Engaging Refugees in Change

Some of the Challenges Facing UNRWA Engaging Neirab’s Refugees in Camp Development

 The barracks that became Neirab Camp, outside Aleppo in Northern Syria, are World War II French army barracks which Palestinians fleeingtheirvillagesin1948settledin,supposedlytemporarily,toawait their return. Blankets, the first partitions in barracks, when it was not unknown for someone to roll in their sleep into a neighbouring family’s space, were replaced by walls five years later as refugees began lives in exile.

Today the camp includes approximately 67 remaining half and quarter barracks houses, tiny shelters created by dividing barracks into multiple units, and a few two-story houses separated by narrow streets. The occasional end of a barrack and the original corrugated zinc roofs can still be seen, rusting and old, in people’s homes in the camp. The camp has formed neighborhoods, in which families who feld from the same village live close together, in pantomime of their anticipated return.

These “Barracksaat” are the focus for the re-development of Neirab, one of Syria’s most densely-populated and poorest camps, part of an area home to 17,000 refugees. The Neirab Rehabilitation Project (NRP) has become a pilot project in UNRWA’s development work with camp communities as the Agency shifts its emphasis from providing relief and emergency aid, to “the need … to create for Palestine refugees the conditions for self-reliance and sustainable development” (Medium-Term Plan 2005-09).(1)

The NRP is implemented in close partnership with the Syrian Government, mainly through the General Administration for Palestinian Arab Refugees/Syria (GAPAR)(2) and “aims to achieve a sustainable improvement in the living conditions of Palestine refugees”. In Phase 1, up to 300 families are being voluntarily re-located to Ein El-Tal Camp, and in Phase Two, Neirab’s Barracks will be re-developed. Although funding had initially been made available by donors in 1994, the Syrian Government did not at that time agree to proceed with the project, likely due to it coinciding with the Oslo Agreement. However, in 2000, after addition of a clause explicitly stating it in no way affected refugees’ right of return, the Syrian Government formally welcomed the project and is now a major donor along with Canada, USA and Switzerland.

This article examines community participation from the perspective and in the voices of the community itself since the project‘s start in 2000 and, in particular, since its adoption of the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA). The SLA made a commitment to making community members themselves “… the centre of any strategy which will impact their lives …”.(3)

Sustainable development and the ‘right of return’

Initially developed in response to increasing population density and difficult living conditions, the NRP has raised many issues. For UNRWA and its current project of changing the focus of its work and adopting a policy of sustainable human development, it presented the issue of whether or not NRP conflicts with refugees’ priorities.(4) To what extent is it possible to separate development issues from the root causes of the Palestinian refugee issue that are political?

For the community, as they relate to people’s feelings of place and identity, these questions are perhaps even more difficult: “place is very important for Palestinian refugees. Since [we] came to Neirab in 1948, we have been afraid of the future”. Yet time is changing identities and circumstances and as the older generation has been forced to come to terms with enduring exile and injustice, so too are the younger generation having to deal with displacement: “[As refugees], we became affected by the points of view of the country we are in … the thinking of Palestinian[s] [is] like people here … We were uprooted from our homeland. This is not my land. I feel I am a stranger in this society ... I am from this society and I’m affected [by this] … It makes me sad and angry, silently”.

Engaging in change

The biggest challenge facing UNRWA is the “crisis of trust” with the community: “Our community do not trust people ... From 1948 until today, they have listened to speech after speech. People want to see something with their eyes”. Many felt it was only when new houses appeared that re-building confidence with UNRWA began.

A 2005 independent evaluation commissioned by a number of donors underlined the importance of developing trust and community ownership with refugee communities: “it is crucial for UNRWA to communicate effectively with refugees and ensure that they are, and … feel, consulted. … [UNRWA] may well have a good idea of ‘what the refugees want’ and of ‘ what is in their interests’. But visible consultation and communication are vital tools in creating ‘ownership’ … and reinforcing confidence”. It is, for example, often difficult to establish who are refugees’ representatives. “The principle is, however, fundamental, especially as UNRWA engages in change … refugees are already living in an uncertain and insecure world, politically, physically and economically, and it is important for them to feel that they are informed, consulted, and listened to”.(5)

Given often complex political dynamics in camps and people’s sense of vulnerability, many feel the role of political organizations is crucial in building trust: “it is vital to get the political organizations more involved in phase 2 in all aspects … if something goes wrong, they should also have some responsibility”. This process has started: “day-by-day trust is increasing … when you see members of political organizations attend project meetings … you know trust has surfaced”. A key aspect of this support was their acceptance of guarantees that the project does not affect refugees’ right of return. Volunteers are also crucial stakeholders: “[we] praise the project in the society. We convinced our people ... and this is our role”.

