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Giving back to change the narrative: how the Daoud/Haddad family redefines what it means to be a refugee

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Giving back to change the narrative: how the Daoud/Haddad family redefines what it means to be a refugee

A sea of Palestinian flags forms a cluster at the center of Anacostia Park. Draped on strollers, backs of runners, and even headbands, the Haddad/Daoud family’s pride is hard to miss.

A fixture at the annual Gaza 5K in Washington, DC, which is now in its eighth year, and at other UNRWA USA events, the Haddad/Daoud family has a personal connection that brings them to the walk/run year after year!

Dr. Yassine Daoud is a Palestine refugee now living in Maryland, but more than that, he is a successful medical doctor, caring father, and supportive husband to award-winning Palestinian author and public speaker Laila El-Haddad. As our country discusses who refugees are and what refugees looks like, this family has taken it upon themselves to help reshape that narrative, through participating in charitable events, giving back to their American and Palestinian communities, and sharing their own story.


Yassine’s father originally hails from a Palestinian village near Haifa called Waaret Al-Sarris, and his mother is from from Akka. During the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) in 1948, where thousands of Palestinians were forcibly made refugees, both sets of his grandparents fled north to Lebanon. They eventually found shelter in Wavel refugee camp (also known as mukheim al Jalil) in Baalbek, where UNRWA continues to provide humanitarian and development services, seven decades later.

Yassine’s family’s UNRWA registration and identification documents

It was in this camp that Yassine grew up and spent his formative years. Raised in a 15 x 15 foot house, his family shared a cramped space, without reliable electricity, let alone the comforts of television, a refrigerator, and running water. Beyond the struggles of living in a refugee camp, he grew up during the Lebanese Civil War and his youth was shaped by violence which led to the loss of close family members. 

[One] of the beautiful things about UNRWA and its teachers [was that] they had a mission to educate the next generation. They believed in every student and wanted the best for them.

Despite this hardship, Yassine considered his family lucky, even going so far as to say that he felt like one of the “wealthier” families in the camp because they had food on the table every day. Yassine says, “we didn’t have much, but we had a beautiful sense of community. My mom would always share whatever we had with others. It shaped my own responsibilities and sense of philanthropy. I was taught, if you’re given something, the best thing you can do is share it.” 

In addition to education and healthcare services, UNRWA provides Palestine refugee families with clean, drinkable water and food assistance. Yassine’s family was one of many in Lebanon that received rations through the Agency. But among all the items they received, Yassine distinctly prized the nutritional bar which he treated as candy, so much so that he meticulously saved up his pocket money to buy bars from other students.

He recalls his time in school with fondness, smiling, admitting that he was a “bookworm and nerd.” Every time Yassine received an A on a test, his father would reward him with a book; part way through primary school he had amassed a small library, full of books that he often lent to neighboring kids. This eventually evolved into the first public library in the camp.

Beyond his desire to help others and his academic success that made him an excellent doctoral candidate, one particular event altered young Yassine’s life and drove him to pursue medicine. 

Yassine as a student in Montezuma, NM, surrounded by classmates from around the globe

Yassine as a student in Montezuma, NM, surrounded by classmates from around the globe

Amidst the height of the Lebanese Civil War, a police station next to his UNRWA school was bombed during an air raid. Yassine was in third grade at the time, and because the school was doing double shifts, he did not have class until the afternoon. Though he wasn’t impacted physically, the bomb exploded, devastating the school, killing and injuring many of his teachers, family members, and friends. He recalls going back to school, unable to see the floor due to the debris and bodies that covered it. Feeling helpless seeing so many of those near and dear to him senselessly injured, he decided that by becoming a physician, he would be able to make the greatest positive impact on others’ lives. 

Given the lack of opportunities for Palestine refugees to study and access the higher education system in Lebanon, Yassine looked towards the US, Canada, and Europe for his next academic steps.

We didn’t have much, but we had a beautiful sense of community. My mom would always share whatever we had with others. It shaped my own responsibilities and sense of philanthropy. I was taught, if you’re given something, the best thing you can do is share it.

Meet the Daoud/Haddads

One morning, Yassine went to the UNRWA field office in the camp and saw an announcement for a scholarship to study overseas. But there was one catch: the deadline was the very next morning. 

“This is one of the beautiful things about UNRWA and its teachers,” Yassine says. “They had a mission to educate the next generation. They believed in every student and wanted the best for them. So when I saw the announcement, I ran to the vice principal of the school’s home that afternoon and asked him for his help, and he was more than happy to do so.”

One of the biggest tragedies is that we lack seeing the humanity in others. Ultimately, we are more similar than we are different. I hope that when people see me, they think to themselves that refugees have potential, and like all people, they are worthy of support and nurturing.

