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In overcrowded Gaza Strip, displaced refugees yearn to return home

Photo: AFSC

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, where 1.7 million Palestinians live on 139 square miles. More than half of the population is constituted of refugees, who in 1948 fled or were expelled from their origi­­nal homes in what is now Israel, to find themselves on an unfamiliar territory that was not originally their own.

Overcrowding in Gaza is a serious problem, and there is no personal space for individuals. Young people are forced to study in kitchens, on roofs, in their grandparents’ homes, which several recent studies have shown is linked to lower academic achievement. Young married couples can hardly enjoy their privacy either.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), thanks to external funding from Swiss Church Aid (HEKS), is conducting a needs-assessment related to overcrowding in the Jabalia refugee camp, one of the seven camps spread across the Gaza Strip. As a first step, it will assess the current interventions provided by other organizations.

“There are many studies on the infrastructure and construction gaps in Gaza, but none focus on the impact and root causes of overcrowding,” explains Mosa’b Abu Dagga, AFSC’s program officer in Gaza. “We are trying to assess the social and psychological impact of overcrowding and find solutions for them,” he adds.

AFSC is adopting a participatory approach. Not only will the active community members be present, but the voices of the young refugees will also be heard. This is important given that youth constitute 40 percent of the population in Gaza.

Rula Hamdan, HEKS’s country representative, explains: “The project is not about building vertically or diagonally in the camps to remedy the situation, but rather to address the root causes of displacement. Palestinian refugees have found themselves in an artificial situation, in a home that isn’t there, study the social and psychological impact of overcrowding but also examine their views and feelings on their return and the right of return,” she adds. This fits well with AFSC’s long-held position on the rights of refugees, and with its experience on the ground.

AFSC has completed its first phase of the project, which consists of mapping and documenting the current work of other organizations. AFSC plans to conduct focus group discussions to see how best to address their needs and ambitions toward a fair and just solution.

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