Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees
Palestinian Refugees

Palestinians who either fled their homes or were forced out in 1948 hoped for a quick return to their houses and land. Few would have foreseen that, decades later, they and their descendants would be living as refugees or internally displaced Palestinians. The Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) works to restore hope to those original refugees and their descendants. Here is what you should know about Palestinian refugees and what you can do so that together we can rise up.


The Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) emerged as an ad-hoc group of spirited clergy and lay persons following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the start of the Palestinian refugee problem. Locally formed groups and Area Committees in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the East Bank of Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and Galilee responded to the first wave of Palestinian refugees. The problem of the Palestinian refugees and their basic rights to essential services remains a key problem to which DSPR responds. The vision of DSPR is based on Diakonia, the call to serve the poor and oppressed, applied to sustain the efforts of Palestinian refugees to lead dignified lives and to strengthen their communities as essential to the exercise of the right of return.  


Once you learn about the plight of Palestinian refugees, DSPR encourages you to


  • Sensitize your church community to the plight of Palestinian refugees forced to flee from one war to another.
  • Write to your representatives and encourage them not to take action that would diminish the financial and human capacities of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to offer the needed health, educational, and welfare services to Palestinian refugees. Remind them also that a just and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot succeed without finding a solution to the Palestinian refugees that would ensure their rights.  
  • Invite Palestinian refugees to address your churches and communities to tell their stories.


Contact DSPR for help engaging in the actions above. You can find DSPR on their website at http://dsprme.org/.


In 1948, 726,000 Palestinians were uprooted as a result of the Nakba. In 1950 UNRWA was set up by the United Nations in order to address the housing, health, education, and welfare needs of refugees that were mostly housed in temporary shelters. In 2016 UNRWA reported that over 5 million Palestinian refugees were registered with its offices in the five geographic areas where it works: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. There are 58 refugee camps in the region: 10 in Jordan, 12 in Lebanon, 9 in Syria, 19 in the West Bank, and 8 in the Gaza Strip. 28.4% of all registered refugees continue to live in camps, with the highest percentage in Lebanon with 50.6%, followed by Gaza with 40.9%.


At the secret discussions held in Oslo, Norway, the parties agreed that the refugee issue (together with Jerusalem, the settlements, security arrangements, and final borders) would be discussed at a later stage in negotiations. The Palestinian refugee issue remains as intractable as ever and no permanent peace solution between Israel and the Palestinians can take place without either ensuring the rights of Palestinian refugees to return or providing restitution.


From “Three Palestinian refugees share their stories of displacement, loss and hope to return to their villages” by Jonathan Cook, Dylan Collins, and Ezz Zanoun


“The Story of Salwa Naser” (the two other stories can be read in the link below.)


Salwa Naser left her family home in the port of Jaffa when she was six. That was 68 years ago. A refugee twice over, today she lives in a small breeze-block room that abuts her son’s apartment in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, an overcrowded square kilometre of land on the city’s southern outskirts.


Built in 1949, the camp was meant to temporarily house some 3,000 Palestinians fleeing war to the south [of Lebanon], but is now home to well over 22,000 people – three generations of Palestinian refugees, poor migrant workers from across Asia, and an increasing number of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees fleeing a war that has been raging in neighbouring Syria for more than five years.


“Jaffa is beautiful … There’s nothing else like it,” said Salwa, recalling her family’s seaside home in Jafa’s Ajami neighbourhood. “Our house was right next to the sea … just down the stairs. There was nothing between the sea and us. We’d play by the sea every single day.”


As violence spiked between Jewish Zionist militias and Palestinians, her father, an important figure in Jaffa’s port, pleaded with his Syrian wife to take their nine children and leave via boat to Beirut. “I remember when the violence all started,” said Salwa, sitting in her sparse, one-room home in Shatila. “I may have been only six when we left, but Jaffa will always be home … I’m still sad about my school. It was … it was a proper school. There was structure … even the food was good. Our uniforms were so cute. We had options – either blue shorts or blue skirts, and a white shirt and a white scarf. I always chose the skirt.”


Salwa said she and her classmates didn’t realise the rising communal tensions until the windows of her first grade classroom shattered one morning after an explosion rocked the quiet, coastal neighbourhood. “My parents really did a good job keeping the kids in the dark about the rising violence – same with the school teachers.” But after the bombing near the school, Salwa’s father decided that was enough and sent them to stay with their mother’s family in Syria. She has no family left in Jaffa. Nearly the entire family fled to Lebanon and then on to Syria …


As they boarded the boat, Salwa’s mother began to cry. “When we asked her what was wrong, she said: ‘We’re leaving … I just will miss our home,’ and then leaned over to my oldest brother and said ‘I’m not sure we’ll ever see home again’.” As they made it further out to sea, the boat stopped. The city was on fire. “That’s when my mother really started crying,” said Salwa. After landing in Beirut, the family continued on across land to neighboring Syria. “You’re going to laugh at me when I tell you, but we went to Bab al-Hara,” said Salwa, referring to a Damascus neighbourhood that is also the stage of a popular Syrian TV drama around the Arab world.  Strapped for cash and struggling to lay down roots, the family bounced between schools and neighbourhoods before resettling in a corner of the capital’s old city. “This is always the case with us Palestinians, we’re always getting pushed from one place to the next. I wish they’d give us a traffic light for once.”


