By Kamal Abouchedid

Abstract: This paper investigates the way Palestinian refugees aged 15-24 perceive the challenges they endure in refugee camps and gatherings; alongside the actions they take within their communities to counter multilayered vulnerabilities. Studies on refugees in Lebanon have included youth as subjects or samples to study their attitudes, perceptions, and demographic characteristics. Despite the proliferation of studies on refugees and displaced communities in Lebanon, youth have not been engaged as participants who share their subjective experiences about the challenges they face and interact with in marginalized contexts. 

This paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by drawing on the subjective experiences and meanings that resonate with Palestinian youth about the challenges they endure and how they counter them through civic action and community engagement. It first furnishes background information about the Palestinian refugee status in Lebanon and rationalizes the importance of studying youth engagement in civic action. Second, it discusses the methodology employed in data collection from 10 refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon in 2019 utilizing 48 Focus Group Discussions (FGDs). 

Findings show that the legacy of threats was strongly ingrained in the minds of young Palestinians, exacerbating their perils and anxieties. Participating youth also narrated the positive outcomes of volunteer work and civic engagement in addressing societal problems within their communities. Their narrative has shown a tendency towards autonomous civic action away from the influence of factions that govern the camps. 

Through the dissemination of FGD results, this paper will share lessons and insights derived from the subjective experiences of young refugees, curated into strategies aimed at empowering them to bolster their resilient livelihoods, self-reliance, and civic participation in community development. 

Research Methodology Overview

The data for this paper was derived from a comprehensive research project on Palestinian refugees, displaced Syrians, and Lebanese youth in poverty pockets conducted by the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies (LAES) in 2019. The LAES study covered the following topics: school life; family life; professional life; social life; and the future. The youth had engaged in 144 FGDs (48 for each group) covering 22 questions. As a researcher in the study, I analyzed and reported findings related to Palestinian refugees, except their school life experience. The social life topic comprised 8 focus group questions that covered the following sub-topics: the use of leisure time and the places refugees attend; seeking help mechanisms; anxiety; dealing with threats; Palestinian youth in the public sphere; and Palestinians’ perceptions towards displaced Syrians and Lebanese and how they think they are perceived by them. In turn, the youth in the public sphere contained a section on civic engagement. This paper further analyzes the raw data pertaining to civic engagement to expand on this unique perspective. This endeavor is preceded by an examination of the study's rationale and pertinent literature. Based on the findings, short-term, medium-term, and long-term strategies seeking to empower civic engagement among the youth were provided, thus offering a distinctive lens on the civic engagement of Palestinian youth in marginalized contexts. 

The methodology of this paper is based on a ‘voice-centered’ participatory research approach.1 This approach offers a forum for dialogue where youth are given the opportunity to voice their concerns and share their experiences on how they address community problems. Therefore, FGDs sought to obtain the data, as far as possible, ‘from what people say, rather than imposed by the researcher upon what people say.’2 This aspect reflected the qualitative methodology of the study that probed into the subjective experiences of the youth through FGDs rather than through deploying questionnaires that contain specific questions and attempt to obtain specific answers through forced-choice scales. 


48 FGDs were conducted for the study comprising 391 equally divided male and female participants aged 15-24. The qualitative methodology employed in this study avoided selecting participants based on statistical sampling techniques. Instead, participants were recruited based on a geographic criterion since the study did not look for youth in social classes, but specifically for youth within marginalized population groups. 


Four criteria determined the size of the focus groups: gender, age (15-19, 20-24), status (employed, unemployed), and geographic location. Civil society and humanitarian organizations, which collaborate closely with refugees in Lebanon, recruited participants for the FGDs from 10 Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings in North Lebanon, South Lebanon, and Beirut based on the above criteria (see table 1).

Fieldwork Process 

The fieldwork process involved training research assistants, creating an atmosphere of trust with participants who were cautious about participating in interviews for security fears—such as getting arrested because they do not have official residency papers. According to Owen (2001), “Research is considered to be sensitive when the people being studied are powerless or disadvantaged and where the subject matter relates to personal experiences.”3 The execution phase involved conducting the FGDs for data gathering and monitoring the research process. 