They worked together from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night to collect the necessary reports, application materials, and search for a polaroid camera (a new bit of technology in Baalbek at the time) for his photo. After quickly assembling the application, receiving sponsorship through UNRWA, and passing through the various interview rounds, he was accepted into the program offered in the US through United World College, a two year residential school in Montezuma, New Mexico with students from across the globe, hailing from over 70 countries. Feeling the mixed emotions of fear and excitement, not knowing more than a couple of sentences of English, and having never traveled to the US, Yassine left his family and Lebanon behind to pursue his academic dreams.  

Yassine graduates from Amherst College alongside his friends

His high school was a melting pot, and it shaped him to see himself as part of a global community and the value inherent in all people, regardless of passport or nationality. After receiving his diploma, he received a full-ride scholarship to Amherst College and then Harvard Medical School. It was at Harvard where he met his wife, Laila El-Haddad. She is a fellow Palestinian, originally from the Gaza Strip, and uses food as a way to connect people and humanize how they see Palestinians and Palestine refugees. Her many accomplishments include giving a culinary tour of Gaza to famed chef Anthony Bourdain.

Laila shares Gaza’s culture and food with renowned chef Anthony Bourdain

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After completing a residency in ophthalmology at Duke University and a medical internship at Johns Hopkins, Yassine and Laila finally settled down in Maryland, which he and his family now call home. Acknowledging their individual successes, despite the challenging paths that led them there, both Laila and Yassine feel an obligation to remain active in their communities and give back so that others can access the same opportunities they did. With food assistance and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza being an issue especially close to Laila’s heart, they’ve held multiple iftars during Ramadan to provide food assistance to Palestine refugees through UNRWA USA’s Gather for Gaza series and attended and fundraised for the DC Gaza 5K multiple years in a row.

Ultimately, Yassine says he hopes through his actions he can help change the narrative around Palestine refugees. He says that “in the US we are bombarded by negative images. People found me a surprise -- that I was a successful Palestinian in the US. One of the biggest tragedies is that we lack seeing the humanity in others. Ultimately, we are more similar than we are different. I hope that when people see me, they think to themselves that refugees have potential, and like all people, they are worthy of support and nurturing.”

To that end, Yassine co-founded BRIDGE America group to help settle recent refugees in the DMV area. He also sponsors multiple Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to acquire college education.

making food available for Palestine refugees in Gaza: laila and yassine hosting their annual charitable iftar

One way that he’s putting these beliefs into practice is through his membership in the recently launched UNRWA Alumni Association (USA). It is a way for Palestine refugees in the US to connect, share their stories, and support the Agency that gave them the tools to succeed. “So many refugees I’ve met are smarter and more hard working than I am, but I was lucky with the opportunities I was given. I want to share these opportunities with others,” he explains.  

Yassine’s story is just one of thousands of Palestine refugees around the world, including here at home in the United States. We invite those reading who may have benefited from UNRWA at some point in their lifetime to join him in sharing their stories as members of the UNRWA Alumni Association (USA). Learn more and apply today at: unrwausa.org/alumni.

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Top 5 reasons to sign up for the Gaza 5K

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Top 5 reasons to sign up for the Gaza 5K

Now in its eighth year, the Gaza 5K has grown into one of the top charity walk/runs in DC. Here are the top 5 reasons why UNRWA USA’s Harley Dority thinks you should register to take part in the Gaza 5K by 8/31:

  1. Avoid the FOMO and save $$! The Gaza 5K usually sells out and this is the last week to save $15 on your registration. Secure your spot now before prices go up in September, or worse, you lose your chance!

  2. The prizes! Depending on how well you fundraise, you stand a chance to win our cool new Gaza 5K t-shirt, an authentic Hirbawi keffiyeh, an olive tree planted for you in Palestine, and for the first time ever, a chance to win a trip to Jordan to see UNRWA's work firsthand! Learn more

  3. Running is just part of the fun. If running isn't your jam, that's okay! The Gaza 5K is a judgment-free zone where we welcome runners, walkers, and cheerleaders alike! Following the 5K, there will be a dabke party featuring a live DJ, dance instructor Fuad Saleh, and complimentary food courtesy of our friends at Z&Z and Abe's Eats!

  4. The people! We're on track for 2019 to be the largest DC Gaza 5K yet and the people who this event attracts are some of the biggest-hearted people! Come meet some of the United States' most passionate supporters of Palestine, refugees, Gaza, UNRWA, mental health, and running. Also at this year's event will be the Right to Movement Palestine runners who will have just returned from the Relay Run for Refugees and inspirational UNRWA alumni from across the country!

  5. The mission is golden! Your participation in the Gaza 5K directly helps us provide Palestine refugee children in Gaza with the life-changing mental health counseling services they need to cope with the traumas they are forced to endure living in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

    What more reason do you need to sign up?

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Why Americans from coast to coast are gathering for Gaza

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Why Americans from coast to coast are gathering for Gaza

More than one million refugees, half the population of the Gaza Strip, rely on UNRWA - the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East - to put food on the table for their families. In the year 2000, the number of people in need was just 80,000.

