In Lebanon’s Nahr El Bared refugee camp, trash is dumped everywhere. It fills the streets and covers sports fields. As the camp runs out of space, residents dump waste dangerously close to the sea. To make matters worse, scavengers often tear open bags to find recyclables that they can sell, leaving a huge mess. They burn the remaining garbage.

For the 30,000 Palestinian refugees in the camp, the situation poses huge health risks. So this year, ANERA initiated a pilot project to address the issue. Now, a volunteer team of youth in the camp act as ambassadors for the project. First, ANERA trained the inspirational young adults in environmental health. Then, the team set out to engage their community. The teens teach families to sort trash on a household level and host clean-ups in the camp.

The project involved a model neighborhood of 350 households in the camp, where families were enthusiastic about getting their neighborhood cleaned up. ANERA distributed bins to each household for sorting waste and recyclables. Then, we coordinated trash pick-up and training with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Finally, people like you funded tree-planting days. The new trees encourage Nahr El Bared residents to keep their environment beautiful. Watch the film to learn more.

Watch: Youth Lead Clean-Up of Nahr El Bared Camp

It was dark inside Alaa Abu Shaab’s small house in Bani Shaila, a neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza. A narrow stream of light came in through the curtains, where Alaa, his wife Asmaa and their three children sat huddled on the floor.

“I’ve been living here for 35 years. I’ve gotten used to electricity outages,” Alaa shrugged.

But what really bothered Alaa was the deteriorating health and living conditions caused by raw sewage and overflowing cesspits in his neighborhood.

In Gaza, Sewage Fills Homes and Streets

Without a proper sewage system, the families in Bani Shaila rely on cesspits at homes to dispose of wastewater. Once filled, families have to pay to have the waste emptied into municipality tanks. But this costs $15 per month and trucks are not always available to pick up the waste.

“The sewage brought flies which would bite the children at night, causing them to itch. And the smell was awful.”

When he can’t afford to have the cesspits emptied, Alaa has to discharge the waste to an olive grove nearby. In the winter, heavy rains often cause the cesspits to overflow, filling streets and homes with raw sewage.

“The sewage brought flies which would bite the children at night, causing them to itch. And the smell was awful.”

The waste also attracted rats and other rodents that carry diseases. So, Alaa was thrilled when ANERA selected his neighborhood for the installation of a new sewage system.

Living Conditions Improve with New Sewage Systems

With support from Islamic Relief USA, ANERA recently installed seven Gaza sewage and water networks in Gaza City, Shejaiya, Al Moghraqam El Zawaida, Deir El Balah and Bani Suhaila – where Alaa and his family live.

“This was truly an end to the days of suffering,” Alaa said. Now, he is able to save money that he used to spend on sewage collection. And most importantly, his family can live with dignity in their home.

“We’re glad the kids can play outside safely,” added Asmaa, with a sigh of relief.

Gaza sewage system creates safer environment for families.

Alaa, Asmaa and their family can now safely go outside, and their kids can play without getting ill.

Since the beginning of the project in 2015, ANERA has helped nearly 32,000 residents through improved access to water and sewage systems across Gaza. ANERA also distributed 3,200 hygiene kits and held 60 awareness sessions, funded by Islamic Relief USA, to help families maintain healthy practices in the home.

Promoting Key Health & Hygiene Messages

In a survey taken prior to the project implementation, ANERA’s public health officer in Gaza discovered that 35% of participants had at least one child below the age of five who had contracted diarrhea in the past two weeks.

Ailments like diarrhea are often exacerbated by poor hygiene practices. So, in tandem with connecting families to proper sewage systems, ANERA provided health awareness sessions to teach parents about the importance of personal and household hygiene.

Asmaa attended the session and learned a lot about how to protect her family. “I was reminded to wash our children’s hands frequently,” Asmaa explained. “We live in an old and overcrowded city, so it’s a must to keep them healthy.”

Health awareness sessions complement Gaza sewage network.

