The story began in 1948 in Palestine when many people and families who lived a normal and bright life in their own land suddenly woke up to Zionist soldiers and gangs, violently expelling them out of their homes and taking over their lands. This was the Nakba, which caused death, destruction and displacement; and which is still ongoing. This article gives a short oversight about how the majority of the Palestinian society became refugees and what some of their current challenges are.
Over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their lands upon the creation of the Zionist State in 1948. Moreover, the Six-Day War, or Naksa, in 1967 created more Palestinian refugees fleeing from their lands. Many of them went to neighboring Arab states and others were internally displaced to other areas of Palestine. In total, there are now 68 Palestinian refugee camps dispersed all around the country and the neighboring states. One of them is the Deheishe refugee camp, which was founded in 1949 on an area of roughly 430 dunums (about 1 square kilometre) within the city boundaries of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
In 1949, the UN established the UNRWA “with a mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to registered Palestine refugees in the Agency’s area of operations… pending a just and lasting solution to their plight” (unrwa.org). UNRWA is almost entirely funded on international contributions, and it gives services such as education, health care, relief and social services, protection, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance (unrwa.org).
Refugees in the West Bank
While Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have struggled for decades with poverty, unclear legal status and sometimes even additional wars or a second or third displacement, refugees on the West Bank have majorly come under “the rule” of the Palestinian Authority with a heavy grip from the Israeli military occupation ruling their lives. The West Bank has 19 refugee camps spread out in it. Refugee camps are usually crowded, have less adequate services, and face military attacks by the Israeli soldiers. However, they are also some of the strongest places of resistance against the ongoing military occupation, as their people are nationalistic and most of the youth there are resilient and ready to face the soldiers to stand up for their people and their rights.
Refugees in Deheishe camp originated from more than 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron. The camp was created as a temporary humanitarian solution to the problem of accommodating expelled Palestinian families. At first, they were crowded in tents and suffered extreme conditions throughout the year. Towards the end of the 1950s, the UNRWA started to build very simple living units: A single room of 10 square metres, 10 cm thick and 2.45 metres high walls, a steel roof and a floor made of rough concrete. Those structures were always bitterly cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. Therefore, more and more refugees started to build their own houses so as not to live in the UNRWA-shacks any longer.
Deheishe camp, established in 1949, was originally built to serve 3000 refugees, but the number of residents has now reached at least 15,000 (unrwa.org). As the overpopulated camp is housing 5 times as many people as originally planned, the families that could afford so choose to leave and settle somewhere else in the surrounding areas.
The camp doesn’t have parks or adequate playgrounds, as there’s very little space for them, although some institutions such as Kindergartens decorate their concrete floor with some plastic grass mats to create the image of a safe environment for the children to play. In schools however, children are surrounded by concrete walls and floors and have little equipment to play. Although the camp has organizations that target children and youth with activities, there is still a lack of safe public spaces where children can play. Therefore, many of them just play around in the narrow streets, with cars and vehicles passing around, which is sometimes dangerous for the children.
The camp does have lots of small shops and some public centers. As for water and electricity, the camp barely covers its need of them. Sometimes there are electricity cuts, and water is generally scarce and usually cuts. That’s why people use rooftop water tanks and sometimes wells in order not to run out of water.
Health and Environment
The UNRWA has installed a health center in Dheisheh as well as an environmental health office. However, there are still not many doctors and specialists, and medical treatment fees are getting higher while UNRWA is covering less and giving less support.
The UNRWA has also installed a sewage network and waste disposal system. However, the sewerage experiences frequent blockages and needs rehabilitation (unrwa.org). As well, the camp needs more sewage water pipes, and some people use sewage water tanks, which sometimes leak, causing pollution, and thus you might see dead rats on the streets. As for the trash system, although the UNRWA supposedly takes care of it, it still doesn’t serve in some areas of the camp as it claims they’re out of the camp and out of their scope. Therefore, waste collection is not adequate and the camp has small landfills in the streets, and sometimes, waste is burned as a way of getting rid of it, which causes air pollution and health hazards.
Getting an education in the refugee camps is a responsibility of the UNRWA. However, UNRWA schools are smaller and less equipped than others, which results in students having two shifts of school per day in the morning and afternoon. Moreover, classes are overcrowded with over 50 students, compared to around 30 or less in other schools, which makes it hard to get efficient education. Right now, there are 4 UNRWA schools in Dheisheh camp serving nearly 2,150 students, and one of them was recently demolished because of its bad construction.
Furthermore, during Covid-19, schools started using different tools to keep education going while the UNRWA schools have suffered harder and lacked the (financial) capacity to keep their education going, as they weren’t able to movie to an online education system. Thus, most UNRWA students have only attended classes for short periods of time in the school year 2020-2021. We found out that many mothers with school-aged children noticed their kids were struggling and performing worse academically, as 61.4% of our respondents stated so.
Dheisheh camp has a very active civil society with many community-based organizations (CBOs) a local council and active local political parties. Therefore, there are centers and organizations that engage children, youth and women, and give programs, activities and training. Still, work needs to be done to improve civil society and especially give all camp children an opportunity to gather and play and spend their time safely, and not in the streets.