From the ashes

As Palestine marks 50 years of occupation, we meet the people hoping to write a new story for the generations to come

A half-century of semi-peace and semi-war has cast a long pall over Palestine’s people. On 5 June 1967 Israeli forces swept through east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. The latest in a series of conflicts, the six-day war quickly laid claim to the West Bank and the Gaza strip, setting the scene for 50 years of dispute and displacement, and birthing what remains the world’s longest-running military occupation.

Coupled with nearly seven decades of dislocation since the first Arab-Israeli war, life for Palestine’s refugees is bleak. The main caretaker of the fallout, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), has seen the number of people in its care spiral from 750,000 in 1948 to some 5 million today, encompassing four generations of Palestinians. More than 40 per cent of the refugees it supports live in Gaza and the West Bank, 40 per cent live in Jordan and the remainder reside in Lebanon and Syria – still stateless, after decades of exile.

“They represent another generation of Palestinians suffering a loss of identity, livelihood and a home” The challenges vary from place to place. Although Lebanon shelters the most refugees per capita, legal barriers – from restrictions on owning property, to a ban on working in some 36 professions – means 65 per cent of the 450,000 Palestinians there live in poverty, eking out $195 a month, less than half the average for their Lebanese counterparts, according to UNRWA.

The situation for families in Syria is, predictably, dire. Since the outbreak of civil war, 460,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria need aid. A further 42,000 – twice displaced – now swell the ranks of refugees in Lebanon with an additional 16,000 in Jordan.

“They represent another generation of Palestinians suffering a loss of identity, livelihood and a home,” says Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general. “The level of dispossession and despair among that community is extreme.”

Meanwhile Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants live amid a land, sea and air blockade, imposed by Israel after Hamas’ takeover of the strip in 2007. The economic siege has slashed Gaza’s GDP in half, according to the World Bank. In 2000, UNRWA counted some 80,000 Gazans eligible for food aid; today, they number almost 1 million.

“It’s a painful moment when people thank me for UNRWA’s food assistance,” admits Krähenbühl. “Until a few years ago, that refugee was probably employed or running a small export business. The market has disappeared because of the blockade and the conditions for employment have been largely wiped out.”

Joblessness is rife, touching 44 per cent of Gaza’s 1.2 million refugees. Among young people it rises to 67 per cent, likely a “world record” for youth unemployment Krähenbühl adds. Work is precarious for many of the Palestinian communities across the region: unemployment stands at 23 per cent in Lebanon, while Jordan’s urban refugees earn around $1.80 an hour, according to a 2013 study.

The cost is more than a set of indicators: it represents imperilled futures too. The first generation of Palestinian refugees faced the immediate trauma of displacement but they had hope for a solution, notes Krähenbühl.

In contrast, more recent generations must grapple with widening divisions among Palestinians, a stalled peace process and ever-evolving conflicts in the wider Middle East that have pushed their plight down the global development agenda.

“Young people today face an overlapping set of pressures and a closed political horizon,” he says. “When I walk into an UNRWA school I am worried they consider us as their only future, and that is not desirable for anyone.”

“There was a real sense of ownership in these young people. It is a side the world doesn’t appreciate enough”With a political deal a dim prospect, linking Palestinians to jobs is the most pressing challenge today. Young, educated people are the Palestinians’ greatest challenge – and greatest asset. The number of students in Palestine enrolled in higher education jumped 940 per cent between 1993 and 2011, according to the UN; a flash of hope for a brighter future. 

For its part, UNRWA runs schools for more than 500,000 students. Krähenbühl describes the efforts of a student council in Aleppo identifying traumatised pupils who drop out of school and encouraging them to rejoin the classroom. “There was a real sense of ownership in these young people; it is a side the world doesn’t appreciate enough.”

Getting students from school into work, training or further study is the “missing link” according to Krähenbühl. Partly, this means aid and development outfits working more closely with the private sector and governments. One place where this has shown promise is Jordan, where a “high percentage” of students at UNRWA’s vocational training centres find jobs, he adds.

Krähenbühl remains hopeful. In a recent interview, he noted the last thing Palestinians need is a pessimistic commissioner-general. It is a sentiment he sticks to today.

“In conflict zones, one forgets the humanity of the people behind the community. I see a lot of optimism in these students: they are energetic, courageous and engaged in their studies,” he says. “I’m determined to continue to invest in them.”