In ANERA’s health awareness sessions, Asmaa learned that the water tanks need to be cleaned. So Alaa immediately got to work on the roof.

She also passed on vital information to her husband. “I’d never given a thought to cleaning the storage tanks we use for domestic water until my wife told me about the harm it can cause,” Alaa said. “As soon as I heard about the dangers, I jumped onto the rooftop right away to clean it. I’m glad I did because I found layers of dirt and algae on the bottom of the tank.”

Now Alaa and Asmaa are feeling more hopeful about their situation. While taking a sip of tea, Alaa suddenly smiled. “It’s still dark, but the horrible sewage is gone. We can enjoy the light outside and the air coming through the windows.”

There is a well of Palestinian stories that remain untold. On the growing campus of Birzeit University, these untold stories are just beginning to come out, uncovering a wealth of untapped talent. A new student-led initiative called BirHakaya seeks to boost Palestinian voices and potential, using a digital platform to share their stories with the world.

BirHakaya roughly translates to “a well of stories.” It’s the outcome of an ANERA-sponsored training initiative at Birzeit’s IT Center of Excellence, which brings expert advice right to students’ doorsteps. As well as being a training initiative, BirHakaya is a social publishing website for students and alumni. The website is less than a month old, but it has a broad vision to spotlight Arab youth creativity and innovations.

The initiative is part of ANERA’s plan to invest in the field of information technology, starting at universities. As a first step, ANERA built a ‘Center of Excellence’ at each of four universities in the West Bank. This was made possible through generous funding from private donors. The centers provide trainings, business incubation services, international certification programs and connect students with local IT companies.

Today, the IT center at Birzeit hosts the BirHakaya headquarters, where students hold meetings and manage the website under the supervision of IT experts. The students come from different educational backgrounds, merging together to succeed as a team.

“Birhakaya has successfully brought together a diverse group of students from different departments—students who would have otherwise never met,” explained Lama Amr,  BirHakaya project coordinator and business student. “Each student brings their own knowledge, expertise, perspective and interest. This has enriched the experience, and continues to enrich the website.”   

Palestinian youth learn about IT and start-ups in Birhakaya.

Training involves video-conferences with experts as well as peer-led, hands-on sessions.

The Story of BirHakaya

As further investment in the future of IT, ANERA hired Rama Chakaki to guide Birzeit students through the process of creating a start-up. Rama is a Los Angeles-based expert entrepreneur and the co-founder of VIP.Fund, a social impact fund for youth in the tech world. She developed an online curriculum to coach the students through all the stages of implementing their own start-up. After a series of mentor training lectures on leadership, non-verbal communication, and startup culture, the students created a social publishing website and launched a crowd-funding campaign.

The first part of training was done through video conferencing. The second part shifted to hands-on sessions led by Lama, Chakaki’s on-the-ground representative. Lama coordinated the on-the-ground training with Chakaki and ensured teamwork among all the marketing, design, IT and content teams.

Students were also connected with four industry professionals from AJ+, Raseef22 and NYU Abu Dhabi. These representatives discussed the intricacies of their professions and brainstormed future career paths for students. The training ignited students’ creativity, curiosity and passion to leave their mark on the Birzeit community.

Lama Amr hopes to shape education for Palestinian youth

Birhakaya’s program coordinator, Lama Amr, hopes to change the education system in Palestine.

Palestinian Students Dream of Sharing their Voices with the World

For now, the website works exclusively on connecting Birzeit students and alumni, and providing youth a digital space to write about their experiences and interests. Birzeit students are currently creating training videos to guide new team members and peer institutions. The aim is to expand further in Palestine and Lebanon in the near future. They also hope to attract contributors from the Palestinian diaspora, and ultimately share all Palestinian stories with the world.

“BirHakaya is not a well that is entrenched in the soil, but a well that aims for the sky,” said one student in a TV interview.

“We share all the stories students send us,” explained content creator Zeinab Samarra. “We make sure to add a fun and interesting dimension to the stories, especially because we live in a sad and very difficult reality.”

