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Living in a Palestinian refugee camp


Vocational programs, including entrepreneurship training, spur refugee independence

by Bernard Sabella | Mission Crossroads

While playing in a refugee camp, children seem oblivious to their challenging circumstances. (Photo provided by DSPR Jordan)

GAZA — Life in a Palestinian refugee camp is a combination of desperate conditions and also a hopeful disposition by many of the refugees who live there.

Conditions in the camp reflect a high unemployment rate, particularly among youth. In the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, the unemployment rate reaches over 50%. Most young people, particularly women, do not find the opportunity to work. Likewise, in Jordan and Lebanon, unemployment among youth in the refugee camps there reaches nearly 40%, making life in these camps quite difficult for young people.

Confinement to life in a refugee camp keeps its inhabitants from full participation in the wider society. The refugee “stigma” rubs on one as a man or woman dares to search for better prospects outside the camp.

Living conditions provide the minimum that would keep the dignity of the refugee person. Refugee homes are very small, with up to 10 or more people crowded in a space ideally suitable for only one person, while more affluent and well-to-do families live outside the camp.

Hygiene and dietary restrictions add to an environment of stress for mothers and the camp community with open sewers in the alleys of the camp where children play.

The United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in 1949 by the U.N. General Assembly to support the needs of Palestinian refugees, following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The war led to the establishment of Israel as an independent state and saw the dispersion of more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians as refugees to neighboring areas and countries, including the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA continues to support the education, health and social and economic needs of the refugees in spite of the complete withdrawal of U.S. funding in 2018 from the agency. The U.S. used to be the biggest contributor to UNRWA with an annual grant of more than $300 million. With the education received in UNRWA schools and with primary health care at the agency’s clinics in the camps, refugee children grow up with some hope, and many go on either to vocational or to higher education, despite the constraints on employment opportunities.

Life must go on. The Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches, a long-time partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been in the field of refugee help since its establishment in the early 1950s. It operates today in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank with a branch in Nazareth that responds to the needs of the Arab community in Israel, many of whose members were originally displaced from their villages in Galilee following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Through its vocational programs in the Gaza Strip, health clinics in Jordan and Gaza, educational and community programs in Lebanon and the West Bank, and with interfaith and intergroup programs targeting educators and youth in Galilee, the department seeks to offer hope with dignity to thousands of beneficiaries, especially those living in refugee camps.

People in a refugee camp extend a helping hand to a woman named Um Khaled, who maintains her faith and hopes one day to be able to return home. (Photo by Paul Jeffrey|ACT Alliance, DSPR Jordan)

Some of the success stories in refugee camps reflect the determination of generations to rise above the changing circumstances of life in the camp. Of particular interest, the Palestinian and Syrian refugee women in Jordan (many Syrian refugees end up living in Palestinian refugee camps in both Jordan and Lebanon), after completing the “Start Your Own Business” course, did indeed succeed in initiating their own business.

Fatima Ni’meh, a mother of five, started an affordable children’s blanket- and quilt-making business. Her creations are sought after by refugees and others. Graduates of vocational training programs in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, including carpenters, blacksmiths, electricians and air-conditioning specialists, are quickly absorbed in the limited employment market in the Gaza Strip.

Our kindergarten in Lebanon enables young couples with children to seek work, despite the restrictions placed on Palestinians in the employment market. Perseverance with hope is what makes our programs and activities value-added. Husam Ali, a Palestinian who lives with his wife and four children in the Buss refugee camp in South Lebanon and also cares for his ailing parents, learned beekeeping skills through a DSPR farm-sponsored project. Even honeybees can contribute to the human dignity that keeps hope alive for Palestinian refugee families.

Hundreds of refugee women in the Gaza Strip and Jordan receive medical care at our primary health clinics, and extra medical attention as they go through the process of giving birth, ensuring their safety and that of their infants. Because of iron deficiency and anemia among the refugee children in the Gaza Strip, a special program tracks hundreds of children as they are brought up to the expected norms.

The success of the many Palestinian refugees and their families overcoming the difficult conditions of life in a refugee camp is encouraging. In the end, however, there remains a need to reach a political solution between Palestinians and Israelis to settle — once and for all — the refugee problem that has been ongoing for more than 70 years. Resolving this problem, as well as the broader political conflict, requires wise leadership that would insist on justice and respect for the rights of Palestinian refugees as a means to ensure eventual reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Consider supporting the work of World Mission in the Middle East:

This article is from the Fall 2019 issue of “Mission Crossroads” magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission and also available online at

Dr. Bernard Sabella is the executive director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is a retired associate professor of sociology from Bethlehem University in the town of Christ’s Nativity, where he taught for over 25 years.



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