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September 12, 2012

From a brief bus tour of the from bus, the Olive Tree Initiative was able to watch the day begin in the Wehdat Refugee Camp and get a sense of the scale of some of Jordan’s oldest refugee camps.

Unfortunately, the Jordanian official assigned to travel with the group would only allow a tour from the vehicle.

OTI’s short stay in Jordan offered the students an opportunity to broaden their vision of the conflict, removing themselves from the more limited Israel-Palestine conflict to consider the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.

Among the Arab countries bordering Israel and the disputed Palestinian territories, many argue Jordan has felt the long-term effects of conflict most heavily as a result of Jordan’s massive Palestinian refugee population.

Soon after leaving the Wehdat Camp, the bus would come to a stop in a drastically different neighborhood, at Amman’s Al-Hussein Cultural Center.

Prince El Hassan bin Talal sat with students and faculty after the more formal portion of the meeting, taking questions and offering his opinion on regional social and political issues. Credit: Tasha Locke

Here, the group met Prince El Hassan bin Talal, a member of the Jordanian royal family (uncle of the current Jordanian King Abdullah) and statesman who has worked extensively on peacemaking and interfaith initiatives.

Seated in a conference room with various government officials, students prepared questions, exchanged last-minute notes and fidgeted with their collars and ties.

Any nervousness was soon forgotten, however, as Prince El Hassan arrived and made rounds around the room, greeting and making jokes with students.

Having played host to millions of refugees for generations, Jordan’s refugee camps are among the largest in the world. But Jordan’s refugee population is not limited to those of Palestinian origin – the Arab uprisings and the war in Iraq have spurred the flight of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the country.

Jordan’s burden comes largely as a byproduct of its multiple shared borders with Israel, Iraq and Syria, Prince El Hassan said. Domestically, the refugee crisis plays a central role in Jordan’s politics.

UC Irvine Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham and UC Santa Cruz alumnus Sami Abdelhalim speak with Prince El Hassan bin Talal. Credit: Tasha Locke

In addition to highlighting the domestic political importance of Jordan’s refugee crisis, Prince El Hassan spoke to the group of the spending dichotomy between the military budgets of states in the region and humanitarian and social projects in the same countries, as well as the condition of democracy and human rights in the region.

When questioned on the Israel’s concerns of a nuclear Iran, the Prince El Hassan emphasized policies focused on “mutually assured survival” as opposed to “mutually assured destruction.”

Prince El Hassan is the founder of numerous organizations including the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman, Jordan. Credit: Tasha Locke

Following the Olive Tree Initiative’s meeting with Prince El Hassan, the group engaged in small discussion with various Jordanian politicians including former Jordanian prime minister Adnan Badran and Professor Kamel Abu Jaber, former Jordanian minister of foreign affairs and director of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies.

The group then reconvened at the Century Park Hotel to meet with a panel of speakers from Jordan’s civil society, business community and parliament.

The panel spoke about the Palestinian refugee population in Jordan, recent shifts in Jordan’s political sphere and reforms on the table in Jordan’s parliament. Although the panelists did not represent a consensus on any issue, they were able to lend insight to the complexity of the political reform in a traditional constitutional monarchy.

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To bring the group’s day to a close, Nura Sharrab of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (a UN body tasked specifically with providing assistance to Palestinian refugees) came to speak about her experience working with Palestinian refugees and the challenges that accompany serving a refugee population for decades at a time.

Sharrab spoke at length to the narrative behind Jordan’s refugee population, specifically the formative role of the Palestinian right of return in Jordan’s demographic imbalances. Sharrab said the challenge of identity in second and third generation refugees had complicated the issue of right of return and the lines between romanticism and connection to an area of land.

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