Nakba 70: Amal Zaqout, MAP's Community Programme Officer in Gaza

Tuesday 15 May marks 70 years since the Nakba ('Catastrophe'), where at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled their homes in historic Palestine during violent events related to the creation of the state of Israel. More than half of the Palestinian population was displaced as hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages were emptied of their inhabitants and destroyed.

Here Amal Zaqout, MAP’s Community Programme Officer, describes life as a Palestinian refugee in Gaza.

Around 1.3 million Palestinian refugees live in Gaza, out of a total population of 2 million. There are eight refugee camps, the biggest of which is in Jabalia, in the north. I grew up in the south of Gaza, in Rafah Canada refugee camp.

There were 11 of us in my family. We are from Isdodin, Palestine, which today is called Ashdod in the south of Israel. My parents were forced to flee our land in 1948. They had nothing.

In Gaza, my father had no source of income, despite trying very hard to find work. We received food assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

My family’s living conditions were very bad. We didn’t have a suitable home; we suffered from the cold, especially in winter. We had rain in most of the rooms and had to put buckets out to collect water which came through the ceiling.

My father and mother were illiterate. Both their fathers died when they were young, so they did not receive an education. They felt it was a big loss and insisted that my brothers, sisters and I completed our education. All of us, from the first grade to the ninth, attended UNRWA schools.

Although it was hard, thanks to my parents’ determination we were all well-educated. I was lucky; being one of the youngest I got a lot of support from my older brothers and sisters. I received a scholarship at Ein Shams University in Cairo and qualified as a teacher of mathematics and physics. I met my husband in Egypt and, after I graduated, we moved to Yemen.

Ten years ago, I returned to Gaza, after my husband and baby girl passed away. I came back in 2007 with my two boys, just as Israel’s blockade and closure began. It was not a good time to return. Finding a job was very difficult. I moved from one organisation to another. There is no sustainability in Gaza, I would be working with one NGO and when the project finished I had to find another job. I feel happy to now have a permanent position at MAP, but a lot of people are not as fortunate.

Many refugees in Gaza have no source of income. There are very few employment opportunities because of the tightening blockade and closure, which this year entered its 11th year. In the past, Palestinians in Gaza used to go to Israel to work. But now many are unemployed. Gaza has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, at 42%. It is becoming increasingly difficult for graduates to find jobs. This is forcing some young people to emigrate, which is very bad as we lose our skilled workers because they lack opportunities in Gaza.

UNRWA’s services are essential, they keep many Palestinian refugees in Gaza alive. Like my family, a lot of refugees depend on UNRWA for food assistance. UNRWA’s primary health clinics are also essential, as are UNRWA’s schools. I fear that the US funding cuts to UNRWA could be a disaster, threatening to further deteriorate the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It will be detrimental if Palestinian refugees’ access to healthcare, education and emergency food assistance is limited.

Palestinian refugees in Gaza suffer a lot. We have dreams, but these continue to be obstructed. Last month I visited Ashdod in Israel, where my family was from. I found the secondary school was still there. I took lots of photos, which I showed to my uncle, who was displaced in 1948, like my parents. He was both happy and sad; happy to see his home again, but sad because we lost everything and continue to suffer today.