Mohammed Eid is a 28-year-old Palestine refugee, who has lived in Rafah camp in the Gaza Strip where UNRWA provides services for his entire life. Until recently, like most children in Gaza his age and younger, he has only known life in Gaza -- a small piece of land half the size of New York City. That's because due to 11 years of comprehensive air, sea, and land blockade and little to no freedom of movement, over 90% of children have never left the Strip. This changed for Mohammed when he received a prestigious Rotary Fellowship to pursue a master's degree in Global Studies and International Development through a joint program at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. Though he currently lives in North Carolina, he will return to Gaza after completing his program.
In an interview with UNRWA USA, Mohammed shares with us what it is like to grow up in the Gaza Strip and to come closer to realizing his dreams through higher education. He says UNRWA was there every step of the way, giving him hope, and he when he returns to Gaza, he plans on taking his knowledge to better the humanitarian system that allowed him and his family to survive.
[UNRWA USA]: What was it like to grow up as a refugee in the Gaza Strip?
[Mohammed]: I grew up in a 200-square-foot house, with five siblings and our parents in Rafah Camp in Gaza. The street was my living room, my study area, and where I played. As a child, I had never seen a baseball field, a swimming pool, or the cinema.
[UNRWA USA]: How was UNRWA present in your life? Could you share some memories from your childhood related to UNRWA's food assistance program, in particular?
[Mohammed]: I remember the excitement I felt as a child when my father returned home from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Social Service and Supply Center with our family’s monthly assistance package. He would be carrying heavy bags, and the sense of relief I felt that we once again had food and medicine made me hug his legs until he nearly toppled over. I still remember that package, stocked with oil, flour, lentils, rice, and sugar.
On that day, my mom would bake bread, and we would dunk it in sweetened tea. Sugar was a privilege and we were only allowed it once a week. My father always offered bread slices to the rest of the family before taking his share. Those days when we received our food package always felt lighter than other days. We sat at the table together as a family for a long time, our stomachs full and our daily anxiety lifted – at least for the time being. I dipped my bread all the way down to the bottom of my tea, soaking it completely until the tea was dripping all over my hand. My mom would get upset, but I would look at my dad, and he would just smile.
[UNRWA USA]: You are currently in the US studying for a dual master's degree. Clearly, education has been an important part of your life for some time. Can you share with us what it was like to go to school in Gaza and how you see education as a lifeline?
[Mohammed]: For nine years, I attended a local school for refugees run by UNRWA. The building consisted of a few classrooms built from corrugated metal; it was freezing cold in winter, scorching hot in summer. I studied English and learned computer skills without access to an actual computer. Music and physical education would have been a luxury. I liked my school a lot. Teachers used games to teach us and encouraged us to build teams. I felt a strong sense of belonging. I felt the teachers really cared about us.
My life changed when UNRWA offered my father a teaching job with a monthly salary of $400. Because of that job, my father was able to send me to Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. I had the choice to study anything I wanted, and I chose English language because I wanted to be able to communicate with people around the world. Upon graduation, I joined 1,800 other Palestinians in applying for an UNRWA job program and was one of just 110 to be accepted.
[UNRWA USA]: During the 2014 Israeli military assault in Gaza, you went from receiving UNRWA food assistance to being one of those delivering it. Can you tell us about that experience?
[Mohammed]: During the 2014 Israel military assault on Gaza, I joined UNRWA’s emergency response program. Our role was to evacuate civilians from the bombed areas and host them at refugee shelters run by UNRWA. We also provided emergency assistance to fellow refugees who were targeted by the random aerial bombings. Victims were civilians of all ages, and the bombing was indiscriminate. We even lost many UNRWA staff members while on duty.
[UNRWA USA]: That's really tragic, and we're so sorry to hear of all you've been through. Can you share with us how this experience shaped your current educational and professional aspirations?
[Mohammed]: After the assault ended, UNRWA invited many international experts to provide training courses and workshops to develop the staff response skills during the rise of conflict in Palestine. One of the international trainers admired my dedication and hard work and advised me to apply for a graduate fellowship he was familiar with in the United States. He promised to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I received that fellowship. Today I live in North Carolina where I am studying Global Studies and International Development through a joint program at the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
My goal is to learn how to improve emergency response efforts for victims around the world. When I look in the mirror, I still see that same unkempt little boy from the camps I was growing up, I cannot forget that I made it so far due to the support of UNRWA humanitarian assistance. Today I’m here to carry on this mission, to research and study new ways to help and support crisis victims, to help bring their sufferings' to an end.
[UNRWA USA]: As someone who is well versed with UNRWA's work, what is your message to Americans who do not have a sense of its impact and role in your life and the life of the average Palestine refugee in Gaza?
[Mohammed]: I’m proud to have the chance to work with UNRWA, the largest humanitarian platform in the Middle East. If it wasn’t for UNRWA, children and women would starve to death. Young men would lose hope and get caught in a vicious circle of violence. A whole generation would grow up without proper education. For all of those, UNRWA is the only hope in that part of the world.
- Support families like Mohammed's in the Gaza Strip, just as he did in 2014, by providing UNRWA food assistance.
- Host an Iftar for Gaza and feed more than just those around your table. For every $150 you raise, you can feed a refugee family -- like Mohammed's -- for the entire summer.
- Read other refugee stories and share their voices with others.