[home]Picture being forced to leave home during wartime, travel to a different country and begin an unknown future. You leave behind a house, a town, a lifestyle your family has known for generations. Your new home is now a tent in a congested camp with limited services. In your old life, you may have been a proud, self-productive farmer. Now you must rely on international relief agencies for the most basic human needs. Your old country has a different name and a different group of people living there. You’re a refugee.
Along with the loss of your home and country, your sense of identity and belonging has surely been altered. The country you remember does not exist and is replaced by a foreign entity and foreign institutions. Meanwhile, your new country may or may not have granted you full citizenship rights. What have you become, and what do you think of yourself? How is your national identity wrapped up in a geographic location, and how does it change once that homeland ceases to exist?
Over 50 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians found themselves in this very condition. Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the subsequent creation of the Israeli state, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimated the number of dispelled Palestinian refugees at over 900,000. Jordan absorbed roughly 100,000 of these. Most Palestinians have refused to forget their homeland. As an enduring act of resistance, and with the expectation of their inevitable return, many refugees have retained the keys and original deeds to their homes in the historic Palestine they were forced to leave.
Beginning this semester, anthropology graduate student Michael Perez plans to step outside the boundaries of East Lansing and travel to Jordan, which has 10 official Palestine refugee camps. Funded by a Fulbright Scholarship, he is exploring the complexities of Palestinian national identity in the context of the Jordanian refugee camp by conducting interviews with the camps’ inhabitants. [quote1]
“Some Palestinians living in the camps have Jordanian citizenship, but many others do not,” he said. Perez plans to investigate how refugee status, coupled with various levels of civic and social acceptance, has shaped the national identity of Palestine refugees. Although scores of Palestinians have lived in Jordan for over a half century, making it hard to imagine Jordanian society without the cultural influence of the Palestinian refugee, many Palestinians may not see themselves as full participants in the Jordanian social order.
“I believe [Michael’s] work has the potential to shed invaluable insight on the plight of Palestinian refugees,” said third-year law student Bassam Abed, who is a Palestinian-American. “Michael’s work with refugees resonates deeply with me since my mother was born in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, the infamous site of the Ariel Sharon-led 1982 massacre. Through her refugee experiences, I feel intimately connected with other Palestinian refugees. Michael’s work tells the story not only of the refugees that he encounters in Jordan but, in a sense, all Palestinian refugees.”
The backdrop of any discussion concerning Palestinian national identity is what the Palestinians call the “Right of Return.” They maintain that all refugees have both a moral and legal right to return to Palestine, including much of the land that is now Israel. The belief in the “Right of Return” means many Palestinians may see their refugee status as temporary and hold steadfast to the idea of a national reunification in historic Palestine.
This proposition is legally rooted in United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 194, stating, “[R]efugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” However, Israel maintains that carrying this out would be troublesome for the demographic of the Jewish state. The very idea could indeed threaten Israeli national identity. Most challengers maintain that UNGA Resolutions are generally not enforced and most enforcement actions are politically motivated.
Abed said he sees his “Palestinian identity” through the lens of community and national activism. “For me, being Palestinian means much more than merely embracing the society’s rich culture,” he said. “It requires political advocacy and providing a voice for my Palestinian brothers and sisters whose cries of injustice fall on deaf ears. Thus, the virtually unconditional alliance between the U.S. and Israel, regardless of the latter’s policies toward the Palestinians, is where the tension lies. Nevertheless, I overcome this tension by using my American identity to hold my government accountable to its own high standards with regards to the Palestinians.”
Perez plans to focus his study on two particular refugee camps in Jordan, the Jerash and Souf camps, both north of the capital of Amman. “Colloquially, the Jerash camp is known as the Gaza camp,” said Perez. “None of [the refugees] have [Jordanian] citizenship.” Jerash was established as an “emergency” camp in 1968 for approximately 11,500 Palestine refugees who fled the Gaza Strip after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. As of 2003, the number of registered refugees has grown to 21,000. UNRWA attempts to provide all inhabitants with food, education, sanitation and health services. However, the medical staff remains strained, as only three doctors and one dentist provide daily healthcare to roughly 500 patients.
Souf was also established after the war in 1968 but has an unstable past. Shortly after its creation, the camp was abandoned because of harsh weather and the refugees were displaced once again. The new location, a community of tents in the Jordan Valley, proved dangerous as military operations in the area intensified. The refugees again were moved back to the Souf camp. [quote3]
Perez, a Muslim originally from Florida, has traveled to the Middle East twice before. He has spent time in the West Bank village of Jenin where he conducted interviews with Palestinians about the struggles they faced in their daily lives. He also documented what he considered to be human rights abuses by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians. Just last summer he traveled to Jordan for intensive education in Arabic and to establish the logistical ground work for his anticipated return this January.
When asked about the methods he uses to select research participants, Perez says his methodology can be described as “snowball” sampling. Because some refugees may be skeptical of official staff, Perez prefers not to go through UNRWA to select participants. “I don’t want [to be seen as] a mouthpiece,” he said. “What I’m looking for are honest accounts not connected to the camp’s [administrators].” Otherwise, Perez fears he would raise “unwarranted suspicions” among the refugees. Instead, he has been able to build relationships with Palestinian refugees through the Muslim community in the East Lansing area. Some area Muslims have family that have remained in the camps and Perez has found that making personal contacts this way increases his ability to get sincere, personal accounts. Without connections to the camps’ officials, Perez believes he is able to gain greater trust and confidence in his interviewees. It has been his hope these interviewees will then feel comfortable enough to direct him to other interviewees and so on.
MSU’s Department of Anthropology has no specific Middle East focus; nonetheless, it has remained supportive of Perez’s research interests. Although the issue of Palestine refugees can be seen as controversial, Perez has found the four members of his academic guidance committee to be encouraging. While three are in the anthropology department and have no Middle East academic background, the fourth is a member of the English Literature Department and is considered to be an expert in the region. According to Perez, he said, “[The committee] has given me the freedom to develop my own project.”
Perez hopes that his research will be helpful not only for outsiders to understand the Palestinian condition and the conception of a national identity in the absence of a political state, but also to Palestinians themselves. He is part of an increasing group of scholars who are critically studying the politics of national and self-identity of the Palestinian Diaspora.
Perez plans to spend at least one year studying in the camps. His wife, a native Arabic speaker born in Algeria and raised in the United States, plans to help with translations of interviews. After the first year, Perez hopes that his funding will continue and permit him to stay for an additional six months, allowing him to conduct further interviews and more comprehensive research. “Ultimately,” Perez said, “I hope [this research] will be useful to Palestinians.”
Abed responds to questions concerning his national identity and the absence of a universally recognized Palestinian state by explaining, “My national Palestinian identity, similar to most Palestinians, transcends national borders,” he said. “Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, it is the very struggle to establish a just state that instilled in me my Palestinian identity so deeply.”

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