The birth of BirHakaya inspired a launch party in the fall. Students wanted to show off the initiative to the rest of their university peers, and encourage them to submit stories. The launch marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the lives of these innovative students—one that aims to empower Arab youth and make their voices heard.

Palestinian youth ignite creativity and learn about IT and start-ups in Birhakaya.

BirHakaya has ignited students’ creativity, curiosity and passion to leave their mark on the Birzeit community.

Meet the Students

Lama Amr is BirHakaya’s program coordinator and head cheerleader. She is a filmmaker, photographer, and a Business student in her last semester of university. Lama hopes to change the education system in Palestine. She likes minions more than anything in the world.

Zainab Samara is a content creator at BirHakaya and a fourth year student studying English Literature and Translation. Zeinab is an artist and poet who hopes to establish a school for investing in children’s talents and potential. She is a positive girl who loves art and appreciates creativity, and hopes to join the Al-Jazeera crew someday.

Mahmoud Abusalameh is a member of the IT team. He is a Computer Systems Engineering student who loves sports and watching movies and TV. Mahmoud is a football enthusiast, and is a fan of Real Madrid and his hometown team of Al-Bireh. He likes working as a team and taking care of all the little technical details on the website. His goal is to start his own company, leave a mark in history and influence the world.

On the half-a-square-mile of land that comprises Shatila refugee camp, tangled electrical wires suffocate drab buildings. Mopeds race through narrow alleys, which are scattered with trash and rubble. Old men sit inside makeshift shops, selling fruit or cigarettes. Mothers hang laundry from any empty space they can find. Children wander the streets, often barefoot.

Shatila, which was set-up in 1949 to house 3,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, is now spilling over with some 22,000 people. Many of the camp’s newest residents are impoverished refugees from Syria, victims of the violence that has left millions displaced.

An Exciting Day at the Najdeh Association

This is the backdrop to Najdeh Association, the oldest community center and preschool in the camp. The preschool’s heavy metal doors are painted pink. Inside, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese children play games, draw pictures and begin learning to read. Today, there’s a lot of excitement in the classroom.

Sitting on a cushion on the floor, four-year-old Nour sheds a tear. She’s watching her fellow preschoolers put on brand new TOMS Shoes and she can’t bear waiting a second longer to get her own pair. But finally, it’s her turn to get her feet measured. As her teacher helps her slip a bright red pair of TOMS on her feet, Nour’s face breaks into a shy, contented smile.

This month, all 70 students at the preschool received brand new pairs of TOMS Shoes. The preschoolers are now wearing them gleefully as they play on the playground – located on the roof of the two-story building because of the lack of space.

Preschoolers in Shatila refugee camp receive TOMS shoes.

Four-year-old Nour was last in line to get her pair of TOMS Shoes, bringing tears to her eyes…

Nour receives a pair of TOMS shoes in Shatila refugee camp.

…But her tears quickly faded into a shy smile when she finally got her pair of TOMS.

Quality Shoes Are Important for Child Health

But the shoes will be the most helpful when the kids leave Najdeh. Outside the walls of the preschool, the space is less child-friendly. Comfortable, high-quality shoes keep children from stepping on sharp, dangerous objects or contracting parasites and other diseases.

Maryam Abada, the administrator of the Najdeh preschool, explains that most families living in Shatila refugee camp simply can’t afford to purchase new shoes. “Most of the students come from poor families and live in destitute conditions.”

Though the school offsets tuition payments for the most impoverished refugees, including many Palestinian refugees from Syria, many families still ask to defer tuition payments. That’s one of the reasons the Najdeh Association needs help in providing quality care for youngsters in the camp. Last year, ANERA helped renovate the preschool by painting walls, constructing safe stairs, improving electrical safety and installing insulation for the roof to prevent mold.

The delivery of TOMS Shoes is part of a holistic approach to educating and caring for young refugees in Lebanon. Throughout Lebanon, ANERA is distributing 48,900 pairs of TOMS Canvas Shoes this scholastic year.

