in the camp dreams of leaving it.

Climbing back into the car, Alghniemat, 30, starts the engine and begins the descent to Al Baqaa. "Everyone who lives in the camp dreams of leaving it," he says. Home to more than 124,000 people, ­predominantly Palestinians, life is destitute for those who live there. As one of the 10 camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Jordan, Al Baqaa is ranked second in terms of unemployment, while about half of the Palestinian refugees living there do not have health insurance and maintenance of the decaying infrastructure is a major challenge. After the US announced it would end its $360-million (Dh1.3-billion) annual contribution to the UNRWA last August, the organisation has been forced to operate in "crisis mode", which has meant it is barely able to continue core services let alone programmes aimed at improving the quality of life for the camp's residents.

The view of the camp from a hill in the north west of Amman. Charlie Faulkner

Originally from Hebron in the occupied West Bank, Alghniemat's parents fled to Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and he was born and raised in the camp. His parents only had the means to leave three years ago and the family now lives in the north of Amman. Alghniemat knows only too well the poverty-­stricken life faced by those living in Al Baqaa and the tremendous struggle they contend with on a daily basis. In 2013, he launched his charity Good Hands Volunteers to help those most in need. Throughout Ramadan, he and several of his 35 volunteers carry out the magnanimous task of providing hot meals for 500 people every day. "I know these people, I understand what they need and they trust me. I knew I could help them," says Alghniemat.

Food parcels and hot meals are distributed through the camp thanks to a network of volunteers. Charlie Faulkner

Turning off the main highway and into the camp, he navigates the car through narrow and dusty streets, forced to fight his way around the many other vehicles vying for the same limited road space. The conditions are squalid; litter lines the streets and piles of rubbish are heaped along the central reservation; children play in the filth and the buildings have been built so densely there is barely room to move. The scene is hopelessly desperate. 

"Life in the camp is deteriorating – there are a lot of problems," says Alghniemat, who has witnessed a marked change in conditions over the past 12 months. "I've seen a growing number of young people failing to attend school, instead getting mixed up in alcohol and drugs. Violence and crime are also big issues here. My biggest concern is that the camp is becoming an incubator for antisocial behaviour and radicalisation."

Piles of rubbish can be seen everywhere throughout the camp. Charlie Faulkner

Throughout the rest of the year, after Ramadan, Alghniemat also delivers food parcels and cash to more than 160 families. In the winter, he and his team also carry out crucial maintenance work on homes. "We do what we can but it's not enough," he says.

Good Hands Volunteers operates thanks to donations from local business owners. An average of 500 JOD (Dh2,590) is received every month, but 2,000 JOD has been donated during this year's Ramadan alone. However, Alghniemat says much higher amounts have been received in previous years.

“The economic crisis the country is facing is having a big impact. In recent months, we’ve had far less financial support and food donations. The local population is also in need right now,” he says.

Fathia Al Jawabrah is struggling to survive following the death of her husband. Charlie Faulkner

He parks the car outside the home of Fathia Al Jawabrah, 63, and her only daughter Asmaa, who is 27. Their single-storey box-shape "house" has been constructed using a steel frame, concrete walls and corrugated roofing which, until recently, did not extend far enough to stop water leaking inside the building when it rained. In the winter, the shed-like building is bitterly cold and, in the summer, it offers no respite from the relentless Jordanian heat. Thanks to Alghniemat's help, the house has now been mostly sealed to stop the leaking rainwater and walls that were beginning to crumble have been secured.

A smiling Fathia welcomes Alghniemat inside. Born in Gaza, she moved to the camp in 1988 when she married her husband Rashid, a former lorry mechanic. Last year, Rashid was diagnosed with cancer and died four months ago. With no relatives in Jordan, Fathia now relies totally on her daughter's meagre monthly wage of 270 JOD to survive.

Fathia's grief over her husband is still incredibly raw and tears stream down her face as she talks about life without her husband. "It's so hard. We were together for such a long time. He was everything to me," she tells The National as she wipes her face with a tissue.

The bathroom can be seen on the right and where a gaping hole remains above Fathia Al Jawabrah's front door. Charlie Faulkner

"The only way I survive each day is through my faith. As a Muslim, I believe I will meet him in the next life. I'm simply waiting to be reunited with him."

Fathia's husband was among those camp residents without health insurance. As a result, Fathia and Asmaa were forced to borrow money and sell sentimental pieces of jewellery to pay for his hospital care. Their situation was so desperate they were not even able to pay for petrol to fuel the heater to keep Rashid warm during his final days. "Now I only have Asmaa. I'm scared that if my daughter gets married, there will be no one to take care of me," says Fathia.

Asmaa studied management and tourism at the Arab Society College in Amman and she now works six days a week in an administrative position at a textile factory. The pair say they are not eligible for financial support from the government because Asmaa has a job and they rely heavily on Alghniemat’s help as a result.

The management of the camp is shared between Jordan's government and the UNRWA. The organisation is responsible for rubbish collection and core services such as education, relief, shelter rehabilitation and health services, as well as financial assistance for cases within the social safety network.

Currently, the organisation is facing chronic financial problems because of the loss of US aid, Mohammed Adar, the newly appointed director of the UNRWA in Jordan, tells The National. "The US's decision to reduce last year's funding and then finally cut the entire budget came as a big shock to us," says Adar.

Fortunately, other countries came to the organisation's aid and disruption of core services was largely avoided, he says. However, sourcing funding for this year is a big concern and due to lack of funds, the UNRWA is facing difficulties in staff procurement, obtaining medical supplies and providing services that could improve the refugees' quality of life.

“The amount of people in need is growing, but the resources aren’t and we’ve been forced to reprioritise among the needy,” says Adar. “We face a big challenge, but giving up is not an option.”

Last Thursday, the head of the UNRWA Pierre Krahenbuhl rejected the US’s latest proposal to dismantle the organisation and instead have host countries take over the services it provides.

For now, Alghniemat will continue to provide help to those he can while he still has the support of volunteers and donors.