So why are people in Gaza becoming increasingly food insecure? Due to the de-development of Gaza caused by the Israeli and Egyptian imposed air, land, and sea blockade, people in Gaza are facing extreme poverty and high levels of unemployment.

Americans from coast to coast are getting creative with their solidarity and hosting Gather for Gaza events as fundraisers to provide food for refugees.

Gather for Gaza is a marvelous way to share the Palestinian struggle with friends and family in a convivial, non-threatening setting. As we gathered for delicious Palestinian food, our conversation ranged across our varied experiences with Palestine. The discussion and information cards provided [by UNRWA USA] were great conversation starters and kept the ideas flowing. [I] can’t wait to do it again!
— Lesley, Evanstan, IL, Gather for Gather participant

What is Gather for Gaza?

Gather for Gaza is a fun way for individuals to host their own event that raises money to provide food for refugees in Gaza. When you sign up, you have the option to donate to receive a Gather for Gaza hosting kit by mail to add an informative flair to your event! These events vary from potlucks to restaurant catered dinners to after-school functions.

This opportunity, formerly known as Iftar for Gaza, is an important way to bring the conversation around Palestine refugees, food insecurity, and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip into peoples’ homes and American communities and to take action to support refugees by generating funds for UNRWA’s at-risk food assistance program.


This Ramadan, Americans from New York to California hosted 27 Gather for Gaza events raising critical funds for UNRWA food assistance while also educating their communities on the great ongoing needs in Gaza, worsened by years of blockade, poverty, and the UNRWA funding crisis. Here are some highlights from the events that collectively raised enough to provide food for 541 Palestine refugee families this summer:

Bergen, New Jersey

For the third year in a row, Sara Abdelhadi from Bergen, NJ, has been hosting charitable iftars for UNRWA USA. The first year, she brought 20 close family friends together and raised enough to provide food for 10 families in Gaza. The following year, her event grew 5 times the size, with so many guests they ran out of food! They ultimately raised enough to support 51 refugee families. This year was the biggest yet. Sara’s Gather for Gaza event was an extension of an existing fundraiser she set up with her ‘Sisters for Palestine.’ These ‘sisters’ met up in Palestine for a summer and after seeing the work UNRWA does for refugees, they were determined to host recurring bi-monthly fundraising events to make a difference. Their most recent event raised over $2,100 for refugees in Gaza and more than $8,000 since the start of their campaign!

Reflecting on the iftar and other events, she says, “we've not only been able to collect some money to help Palestine refugees but also, we've spread the word about the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Middle East! It's been an honor working with UNRWA USA at their annual Gather for Gaza, Gaza 5K, as well as many other initiatives. I look forward to joining in on upcoming causes!” 

Washington, DC

Over 50 friends and family members came to Marya and Andrew’s iftar benefiting Palestine refugees. In the true spirit of community, Marya said everyone chipped in -- with her sister buying “way too many dinner ingredients” at Costco to prepare a delicious dinner, friends arriving early to prepare the food and set up, and local Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe donating 90 pieces of baklava for dessert. During dinner, friends performed their own poetry, discussed current events and politics (only fitting for our nation’s capital!), and the situation facing Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip. Keeping with the theme of charity and access to food, Marya and Andrew donated all the leftovers to the Volunteers of America Chesapeake, feeding more than just those around their table that evening -- locally and internationally.

Davis, California

UC Davis undergraduates Khadeja and Sara teamed up to host a dinner with their fellow students on campus. Being away from home, they said this event was not just a way to apply their studies as global citizens but also created a sense of community and charity while they were miles away from their families. After dinner, as a creative way to raise more money, they raffled off paintings and photos! 

Clarksville, Maryland

Laila El-Haddad (award-winning Palestinian author and chef from Gaza) and her husband, Dr. Yassine Daoud (a Palestine refugee who grew up in Lebanon), are longstanding supporters of UNRWA USA, involved in everything from Gaza 5Ks to educational events. Given their family’s close connection to Gaza, UNRWA, and love for creating connections through food, hosting a Gather for Gaza event was an easy decision. Dr. Daoud shares that as a Palestine refugee that is now very successful doctor, he feels hosting charitable events, such as their Gather for Gaza iftar, are ways to get together with friends, share their family connection to the cause, and provide for the less fortunate. He says that one of the highlights of the iftar, held at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, MD, was to see people from various religious and socio-economic backgrounds share in a meal together and come together around a meaningful, unifying cause.

Coney Island, New York

Hosting charitable iftars to support Palestine refugees in Gaza has become a tradition at Coney Island Prep, and this year was no different! In the third year hosting the event, 60 students, family members, and teachers came together to bring awareness around food insecurity in Gaza. Christy Boise, school principal and event organizer was impressed and proud of the agency the students took in educating themselves and others, stating that one of her students donated $150 after going home and speaking to her parents about the struggles and challenges Palestine refugees in Gaza are faced with. When Christy describes why her school finds this a meaningful event year after year, she says that “[it] brings our community together for such a worthwhile cause. I really enjoy seeing how hard the students work to prepare for this event and how excited they are to share it with their teachers and families.”