Analysis of Findings

Palestinian youth involved in the FGDs can be described as autobiographers who narrated their subjective experiences regarding their fears and anxieties in marginalized contexts. The legacy of anxiety and threat was strongly ingrained in the minds of young Palestinians. According to the FDG session rapporteur, the youth voiced a list of threats including theft, drugs, beatings, shootings, physical and sexual assaults, fraud, cyberbullying girls, racism, security, and discrimination. A participant from Nahr al-Bared camp said: “I feel threatened by everything in the camp: problems, drugs, and weapons.” The numerous perils pronounced by young Palestinians represented a desperate cry for security and protection. The sources of perceived threats reported by the youth in 31 out of 48 groups were social, compared to individual threats reported in 8 groups as shown in table 2 below. The remaining 9 groups considered that they were no threat to them.

Individual Threats

What is striking in the youth’s statements is the emergence of a blackmailing phenomenon in the camps that threatens girls and exacerbates their fears and anxieties, such as publishing their pictures on pornographic sites. A young woman from Burj al-Shamali camp-Tyre explained: “Recently, a new phenomenon has spread in the camp, which is threatening girls by publishing their pictures and posting them on pornographic sites.” Her friend from Tareek El Jdeedah shared her personal experience: “When this unknown person started sending my pictures on my Instagram page to my brother, I felt worried, but thank God my brother was understanding.”

Perceived individual threats included harassment from outside the family circle or the camp. There were tendencies among some girls to accuse Syrians of sexual harassment without providing concrete examples evidencing their claims. When the facilitator asked participants to clarify this point, a young woman from Nahr -al Bared camp said, “Like the Syrians, I hear a lot of stories of sexual assault.” Another participant from Ein El Hilweh camp said: “One time I had a problem on WhatsApp with a person who started talking to me in the wrong way,” without specifying the background of the person or the content of the “wrong” way. These girls avoided discussing sensitive issues that are tabooed by social traditions in Palestinian society.

The youth also expressed concern about retaliation being a social tradition that exists in some societies, especially among tribes and clans. A young man from Nahr -al Bared camp explained: “We live with anxiety. When they killed the young man from another neighborhood, we fear every day that they will break into our neighborhood.” Images of killing and acts of violence are ingrained in the minds of young refugees due to recurrent episodes of violence within camps. A young woman from Nahr al-Bared said: “One time they had a carnival in the camp, and everyone felt that it was going to become a problem because it was impossible for it to go well, and the world rejoiced. In fact, it became an individual problem, and one person was killed and 4 died.” Another example was provided by a young woman from Ein El Hilweh camp: “My uncle was threatened and then attacked by a person who cut his neck with a knife.” The individual threats that the youth pronounced in the FDGs reflect a climate of pervasive fear and insecurity in the camps and gatherings.

Social Threats

Political Parties and Security Forces

The youth perceived the Palestinian organizations (militias and the Popular Services Committees) and the Lebanese army as sources of threat to them. Each entity posed a specific type of threat, the most prominent of which was the issue of rights and security from the Lebanese state versus incitement and repression by some Palestinian factions. A young woman from Beddawi camp stated: “We fear that the Lebanese army is tightening its grip on us in terms of rights.” On December 11, 2017, considering the growing fears of the possible termination of the UNRWA services as stated by the Commissioner-General in the near East, Pierre Krähenbühl,4 she added, "Yes, and also with the closure of UNRWA, I fear the Lebanese state. Any decision from it could change our fate." 

Participants went further to consider Lebanese army raids a source of security threat to them. A young woman from Al- Mankoubeen camp lamented army raids where she lives. Youth also registered their frustration with the security checkpoints erected by the Lebanese army due to the long waiting hours and other strict measures taken against them. A young woman from Ein El Hilweh camp - Sidon clarified: “I feel threatened, and I get nervous every time I pass the door of the camp (at the checkpoint) from the Lebanese army (if I do not have an Identification Card). We will not pass, and they will send us home to get it, even if my house is at the far end of the camp.” 

Another source of anxiety reported by the youth is the legality of their place of residence. A young woman from Beddawi camp commented: “I always feel threatened by the issue of the location of my home, which is considered Lebanese land and not within the camp. I fear that they will expel us from the house under the pretext that the land is Lebanese, and the building is illegal.” Thus, displacement remains an active and vivid concern in the minds of Palestinian refugees. 