One challenge facing UNRWA has been to establish representative and trusted structures to engage local camp communities. In 2000, in consultation with GAPAR, UNRWA appointed camp committees. People feel, however, they are not represented and do not know what their role is.(6) One Committee member acknowledges this: “[We] only represent one side ... We have to reach those who are really interested in the project … through volunteers and through visits to [people]”. Many feel that to be properly effective, political factions need to be involved. Future developments should facilitate this as GAPAR is expanding membership to include representatives from political organizations.

The “fear of sustainable development”

While political organizations accept that the project does not affect refugees’ right of return, some expressed concern about the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), fearing that “year-after-year … this approach will take responsibility from UNRWA [who] will then withdraw and say you are strong enough to look after yourself …People thought the SLA is a western approach … [and that] the United States wants to impose [it] on Arab countries”.

Some, however, recognise its long-term benefits: “this shift is positive because we don’t like poverty…the main issue is that we have no property to improve our lives, so we have to improve ourselves through our capabilities”. Volunteers also recognise that: “[this] kind of social development…will take time … [Developments] won’t just appear like houses did … I understand [the SLA] as capacity-building and empowerment, but people think it is about helping people become self-sufficient so UNRWA can pullout … [we] are going to face obstacles with traditions and existing habits. Gender is the best example of this”.(7) The idea, they felt, is good, but: “when we saw Sharon in Herzliya [saying] UNRWA should stop services in camps and rehabilitate them as a plan to solve the refugee problem, we get very scared … maybe this project is one way of fulfilling this policy?”

A key component of the NRP has been investing in capacity-building initiatives. Many volunteers in community asset mapping exercises felt they benefited enormously: “this was the first time we felt we could express our ideas and views … and could raise many questions ... When I was in contact with people and facilitated group discussions, it was very, very good”. Many felt the process had significantly increased community capacity, “an important thing [which] can achieve many things for our society”. “I learnt about women’s rights [from the gender analysis], [and] social rights, like the right to express your opinion … In focus groups, it was an example of people expressing opinions without fear of discrimination, and that ideas and opinions were not forced onto [them]”. One political leader said he has since noticed that many of the volunteers are now more active and expressing new ideas for activities in the camp.

Others didn’t participate because women were involved in the project or because “fear has a nest in their hearts … they ask us: why are you speaking with foreign people? We face these difficulties”.

“We think in a political way”

Nevertheless, despite assurances made by UNRWA and the Syrian Government, many fear that UNRWA and project donors have an ulterior motive; the political predicament facing refugees is all too apparent: “we know the politics of these countries about our right of return. We think in a political way…After the project, what about the ideas of the donor countries?” One leader is “100 percent sure that donors think if they improve the housing of refugees,…they will forget [the right of return]. But for refugees, [this issue] is deeply rooted in our heart”. People are quick to point out what they see as a clear political reason for the project: “People fear everything that comes from Europe for historical reasons…the big powers have their interest to keep Palestinian refugees as they are now”.

As the project embarks on the second phase, including re-development of the barracks that have been home to three generations of refugees, it is the very identity of the camp, and the effects of time changing identities that is at stake. In a project that has placed sustainable development and “extensive and significant participation of the community” at its heart, inevitably issues of rights, belonging and identity are being raised. People are asking about representation and accountability, and are challenging how UNRWA engages with refugees.