San Francisco, California

Kimberly held an immersive and educational potluck dinner, which included a display featuring the food items given to families during UNRWA food distributions in Gaza, a silent auction featuring donated and handmade items from guests, and presentations given by Matthias Schmale, UNRWA Director of Operations in Gaza, and Lama Abed, a 15 year old UNRWA student, streamed from the Gaza Strip. 

Matthias spoke about the manmade humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the importance of ending the blockade, and UNRWA’s work to support over a million refugees in Gaza. Lama offered the perspective of a child whose life has been framed and shaped by these factors, and yet still holds on to the hope to study internationally, travel, and become a cowgirl when she grows up. Kimberly shared that the event was meaningful and moving and a way to get new and old friends together around an important cause.

Evanston, Illinois

Longtime UNRWA USA supporter Carol Muskin hosted a dinner featuring traditional Palestinian food with family and friends. Currently hosting two high school exchange students, including a young woman from Nablus, Carol found Gather for Gaza a creative way to create connection between Palestine and the US over a shared meal. Drawing inspiration from Joudie Kalla’s Baladi cookbook and her own family’s cooking in Palestine, exchange student Layana helped plan the menu for the evening. They were joined by friends who were very well versed in issues relating to Palesitne refugees and those who knew comparatively little. Carol says it was a great way to start that conversation for some and educate fellow members of her Illinoian community on issues that she cares deeply about.

One guest, Lesley, described the event saying: “Gather for Gaza is a marvelous way to share the Palestinian struggle with friends and family in a convivial, non-threatening setting. As we gathered for delicious Palestinian food, our conversation ranged across our varied experiences with Palestine. The discussion and information cards  provided [by UNRWA USA] were great conversation starters and kept the ideas flowing. [I] can’t wait to do it again!”

Takoma Park, Maryland

Gabi and her mother hosted a memorable dinner in their beautiful backyard in Takoma Park, Maryland. Joined by 30 close friends, they enjoyed a homemade meal, which was capped off with an impressive made-from-scratch gluten-free knafe, enjoyed by those with and without allergies alike!

Irvine, California

Students and staff at the UC Irvine Anthropology department took time away from their studies and research to host a potluck iftar on campus in support of Palestine refugees. They were joined remotely by Syrian-Canadian journalist and researcher Yazan al-Saadi, who led a discussion about the ongoing crisis through his journalistic lens and the significance of UNRWA based on his experiences. Together around a lovely meal, this socially aware and active group raised enough to support three Palestine refugee families with UNRWA food assistance. After hosting this event, they said they are keen to come together and host more events in support of Palestine refugees and UNRWA’s work for them! 


Did you host a #gatherforgaza event? 

Share your photos and videos with us via email or using hashtag #GatherforGaza so we can feature what you and your community achieved together! Thank you for keeping Gaza in your hearts and minds and for continuing to show Palestine refugees that Americans care. 

Feeling inspired to host?

Ramadan may be over, but you can host Gather for Gaza events all year long to benefit UNRWA food assistance for Palestine refugee families in the Gaza Strip. Learn more about this opportunity and sign up to host today!

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"I wouldn't be an engineer without UNRWA": from a refugee camp to a successful American entrepreneur, Nada Kiblawi shares her UNRWA story

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"I wouldn't be an engineer without UNRWA": from a refugee camp to a successful American entrepreneur, Nada Kiblawi shares her UNRWA story

UNRWA isn’t just about food handouts, though emergency services are very important. To me, UNRWA played and continues to play an instrumental role in sustaining the Palestinian people. Period. If not for UNRWA, I do not know what would’ve happened to refugees like myself.
— Nada Kiblawi
Nada, 1989

Nada, 1989

Today, Nada Kiblawi is a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman living in northern Virginia, alongside her husband and three adult children. The now retired founder and co-owner of NHK Consulting, Nada provided engineering services to some of the world’s largest and most reputable companies.

However, her story and rise to professional and personal success begins with strikingly modest roots — Nada was born a Palestine refugee, a product of the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic), and one of thousands of Palestinians striving for a better future with modest resources.

While she has come a remarkably long way from her humble beginnings, she has not forgotten the struggles and opportunities that allowed her to get to where she is today and how being born a Palestine refugee shaped her life, identity, and her desire to uplift those around her.


Wavel Camp, Lebanon in 2013

Wavel Camp, Lebanon in 2013

Nada’s family is originally from Lubia (close to Tiberias, Sea of Galilee), one of the many villages completely destroyed and depopulated during the Nakba in 1948. Forced to flee, her family became refugees and fled to Lebanon. There, they lived in Wavel refugee camp in Baalbek, where UNRWA continues to provide services today.