Perceived security threats were not limited to the Lebanese army. They also included Palestinian armed groups and factions. A young man from Burj al-Shamali camp - Tyre explained: “Political organizations are the ones that pose the greatest threat to all the people of the camp because every party supports and incites a group against a group.” In the eyes of participating youth, Palestinian factions are corrupt and provide a comprehensive cover for outlaws. The young man added: “Gangs are basically the ones supported and covered by the armed factions themselves.” 

Young Palestinians have also expressed concerns about the violent methods used by armed factions to suppress opposition voices. A participant from Al-Ma’shouq - Tyre raised the issue of freedom of expression: “Because I write in the press and on Facebook, I was threatened, and they also threatened my family. The socially active person who influences public opinion is threatened by them [Factions].” Further, the memory of past security events, such as the war with Fatah al-Islam, in 2007, continues to haunt the consciousness of the youth, as they fear the reoccurrence of such a devastating event. A young woman from Nahr al-Bared camp said: “The wars in the camp, I fear that the previous problems will be repeated, the story of Fatah al-Islam and the destruction of the camp and displacement.” It is worth noting that the youth lamented the Islamic armed factions in some camps. These factions are known to prohibit cultural activities, including canceling concerts in schools, which restricts the youths' freedom to express themselves. A young woman from Ein El Hilweh camp said: “I am concerned about the spread of groups who target children and brainwash them in the name of religion, a child for $100 (suddenly we see the child fighting in Syria).”

Gangs and Drugs

Concerns about the phenomenon of gangsterism in the camps was voiced by the youth. The problem of drugs was mentioned with the same frequency as the fears of the overall security situation in the camp across the FGDs. In addition to representing a major threat to the safety of the camp and the fragmentation of the Palestinian social fabric, participants spoke extensively about drug trafficking and abuse in the camps. A young woman from Al-Daouk- Tareek El Jdeedah explained: “The current situation scares me with several things: drugs, pills, trading in them, and using them in public, and nothing prevents that.” A young woman from Nahr al-Bared camp added: “Drugs are spreading widely, and we fear that they will reach our family and children and become a disaster.” Another participant from Ein El Hilweh-Sidon cautioned about what she described as “The widespread phenomenon of drug abuse in the camp (from 14 years of age and over).” Participants attributed drug dealing to unemployment, which is rampant among Palestinian refugees. 

Participating youth considered that the way to address societal problems in Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings is through civic action. 

Awareness and Civic Action

Raising awareness of camp conditions was firmly established in the minds of participants who underscored its importance as a basis for changing people’s mentality [refugees in camps and gatherings] and directing them towards sustainability in solving problems. A participant from Al-Ma’shouq - Tyre clarified: “If we want to clean a street it will be dirty after three minutes, there is no awareness.” Therefore, as a colleague of his from Burj al-Shamali camp – Tyre pointed out, “We must work to improve the way people think (through awareness).” Thus, youth have emphasized awareness campaigns, which are effective and influential in changing existing mindsets in marginalized contexts. One participant from Ein El Hilweh camp - Sidon explained: “Awareness campaigns have a significant impact. We are influenced by the awareness videos we watch.” 

Participants also acknowledged the limitations of awareness campaigns and the need for structural solutions. A young woman from Burj al-Shamali camp in Tyre said: “In my opinion, there are no effective solutions for treatment. The solutions, whatever they are, and as we are witnessing, are temporary or immediate (for a certain period), and then we return to the problems again (there are no radical solutions), so I see that raising awareness and changing the way thinking helps more in reducing and limiting problems.” The use of the phrase “reducing and limiting problems” reflects mature developmental thinking among Palestinian youth that is close to common sense in implementing projects.