There is general agreement that the NRP offers the opportunity of real developments for the camp. But underlying this agreement are more fundamental issues: “what concerns us is to leave something that symbolizes the camp”. “Am [I] a Palestinian refugee only because I live in the barracks?” asked one resident. “The barracks remind us of ice, of snow [and] kerosene heaters, and the cold days we lived here ... They should not be our address”. In interviews conducted by UNRWA as it starts its participatory re-development process, many spoke of their deep sense of displacement: “we are here despite ourselves”; “the social relations, that’s what keeps me here. I wish there was something else to love”; “from Palestine to here and from here to Palestine … there is no alternative”(8)

As partnership work with refugees continues, there are important lessons from Neirab on community engagement in sustainable development initiatives. The key issue is trust. As one volunteer explained:

“UNRWA must deal with people honestly and frankly; this is the most important step in the second phase”. Trust can be best built through developing representative and accountable structures and processes with refugees to enable long-term, sustainable, community engagement. One barracks resident explained: “we have to make people feel that we are coming to them in order to help them, not only asking a few questions and then leaving”. Experience from Neirab reinforces the need for these structures and processes to involve all sections of camp communities, including volunteers and political representatives, thereby ensuring that decision-making and responsibility for camp development are truly accountable and participatory processes.

To date, many feel there has not been true partnership: “you need to ask the question: what can we both do, UNRWA and the community together. To ask this question itself will be very good. If I heard this question, I would be very interested and encouraged to be involved with you”.

Barracks residents who have moved to new houses, and who have until now “only been able to dream”, now feel the project will be “a source of happiness”. One volunteer said: “It is like a switch from life lived in a coffin to a real life”, although one man cautioned: “it is better to have some problems…inthis way, we are closer to Palestine. If we become too comfortable we might forget…but the best thing is that our children will have opportunities that we didn’t have”.

But tellingly, questions about the project’s “real aims” persist from many of its strongest supporters – staff, committee members and volunteers:

“Even after all the meetings and discussions, I am still not clear about the real aim. Our camp suffered so much and no one asked us about our political, economic and social needs for years. Why now? … If it will not affect our right of return, then it is a very, very good project, but I think I cannot be convinced …I am not able to discover what is in the mind of the donors, if the project will cancel the right of return. But at this point, if UNRWA realizes this, what will you do? Will you stop or will you continue?”


Aisling Byrne is currently working as Consultant Social Development Project Assistant in the Neirab Rehabilitation Project with UNRWA. The article is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect any official position or policy of UNRWA. Ms Byrne would like to thank the many people from Neirab and Ein El-Tal communities who agreed to be interviewed for this article. Thanks to Nell Gabiam and Lex Takkenberg for their comments.


(1) UNRWA Medium Term Plan 2005-2009, p.8.

(2) General Authority for the Palestinian Arab Refugees, the Syrian Government department responsible for Palestine refugees in Syria.

(3) Report: A Sustainable Livelihood Workshop, Neirab Rehabilitation Project, p.3, and Project Implementation Plan, Neirab Rehabilitation Project, Phase 1: Development of Ein El-Tal. For further information on the SLA, see: www.livelihoods.org

(4) For further information on this point, see: Neirab Rehabilitation Project, Lex Takkenberg & Hala Mukhles, Forced Migration Review, January 2005, pp 50-51 (www.fmreview.org)

(5) UNRWA: Review sponsored by UK Government’s Department For International Development, Geoffrey Haley and Robin Kealey, unpublished, August 2005

(6) Most Camp Committees in UNRWA’s area of operations are selected or appointed, and all have different levels of authority and responsibility: in the West Bank, selection is done through the PLO Refugee Department; in Gaza, Committees were established in 1996 by the Presidential Adviser for Refugee Affairs with the Youth Activity Centres (with a percentage of committee members being elected); in Lebanon, committees are either elected or appointed by the political factions; in Jordan, committee members are appointed by the Government; and in Syria, UNRWA, GAPAR & the Ba’ath Party established the first committees in Neirab and Ein El-Tal in 2000. Since then, camp development committees have been established by GAPAR in other camps. Recent initiatives in the West Bank with the PLO Refugee Affairs Department have included discussions on the issue of elections to the camp committees, and setting up mechanisms for this – particularly as refugees do not vote in Palestinian Authority municipal elections in the West Bank . In Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, refugees are also not allowed to vote in municipal and national elections.

(7) As part of the comprehensive Asset Mapping initiative done in Neirab and Ein El-Tal Camps, a gender analysis was also undertaken in each camp. This was the first time that UNRWA had undertaken a gender analysis in any of the camps.

(8) Barracks Housing Unit Research: Neirab Camp Family Discussions and Questionnaire, Nell Gabiam/UNRWA, unpublished paper, October 2005.