Here are just some of the philanthropists, companies and entrepreneurs intent on doing the same. 

Education first
Melek El Nimer – founder, ULYP

With 20 years under her belt working in Lebanon’s refugee camps, Melek El Nimer knows education is the answer for young Palestinians. The question, however, is not how to get more kids into schools, or even enrolled in online education – the solution de jour for the region's displaced generation. The question is how to propel educated young refugees into jobs.

“You have a Palestinian refugee with a degree but he is unemployed. You have doctors who are taxi drivers because it is the only job they can find,” she says fiercely. “That shouldn’t happen.”

Her nonprofit, Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP) targets the issue head-on. ULYP’s Bridge programme in particular helps Palestinians in camps or enrolled at UNRWA schools find the money to attend top-tier universities such as the American University of Beirut and University College London – the types of institutions that will help them secure jobs, and not just degree certificates.

“I see education as being a long-term shortcut to a better life"So far, ULYP has helped more than 661 students. El Nimer says 80 per cent of her class of 2013-14 and 60 per cent of the class of 2014-15 are employed or in further education. One student at UWC Atlantic College in the US has gone on to attend a summer programme at Yale, she adds proudly.

Yet even for refugees armed with a first-class degree, there are always more mountains to climb. “The biggest problem is work visas,” she laments, adding she hopes a lot of the graduates don’t return to Lebanon. “What is there to come back to? This community has been been stuck in a vicious limbo of refugee camps, war and unemployment.”

Life for Syrian refugees in Turkey shows what can be achieved if the will is there, according to El Nimer. The Turkish government has allowed refugees to work and opened up the public school and university system to them, she says.

“If you have a [Palestinian] engineer who gets a good job in Dubai, he isn’t going to return to the camp,” says El Nimer. “I see education as being a long-term shortcut to a better life.

“I know what we are doing is the right thing,” she adds. “Education works and we have the success stories to prove it.”

Better connected
Chaker Khazaal – author and advocate

There is a rough beauty in the hardship of refugee life. It breeds a defining quality – the determination to survive and, somehow, to thrive. Yet, this resolve ebbs with each succeeding generation as displacement drags on and saps morale, argues Chaker Khazaal, a Palestinian-Canadian author. In its place, however, current and future generations of Palestinians will have a new asset: communication.

“The young generation can convey the daily life of a refugee to the world, through social media for example,” says the 29-year-old writer and refugee advocate. “Communicating the reality is the first step towards results and change.”

“I’ve been on the receiving end of charity. We don’t need more charity”A third-generation refugee, Khazaal grew up in Lebanon’s Bourj El Barajneh refugee camp before gaining a scholarship to attend York University in Toronto, Canada. Through his fiction, he aims to put human faces, emotions and experiences to the word ‘refugee’.

Having a voice means young refugees can start lobbying for immediate needs, chiefly jobs, he says. In Lebanon in particular, Palestinians need better spokespeople to help change policies that lock Palestinians out of certain professions, and limit their ability to progress.

The era of global communication offers other opportunities, too. The gig economy can be harnessed to hire refugees remotely for jobs such as coding, argues Khazaal. Creating real chances to work will help refugees transition away from a dependency upon aid, and companies have a vital role to play in this transition.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of charity. We don’t need more charity,” he says. “We brag about the openness of the internet and how small it makes our world. Now we need to apply this connectivity to integrate refugees into the global workforce.”

The onus is on governments, the private sector and NGOs to band together and encourage development – rather than aid-led – solutions, he adds. “I’m hopeful in the next 10 years we’ll see more [job creation] initiatives. It’s our duty, whether as former refugees or people who care about our wellbeing, to address the job market.”

Call of the crowd
Anas Hamed – founder, CrowdPal

The tale of Palestinian suffering is well known; it is time to shake things up, says Anas Hamed, whose father left Palestine in the 1960s. 

“Ten, even five years ago the Palestinian diaspora was so busy concentrating on the story of suffering, they weren’t in a position to think about a new story of hope,” he says. “Now, I can see a paradigm shift in thinking. We need a new narrative.”