Born and raised in this camp and in poverty, Nada sadly recalls that she was deprived of a normal, happy childhood. “I’m at a loss of words when I think back upon my childhood years,” she says. “All children born refugees are deprived a childhood. My land, home, and youth, were stolen from me and those of the fourth generation of refugees born into and raised in camps. Though I struggled along the way, I worked hard so my children do not have to suffer in the same way I did.” For Nada, the aspect of her life that offered a sliver of hope was school: “The only way out of our situation was to excel in school and show my value. I needed to shine against the darkness, and when I realized education was the key, that’s what I did. I excelled.”

She, along with all of her siblings, went to free UNRWA primary and secondary schools. She says, “without UNRWA, I would have been illiterate. My family simply didn’t have the money to pay for all of my siblings’ education. UNRWA made up my formative years. It was my education, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Reflecting back, one of the most striking memories from her childhood was that of her UNRWA teachers.

Nada recalls them providing the support, along with her family, that paved her way to success. One example was her third grade math teacher. Doubling as the physical education teacher, he was muscular, stocky, and serious, and intimidating in the eyes of a petite 7-year-old girl. She recalls hiding in the bathroom during his classes, but because her siblings also attended UNRWA schools, she was quickly found out. Nada’s teacher asked her brother why she was absent from class and in hearing the explanation, the teacher promptly brought her back into class and encouraged her by calling on her and pushing her to succeed. It was then Nada realized she loved and excelled at math. It quickly became her favorite subject and propelled her to study engineering.

This anecdote marks a pattern in Nada’s life — when faced with a daunting challenge, despite the temptation to shy away, she seizes it as an opportunity to overcome and thrive.

Without UNRWA, I would have been illiterate. My family simply didn’t have the money to pay for all of my siblings’ education. UNRWA made up my formative years. It was my education, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Although her family encouraged her to study medicine and her classmates said women couldn’t study engineering, Nada made up her mind to prove them wrong. Given her family’s economic situation, she was eager to finish her studies early and help support her family. Determined, she excelled to the top of her class, especially in math and science. Nada studied hard, often by candlelight due to the absence of electricity in the camps, and ultimately received a full UNRWA scholarship to attend the American University of Beirut (AUB) to study engineering.

Breaking barriers, Nada was one of nine women accepted to AUB’s engineering program, and by the end of her first year, she was the only one to pass all her classes. She described the courses as brutal and cutthroat, but with the support of her family and the refugee community, she graduated as the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from AUB!

Despite graduating at the top of her class, as a Palestine refugee, she was only allowed to work within specific professions in Lebanon. After marrying her husband Nazih, a fellow classmate, and witnessing the lack of professional opportunities and fear and uncertainty during the Lebanese Civil War, Nada sought security and stability for her and her family. She and Nazih pursued the American dream and moved to America where Nada created her consulting business. She and Nazih are both UNRWA alumni, and she says the first thing they did upon becoming successful was fund other Palestine refugees’ education to help their fellow refugees achieve similar success.

Nada’s story is a testament of the potential of every human being and the importance of investing in all people, regardless of their refugee status or place of birth. Nada is not ashamed of her past, rather, she draws strength and resilience from it.

She acknowledges the crucial role UNRWA played in her success and remains a proud and contributing alumna as chair of the UNRWA USA Alumni Association (USA) steering committee: “One way to pay back the Agency is to showcase that UNRWA produces success. We are here because of UNRWA. I would not be an engineer without it. My colleagues wouldn’t be doctors. UNRWA has made successful people around the globe, and this is how we show our gratitude.”

UNRWA Alumni Association (USA) Steering Committee, 2019 (from left to right: Mohammed Eid, Lori Mosher, Nada Kiblawi, Ahmed Arafat, Dr. Abed Musa, Ghassan Salameh. Not pictured: Rania Qawasma and Methal Debaj)

UNRWA Alumni Association (USA) Steering Committee, 2019 (from left to right: Mohammed Eid, Lori Mosher, Nada Kiblawi, Ahmed Arafat, Dr. Abed Musa, Ghassan Salameh. Not pictured: Rania Qawasma and Methal Debaj)

In describing the UNRWA Alumni Association (USA), she says she sees it as a “collection of professionals who share a common childhood and who can now share resources, become mentors, network, and give back to their society — not just their current society, but the society that created them — their community of Palestine refugees.”

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Truman Scholar Nooran Alhamdan shares her family's UNRWA story: a story of displacement, struggle, and hope

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Truman Scholar Nooran Alhamdan shares her family's UNRWA story: a story of displacement, struggle, and hope

Nooran Alhamdan, college student at the University of New Hampshire, was recently selected to be a 2019 Truman Scholar, a highly competitive and prestigious scholarship for college juniors who have outstanding leadership potential, plan to pursue careers in public service, and wish to attend graduate school. Much of her application and desire to be an agent of change drew upon her personal connection with Palestine and UNRWA — her background as the daughter and granddaughter of Palestine refugees, her visits to refugee camps in Jordan, and her fundraising for emergency humanitarian assistance for Palestine refugees through UNRWA USA, including her most recent Ramadan fundraiser. She is a contributing guest writer to the Voices of UNRWA blog, where she shares the role UNRWA played in both her family’s life and her own.


