`
Here we are with Jameleh, third to the left, and her colleagues! 

Here we are with Jameleh, third to the left, and her colleagues! 

Our staff gets to the Middle East as often as we can to follow up on the projects our donors are funding and to meet the people benefiting from UNRWA’s critical, and often life-saving services. This is a special time for us to share with the refugees we meet stories about you and all the things we’re doing in the United States as individuals.

I’ve been serving UNRWA USA since August 2015. In February of this year, it was my turn to visit the field -- my first time to Palestine. I am an American woman from the Pacific Northwest who grew up between Seattle, Hawaii, and Costa Rica, and with no familial ties to the region. I’ve always stood for progressive causes and social justice, so it was natural for me to join the staff of this organization, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to take a trip like this.

Because I know not everyone has the opportunity to visit Palestine, I am writing to share with you the experience through my perspective.

My colleague Nada and I met dozens of incredible humans on this first visit, but since my return, I've been thinking a lot about one particular person -- Jameleh. She’s a humble, yet very powerful woman who lives in Jericho, and is making life better for her neighbors through innovation. We met Jameleh in Aqbat Jaber, the refugee camp she's lived in all her life, just south of East Jerusalem.

Jameleh, the star of my story

Jameleh, the star of my story

Nada and I came to Aqbat Jaber as part of our tour of the West Bank to learn about different Cash-for-Work (CfW) programs (more about that later), including a new lunch program at the UNRWA school there.

We were welcomed by a delicious spread of traditional Palestinian food -- meat pies, kibbeh, tabbouleh. We may have thought we were just there for a tour, but we left with energy, inspiration, and an incredible story to share with all of you.

Palestinian meat pies made fresh by the amazing women we met in Aqbat Jaber

Palestinian meat pies made fresh by the amazing women we met in Aqbat Jaber

Back to Jameleh, my shero, and the star of my story. Jameleh was concerned about the school lunches children in her community and wanted to find a way to provide healthier meals. With help from CfW, she and her now business partners, started a cooking program in the camp. It grew so fast that soon, they were running the entire school’s lunch program and providing healthy, high quality, and affordable meals.

Today she runs her own Community-Based Organization (CBO) which is staffed by individuals participating in UNRWA’s CfW. I learned that UNRWA is working with all the CBOs in the Aqbat Jaber camp by supporting them with CfW laborers. CfW opportunities are created in coordination and based on the needs of local CBOs. This quarter alone, 77 CfW laborers are contracted to work in Aqbat Jaber. In 2016, 8,222 households overall benefited from CfW, including 4,833 male laborers and 3,389 female laborers.

This program offers an array of employment positions including working as administrative clerks with partner organizations, rehabilitating and maintaining schools, clinics, and other public structures, working in kindergartens, libraries, and other service offices. Other opportunities include rehabilitating public parks and playgrounds, maintaining multi-purpose halls and community centers, and enhancing public infrastructure including local roads, sidewalks, and water drainage and sanitation networks. CfW puts special emphasis on women, with initiatives aimed at encouraging innovative projects by women, like Jameleh's.

As a mother, a trained chef, and a person who is passionate about health, I was really moved by this program Jameleh started. Cooking and food is a universal experience and one of the most accessible ways to share our culture and history with others.

Jameleh and the other women didn’t stop with school lunches. Constantly paying it forward, profits from the lunch program were used to start a kindergarten, and then a guesthouse for tourists. With a little financial assistance and training from UNRWA, these women have made a BIG impact on their entire refugee community.

The guesthouse in Aqbat Jaber

The guesthouse in Aqbat Jaber

These are the kinds of people that you support through UNRWA's CfW. With the economy in the oPt crippled by 50 years of ongoing occupation, UNRWA provides much-needed opportunities for Palestine refugees to support themselves and their families.

As I said at the start of my story, these trips are such an important time for us to connect in person with the refugees UNRWA serves. I'm so happy I was able to represent you there and to tell these women about the work we're doing here in the United States.

Let's support the work they're doing there, so community visionaries like Jameleh have a chance to be who they dream to be.

-Sarah Gayoso, Events Officer, UNRWA USA