"If we create a shift in thinking, even peace can be approached differently”CrowdPal hopes to be part of that reboot. Launched in May by Hamed – who lives in Chile – CrowdPal is an online equity crowdfunding platform that aims to funnel investment to Palestinian startups, to businesses run by diaspora entrepreneurs or to startups creating jobs in Palestine.

It hopes to attract seed funding – typically around $250,000 each – to help get firms that can create economic and social impact for Palestinians off the ground, Hamed says.

CrowdPal will take a 5 per cent slice of the money raised and 10 per cent interest, plus some admin costs. The platform has links to startup accelerators in Palestine, Chile and across Latin America, to help identify promising firms.

Mentoring is a critical part of the business model. Set to launch last November, the platform hit a bump when it discovered a “very limited pipeline” of investment-ready entrepreneurs in Palestine. Hamad hopes CrowdPal’s coaching will help Palestinian entrepreneurs overcome a “psychology of limitation”, forged by years of hurdles and setbacks.

A handful of startups signed on to CrowdPal just in its first few weeks. The first campaign aims to raise $300,000 for a Chilean-Palestinian peer-to-peer lending company called Red Capital. CrowdPal hopes to run campaigns for at least four startups in its first year.

Tapping into diaspora money is a key strategy – in Chile at first, before reaching out to the Americas, Middle East and Europe. Roughly 500,000 Palestinian descendants live in Chile, for example. One of CrowdPal’s cofounders, a third generation Chilean-Palestinian, is drawing on his venture capital background to get the ball rolling.

“For the first [campaign] we have about 70 investors interested,” says Hamed. “We know a lot of investors in the Palestinian diaspora, it wasn’t a difficult job. I am hopeful there will be more such initiatives diverting from this mindset of victimhood. If we create a shift in thinking, even peace can be approached differently.”

Corporate clout
Hashim Shawa – chairman, Bank of Palestine

Improving prospects for Palestine’s people demands all hands on deck. Yet one sector is yet to pull its weight. Many big, local companies still have an unsophisticated, PR-centric view of corporate social responsibility (CSR), says Kamel Husseini, chief international and investor relations officer at the Bank of Palestine.

“If you count the companies in Palestine that take CSR seriously, it’s maybe two or three at the most,” he rues.

“This is our commitment to the future of Palestine, by investing in its youth and standing with them”Founded in 1960 by the Shawa family, Bank of Palestine is one of the largest financial institutions in the territories. The bank supports a slew of social initiatives, funded by setting aside 6 per cent of its profits each year.

A long-term UNRWA donor, it also donates to Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), Gaza’s first startup accelerator, pays for staff at Palestinian universities to undertake training abroad, and funds arts organisations such as the Edward Said Conservatory of Music.

The bank is keen to apply all its assets. Some of its IT staff mentor entrepreneurs at GSG and the bank uses its network of contacts to link diaspora donors to UNRWA.

Last year, Bank of Palestine expanded its role to include impact investment. The bank tied up with two other firms and business leaders including Samer Khoury and Fadi Ghandour to launch Ibtikar, an $10.5m fund to provide seed money for startups in Palestine. Some 80 per cent of the fund’s investors are Palestinian.

“We wanted to close an early stage funding gap between angel investment and venture capital, in order to get projects to the next level of investments,” explains Hashim Shawa, the bank’s chairman and general manager. “This is our commitment to the future of Palestine, by investing in its youth and standing with them.”

In a sign of confidence in Ibtikar’s impact, a second, $30m phase of the fund is in the works. “Palestine today has a generation of young entrepreneurs that are daring, impatient, willing to explore and… [who are] intent on challenging the status quo,” says Shawa.

Another project on the drawing board is a coding training programme in Gaza with UNRWA. If the trial is successful, the hope is that other donors will step in to scale it up. “The knowledge economy is the future for Gaza if we want to overcome the constraints in land, water and resources,” says Husseini. “That means we need to equip students with soft skills and coding skills.”

Still, the scale of the need requires more local companies to jump in and “complete, not compete” with projects, according to Husseini. “We need coordination and innovation,” he says. “[The private sector] needs to be more strategic and put our dollar strength together to create bigger impact.”

Despite the challenges, says Shawa, there is little doubt Palestinians have the grit and drive to succeed. “They have had to deal with physical and nonphysical barriers all their lives. They have become experts at demolishing barriers. That is a spirit not present elsewhere, or at least not with the same vigour.”