“UNRWA has been a part of my family’s story and the story of millions of other Palestine refugees across the Middle East.” - nooran alhamdan


It was the summer before high school that my father took me to Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan for the first time. I was in awe at the massiveness of the camp, its maze-like appearance, and its narrow streets. I remember my father pointing out to me the school he attended as a child in the camp for twelve years, its blue and white logo faded but bright in the midst of the lean grey buildings. United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, was written on the sign.

The school my father attended was an UNRWA school. The food he and his family relied on was UNRWA food assistance. The clinics he went to for basic healthcare were run by UNRWA.

My first introduction to UNRWA was made years before I was even born. UNRWA has been a part of my family’s story and the story of millions of other Palestine refugees across the Middle East.

Since that first visit to Baqa’a refugee camp, I have become deeply passionate about rights and justice for Palestine refugees. It has defined my personal studies and organizing. This past year, I realized that I can contribute directly to uplifting Palestine refugee communities by hosting fundraisers for UNRWA USA, the American nonprofit whose mission is to support the critical work of UNRWA.

photos taken during Nooran’s visit to Jerash refugee camp in Jordan in 2017 

Following the recent and major American funding cuts to UNRWA, I felt compelled to act. I knew the impact that UNRWA has on refugee communities and was devastated at the idea of refugees losing this lifeline. Given some of my other experiences in Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, I knew that, if anything, UNRWA has needed more funding, not less. I knew I had to act.

I want to tell the story of my family and all Palestine refugees to the American public. I want my fellow Americans to understand that ideals we claim to care about so deeply in this country; justice, equality, peace, and liberty are being withheld from the Palestinian people. I want my fellow Americans to understand that Palestine refugees are just as worthy of our compassion and empathy as other populations who have been forced to flee their homes and create new lives in tent cities. I want my fellow Americans to know that dignity and human rights are inseparable and it is our duty to uphold and defend the dignity of all of our global brothers and sisters in humanity, including the Palestinian people.
— Nooran Alhamdan

Our first campaign was the Ten for Ten challenge, which challenged supporters of UNRWA to donate at least $10 and invite 10 of their friends to donate as well. This campaign came directly in the wake of the cuts. In almost three weeks, this campaign raised over $10,000. I was astonished and touched to see that the global community had responded so enthusiastically to the campaign which was run purely over social media. I had simply made a video naming some of the Palestine refugee camps that UNRWA operates in and explaining the risk to students, people with health needs, and people who are food insecure.

In December of 2018 I decided to run a second campaign for Christmas. I set the goal to a lofty $25,000 and although we didn’t meet that goal, we still managed raise thousands again. I was yet again touched by the response of hundreds who responded to the call on social media.

I say ‘our’ in regards to these campaigns specifically because I truly believe that they are the result of our collective teamwork, our collective compassion, and our collective humanity. As the granddaughter and daughter of Palestine refugees, I was honored to jumpstart these campaigns, but I can never claim their outcomes as my own; it is all of our efforts and our love for Palestine refugees that made such an impact.

As part of Nooran’s holiday campaign, she created a video sharing why supporting UNRWA’s work for Palestine refugees was and remains critical.

I was recently honored to be named a Truman scholar for my commitment to public service. Something I have realized over the years is that my commitment to Palestine refugees has come to define my academics, my organizing, and my future career goals. I am extremely interested in taking back the microphone so-to-speak from a discourse that continually dehumanizes and devalues Palestinians.

I want to tell the story of my family and all Palestine refugees to the American public. I want my fellow Americans to understand that ideals we claim to care about so deeply in this country; justice, equality, peace, and liberty are being withheld from the Palestinian people. I want my fellow Americans to understand that Palestine refugees are just as worthy of our compassion and empathy as other populations who have been forced to flee their homes and create new lives in tent cities. I want my fellow Americans to know that dignity and human rights are inseparable and it is our duty to uphold and defend the dignity of all of our global brothers and sisters in humanity, including the Palestinian people.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me yet. I do know that the story of my family and the patience, perseverance, and dignity of Palestine refugees will continue to guide me in the fight for a more just world.


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Great March of Return, A Mother's Perspective

Great March of Return, A Mother's Perspective

Experience the story of a young Palestine refugee whose life was changed forever from injuries sustained during his participation in the demonstrations through the testimony of his mother.

As refugees in Gaza continue to exercise their right to peacefully protest the inhumane conditions under which they are forced to live, you can show them that Americans care by supporting UNRWA counselors like him.

Reflections from an UNRWA math teacher on Gaza's Great March of Return

Reflections from an UNRWA math teacher on Gaza's Great March of Return

Glimpse the impact that the ubiquity of injury and death in Gaza is having on young pupils in an UNRWA classroom from the perspective of their teacher

As refugees in Gaza continue to exercise their right to peacefully protest the inhumane conditions under which they are forced to live, you can show them that Americans care by supporting UNRWA counselors like him.