At 16, she married a young Palestinian man, also from Jaffa. The couple rented a small apartment just off the famous Souk al-Hamadiyye marketplace, before finally settling down in Hajjar al-Aswad, a neighbourhood on the edge of Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk.


“Our home is gone. It was hit by a shell or an airstrike … who knows,” said Salwa.


Salwa and her son had left for Beirut in late 2012 as the uprising in Syria turned increasingly bloody and violence overtook the capital. Shortly after they arrived in Shatila, a neighbour had WhatsApped them a photo of a pile of rubble – the remnants of what once was their home.”I was crying when we left. My sister, she had decided to stay. She asked me, ‘Why are you crying?’ I said, ‘Remember when we left Palestine and Mom said we’d leave for a week and come back? I’m afraid we will leave again and the same thing will happen.’” Now a refugee for the second time in her life, Salwa said she’s constantly on edge in the teeming Shatila camp. “I’ve always hated violence… even arguments make me nervous. Here in the camp people are always arguing and yelling … It’s never, ever quiet and I’m always nervous.”


“I’m scared something will happen here … imagine! But here, living here, I don’t like it. I’d rather go somewhere else. Maybe Switzerland … I’d try it. Definitely not America … I’ve heard that life there is difficult. Norway sounds nice though. I have my father’s passport … it’s the only document I have. It’s from the British Mandate. I was too young to have any documents.”


Salwa’s sister is getting ready to leave … her son took a boat to Europe. He is in Germany now. Salwa hopes that one of her children, who have Palestinian Syrian documents, might be granted asylum in Europe. “All of them are hoping to go to Germany. But the entire world is going there … I don’t know.”


“What kind of luck is that … we fled one war only to find another,” she said. “Where are we supposed to go from here?”

Originally published by Al Jazeera at http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/nakba-survivors-share-stories-loss-hope-160517094112558.html


Look up the street of the closest Israeli consulate or embassy to you and petition the city where the consulate is located to change their street name to “Free Palestine Street” to help raise awareness of Palestine and Palestinian refugees. Imagine the address of every Israeli consulate and embassy being “Free Palestine Street!”


If you are unable to change the name of the street nearest the Israeli consulate or embassy, get creative and take matters into your own hands! Commemorate Nakba Day on May 15th by changing the name of your driveway, private road, school walkway, local street, or hall. Post informational signs to help people understand the name and the upcoming Nakba Day. Leave your signs up through May 15th.


Take a photo of your street signs and post them to social media. Include a link to this page of the Kumi Now website along with the hashtags #NakbaDay, #KumiNow, and #Kumi27.


Bethlehem Prayer


O Mystery as grand as the universe

O Mighty Force of all creation,

O Power beyond all our power,

You have come to us as an infant.

Vulnerable, fragile, beautiful.

You have come to us

in the midst of poverty,

powerlessness and longing.


Come again, O Promiser of Peace.

Come again, to the city of your birth

mired in fear, oppression and injustice.

Come again, where bullet holes

still pock the walls of Sanctuary.

Come again, where Children dream

of homes they have never seen.

Come again, where a single key

or the number 194 cry out again

of forced journey to Bethlehem.


Be born again in the camps.

Be born again in stables and homes.

Be born again in many cities and languages.

Be born again among nations.

Be born again in places of injustice.

Be born again a promise of hope,

a sign of love and joy to the world.

Be born again in our hearts,

that we too might be called

Makers of peace

and Children of God.




Given by the Right Rev. David Giuliano, the thirty-ninth Moderator of the United Church of Canada.



  • Bethlehem is now walled off from Jerusalem and is home to three Palestinian refugee camps.
  • The “single key” refers to the many Palestinians in Bethlehem who still have keys to homes from which they fled in 1948.
  • The number “194” appears in many places in Bethlehem, and refers to United Nations Resolution 194 granting Palestinian refugees the “right of return” to their home villages.
  • The Church of the Nativity is still pocked by Israeli bullets that ended a 42-day siege in 2002 after Palestinian soldiers had taken refuge there.

From the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel at http://www.unjppi.org/prayers.html © 2008 The United Church of Canada/L’Église Unie du Canada. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike Licence. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/ca. Any copy must include this notice.