Kids in Shatila refugee camp get new TOMS shoes.

Many families in Shatila refugee camp live in destitute conditions and can’t afford to buy new shoes.

After hours of picking ripe olives on her small, inherited plot of land, Aamna Al-Jadaa was restless for days on end. She’d been advised by her family doctor not to overwork herself after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis four years ago. But even with chronic pain, this vivacious 72-year-old does not want to rest.

“Every joint in my body hurts,” said Aamna with a smile. This mother of six and grandmother of 20 youngsters laughs to make light of the situation. It’s just been made better because the new charitable hospital in town finally has the right medication for her.

ANERA delivered the medicine Diclofenac Potassium to her West Bank village of Halhoul, thanks to a donation from Direct Relief. “It is used as a painkiller, anti-inflammatory drug and antibiotic. It is simply fundamental,” said Aamna’s doctor, Dr. Yousef Al-Nawaj’a.   

Dr. Al-Nawaj'a works at a Palestine clinic and cares for patients like Aamna.

“In our society, women bear a heavy burden upon their shoulders: giving birth and raising children, doing endless household chores, tending to the land and earning a living.,” said Dr. Al-Nawaj’a.

Dr. Al-Nawaj’a is careful when prescribing medication to older patients like Aamna. “For seniors, and especially chronic patients, we make sure the dosage is not too high so we can avoid any side effects.”

“This great woman has dedicated her entire life to serving her family, and I am glad I can give back to women like her,” said Dr. Al-Nawaj’a.

Like many of her neighbors, Aamna lives in poverty and would not be able to afford medicine on her own. The dreadful economic situation in Halhoul has left most residents impoverished and jobless. Families often have many children to feed, clothe and educate. So it’s a blessing when expensive medicines are available free of charge. Halhoul’s lone hospital depends on ANERA’s donations of medicines and medical supplies as it serves all 30,000 residents of the city.

“This great woman has dedicated her entire life to serving her family, and I am glad I can give back to women like her,” said Dr. Al-Nawaj’a. “In our society, women bear a heavy burden upon their shoulders: giving birth and raising children, doing endless household chores, tending to the land and earning a living. This can certainly drain their health.”

Seasonal Illnesses Strain Palestine Clinics

Palestine clinic in Dura survives on donated medicines like Augmentin.

“With the donated medicine I’ve prescribed, they will be back to their playful selves in no time,” said Dr. Dudeen.

Not far from Halhoul, the city of Dura deals with many of the same struggles with about the same population. Yet Dura has no hospital and depends largely on a small charitable clinic for everyday health matters. The clinic keeps a steady stock of vital medications that are entirely provided by ANERA.

“Our partnership with ANERA is as invaluable as medicine for a patient in need,” said Dr. Dudeen.

“Our partnership with ANERA is as invaluable as medicine for a patient in need,” said Dr. Salem Dudeen.”We have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for ANERA and its dedicated donors. Without their help, we wouldn’t be able to continue serving the poor.”

At this small clinic in the heart of Dura, doctors and nurses have seen a lot of sick children and adults this season. They treat around 50 – 60 patients a day, and most suffer from upper respiratory infections, which spread rapidly during the changing seasons. ANERA’s recent shipment also included Augmentin, a medicine that combats the spread of bacteria and infections.

Palestine clinics survive on donated medicines like Augmentin.

Augmentin combats the spread of infection and is invaluable to Palestine clinics like the one in Dura.

Two of those patients are three-year-old Mariam and 10-year-old Arafat, who lay side by side on hospital beds. Their worried mothers waited beside them, waiting their turn to be examined. It turned out that both children had tonsillitis and throat infections. “There is nothing to worry about,” he said, reassuring them. “With the donated medicine I’ve prescribed, they will be back to their playful selves in no time.”

Vital donations by committed partners have helped these medical facilities function efficiently, allowing them to develop, grow and reach more people in need. ANERA’s shipment of medicines from Direct Relief bring peace of mind to restless grandmothers like Aamna and the worried mothers of Mariam and Arafat.