Testimony from an UNRWA counselor in Gaza: "Kids don't have hope"

Testimony from an UNRWA counselor in Gaza: "Kids don't have hope"

How a child sees the world: a drawing by an UNRWA student during an art therapy session

How a child sees the world: a drawing by an UNRWA student during an art therapy session

Every Friday for the last year, tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children, have taken to the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel, to demand the right of return for refugees and the end of the illegal Israeli blockade.

While the Great March of Return has continued to be largely nonviolent, as of March 2019, Israeli forces have killed 195 Palestinians (including 41 children, 13 of whom attended UNRWA schools) and injured nearly 29,000 people (including over 7,000 shot with live ammunition, 227 of whom are UNRWA students).

Behind these shocking and tragic numbers are stories of lives curtailed or limited in some way. Through their own experiences and through supporting others, UNRWA counselors witness firsthand the physical and psychological trauma this violence has left.

One UNRWA counselor, who requested he remain anonymous shares his heartfelt and heartbreaking words:

“I’ve been working as a psychological counselor for nearly 10 years. I work at an UNRWA boys’ school and the Great March of Return has had a huge impact on our students many of whom have attended the demonstrations. I think we have to stress what makes our students participate: it's the blockade.

These kids don’t have hope, they don’t have dignity, they cannot leave Gaza, they have no employment opportunities, there’s no electricity, they lack money…the poverty, the economic pressure; it’s severe. Students here have a very difficult life.

We have around 20 students in my school who have been injured in the marches, they are mostly 14-15 years old. They have been injured in a variety of ways: live ammunition, shrapnel, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets...The injuries have a huge impact – especially on those with permanent disabilities who can’t participate in sports, who can’t live normal lives. They become isolated socially. I see the psychological impact. These boys become withdrawn, they aren’t able to focus and concentrate in class, and they have nightmares about what happened.

And then there are the students who have lost family members. One student lost his father who was shot in the head during the demonstrations. Others have had their fathers or brothers injured. There are two cases where the father has undergone amputation. The students are so affected by this. Their behavior changes; they have problems with teachers and other students.”


As refugees in Gaza continue to exercise their right to peacefully protest the inhumane conditions under which they are forced to live, you can show them that Americans care by supporting UNRWA counselors like him.

Meet the 13 year old who has raised over $20K for refugee kids her age in Gaza

Meet the 13 year old who has raised over $20K for refugee kids her age in Gaza

At the top of the 2019 NYC Gaza 5K fundraising leaderboard right now is Dunia Mujalli who has raised an astonishing $20,600 (and counting) to provide mental health counseling for Palestine refugee children in the Gaza Strip. This talented and determined girl is just 13 years old, and proves that anyone, at any age, can be a successful fundraiser!

VIDEO: Dunia explains her motivation for fundraising and encourages people of all ages, genders, and abilities to join her efforts!

An empathetic young girl, Dunia’s motivation to fundraise for UNRWA USA’s Gaza 5K sprung from her visit to Ramallah in 2015. She returned shocked by the violence she saw and the difficulties other children her age experienced and was eager to do something to respond to the injustices she witnessed in Palestine. Her father, Nasri, recounts, “when she came back, all she did was speak about her experience. She told me, ‘Baba, I want to help the people in Palestine.’”

When the 2019 NYC Gaza 5K was announced earlier this year, Nasri decided this was a perfect way to make good on his daughter’s request. They signed up and immediately started asking friends and family to make donations to her fundraising page. Dunia’s clear passion and commitment for her fellow kids have resulted in her massive success. When asked why she is fundraising, she says, “Because I saw a lot of things they [Palestine refugee children] lost. They lost their homes, their parents, and I want to help them out to make the world a better place.”

Dunia alongside her family

Dunia has overcome her own obstacles and because of these experiences, she sees the potential in others and wishes to help them reach it, as she has done for herself. Dunia was born deaf, and at the age of 11 months, she received implants so that she could hear. Her father describes her as “a special child, gifted in so many ways that go beyond the challenges she has faced. She is always going out of her way to help others.”

You can help Dunia achieve her goal of doing good for refugee kids by supporting her fundraising or registering for the 2019 NYC Gaza 5K + Dabke Party on Saturday, March 30 in Brooklyn, New York!



Voices of the 2019 NYC Gaza 5K: Team Peace for Palestine

Voices of the 2019 NYC Gaza 5K: Team Peace for Palestine

If you attended the 2018 NYC Gaza 5K, you definitely know Team Peace for Palestine -- maybe just by a different name. Last year, they went by team BHCC (Beit Hanina Cultural Center), and they were nearly impossible to miss. Draped in Palestinian flags and keffiyehs and bursting with team spirit, this crew of family and friends rolled in 124 people deep and raised over $57,000 for UNRWA’s Community Mental Health Programme.

Meet their leader + 2019 NYC Gaza 5K Host Committee member: Rativa Dolah

This year, they are back at it, once again led by their fearless and dedicated team leader Rativa Dolah. Rativa is one of UNRWA USA’s 2019 NYC Gaza 5K host committee members and is keen on making sure her team continues to grow, fundraise, and advocate for the cause that means so much to her -- Palestine refugee kids’ access to mental health care. Last year, Rativa alone raised nearly $13,000 for UNRWA mental health services.

Even among her teammates, Rativa serves as a humble but energizing leader. Though she self-describes as “just a housewife,” her teammates and the rest of the Gaza 5K community know that she is much more than that. Fellow teammate Amane comments, “When I first heard about the Gaza 5K walk/run, I knew I wanted to join to help make a difference. I joined Rativa’s team 3 years ago and every year since, I continue to be part of her team. Rativa goes above and beyond, not only for her team members, but for the people of Gaza and Palestine.”

Rativa shares that she sees her team’s mission to “be a voice for the children of Gaza and to let them know that they will do what it takes to help provide them with the mental health they need.” She acknowledges that this is especially critical following the US government decision to defund UNRWA, sharing that this has further motivated and bestowed upon her a feeling of responsibility “to help promote UNRWA’s work by being at the Gaza 5K and making it the most successful fundraiser ever so UNRWA can continue to provide refugee children with the care they need.”

Rativa describes her team as a collection of Palestinian men, women, and children, housewives, nurses, teachers, and artists. She proudly states that “we all come together on this beautiful day together to help UNRWA get the funding and resources it needs.”

Why they move for mental health

When I showed up to the race, I could not believe how many people were participating and supporting the people of Palestine and Gaza. It was a beautiful moment, seeing so many people taking a stand for a much-needed cause. Although I am in a wheelchair, Rativa customized my wheels and designed them with the Palestinian flag. This was a highlight of last year’s 5K walk for me.
— Amane, Peace for Palestine team member

This team believes this day is for their family, a way to connect with their culture and heritage, support their fellow Palestinians, and create a culture of connection, community, and charity in the US. One member states, “as Palestinians it’s very important for my husband and I to show our support for our Palestinian people but to support a great cause. It’s important for us as parents to show our children to be active and be supportive of the less fortunate.” Amane adds, “I decided to take part in the Gaza 5K because I’m a proud Palestinian. I think that it’s very important to participate in these events to show our support for all the people in Palestine, including Gaza.”

Beyond a cultural connection, the universal concern around good mental health is something that unites and invigorates this team. In the US, though the root causes are different than those in Palestine, people face similar stigmas and struggle to cope with mental health concerns. Amane draws upon her own struggles with anxiety, empathetically stating that she can understand how providing services in Gaza could make a huge impact on the lives of people, given how much they have suffered and endured. In solidarity, she asserts, “It’s important that we take a stand to show our support by providing the [UNRWA] mental health services needed in Gaza.”

Other team members echo this sentiment, stating mental health issues are a serious issue that are not nearly taken as seriously as it should. One reflects on her family in Palestine, who face daily violence imposed by the Israeli occupation forces and military, affecting their physical and mental wellbeing. She draws upon her own family’s experience with mental health and the taboos surrounding openly speaking about trauma. One of her uncles, a Palestine refugee, had severe mental health issues following trauma to the head. Their family, though enduring so much, did not openly speak about the issues, silencing or medicating them due to lack of true medical support and understanding. She sadly states that he ultimately was killed by an Israeli military officer when he was in the middle of a suddenly triggered episode. It is his memory that propels her and her family to support UNRWA’s work to not only provide mental health care services to Palestine refugees, but knock down the stigma associated with it.

Mental health is extremely important. The only way for the children of Gaza to live a healthy and successful life is if they have good mental health. Every child should be able to smile, and we send love, hope, and peace to Palestine.
— Rativa Dolah, team captain + 2019 NYC Gaza 5K host committee member


Memories + motivation

The team reflects on what brings them back year after year, reminiscing on favorite memories. For many, it was the feeling of pure joy crossing the finish line surrounded by friends and family, beating their personal best race times from previous years, dancing dabke with their fellow New Yorkers before and after the race, or ending the day knowing they had done something meaningful for the kids in the Gaza Strip.

For Rativa, it was crossing the finish line with her 7 year old son Aziz. She said she couldn’t describe how proud of him she was, not just for finishing the race, but for knowing that they were doing something important for the children of Gaza together. For Amane, it was truly the spirit of togetherness. She says, “when I showed up to the race, I could not believe how many people were participating and supporting the people of Palestine and Gaza. It was a beautiful moment, seeing so many people taking a stand for a much-needed cause. Although I am in a wheelchair, Rativa customized my wheels and designed them with the Palestinian flag. This was a highlight of last year’s 5K walk for me.”

In sharing a final message with her fellow New Yorkers, Rativa exclaims, “Gaza 5K, here we come -- a loud, proud, and colorful invasion, but don’t be intimidated, we come in peace!” And knowing Rativa and her team, they will certainly do just that.