Volunteering Work

Participants in 12 groups agreed that volunteer work led by the youth and supported by Ahlam Lajea Association (Dreams of A Refugee) contributes to solving community. The volunteer spirit with a civil dimension was strongly prominent in youth’s statements. The phrase “voluntary” was repeated 20 times in 20 of the total sentences they pronounced—that is, an average of one time for each sentence. Volunteering has many forms, as some say that they are drawn to associations that embrace youth initiatives. “We go to some associations by volunteering and working with them to create youth initiatives,” said a young man from Nahr al-Bared camp. The youth provided examples of the types of volunteering work they do. One of the participants from Jabal al-Beddawi said: “Once they ran a marathon for addiction, protection and safety, and for people with disabilities, and we participated in it to encourage workers about these topics.” Her colleague from Al-Daouk- Tareek El Jdeedah added: “Volunteering in associations, helping the poor, and strengthening the sense of free volunteering.” Volunteer work mentioned by young people also includes collecting donations to help the poor. A young woman from Al-Daouk- Tareek El Jdeedah proposed creating a fund to support the needy through  “Creating a fund dedicated to donations and helping families in need, as well as social work that contributes to understanding problems, and providing assistance.” She added: “Volunteering and helping people reduce problems and help to find out the cause of the dispute and aid.”  

Volunteer work provided an outlet for youth civic action but also had other positive outcomes: The first centered around civic values, such as accepting others, responsibility, and alleviating racism, as well as learning to cooperate. “Volunteer work helps us accept others, instills in us a love of cooperation and good responsibility, and increases our humanity. Thus, the problems in society end and we live a peaceful life,” said a young man from Burj al-Shamali camp. It is worth noting that the youth underscored the importance of volunteer work as a means for countering racism in general such as when a young man from Sidon encouraged “…increasing social work to reduce racism in the camp.” They also promoted solving problems through peaceful means, as one of the participants from Ein El Hilweh camp-Sidon said: “Any solution that does not resort to violence and weapons is good”. Her colleague from Ein El Hilweh camp also agreed with her, saying: “Treatment is achieved through peaceful means, perhaps through volunteer work.” 

A bright point raised by the youth stressed the importance of openness to others to solve problems. “To solve the problems of our society, there must be interconnection between all parties,” said a young woman from Ein El Hilweh - Sidon. Some also expressed the necessity of cohesion: A young man from Al-Mashouq – Tyre said, “The solution is for all people to be together,” while a young woman from Al-Bass camp -Tyre explained, “when the people agree with each other (problems end).”

The second bright point marks the youth tendency to take ownership of addressing societal problems within their communities away from the influence of politicians and religious groups. A young man from Shatila camp explained: “With regard to volunteer activities, they are willing to participate and contribute away from the offices of the Palestinian factions.” A young woman, Jabal al-Beddawi added: “The independence of this work is what makes it successful and effective. There are no politics or religions supporting it. It is a work that does not carry slogans other than the slogans of the required tasks.”

The blossoming, yet fragile civic action undertaken by Palestinian youth in the refugee camps and gatherings creates the rudiments of a counterweight to the faction-oriented political economy of the camps. This is a starting point in the en routes towards solving structural problems that are currently far-fetched from immediate solutions due to cumulative multilayered problems in Palestinian marginalized contexts. Still, volunteerism and civic action as means to redressing community problems is a silver lining in countering marginalization through capacitating the youth and reinforcing their engagement with civic action. 

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

To address the intersecting challenges faced by Palestinian youth in refugee camps and gatherings, it is essential to allude to their own subjective experiences voiced in FGDs. These experiences furnish evidence for policymaking aimed at empowering the youth as they attempt to counter multilayered vulnerabilities in marginalized contexts. Based on the data excerpts from the FGDs, it is important to take a multifaceted approach that involves short-term, medium-term, and long-term strategies. 

Short-Term Strategies

Cognizant of the limitations of education in Lebanon which does not funnel Palestinian students into the labor market, UNRWA schools, in the short-term, can provide schoolteachers with training on leadership, community service, and service learning as important facets of community-based learning. These teachers can be equipped with the necessary skills to engage Palestinian students with community service projects involving volunteering activities and other forms of civic action tailored to meeting community needs through extra-curricular activities that still align with the national curriculum in Lebanon. 

Medium-Term Strategies

Engaging youth in civic action is key to empowering them. One of the prominent agencies in refugee camps is Ahlam Lajea Association. Internships, leadership training programs, and community engagement opportunities can provide avenues for capacitating youth and prepare them for the dynamics of civil society in solving community problems. This requires support from Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) supporting refugees and vulnerable communities. 

Long-Term Strategies

The UNRWA, as the educational custodian of Palestinian refugees, has actively pursued the implementation of the Education Reform Strategy, designed to capitalize on the 21st century competencies and cultivate students' capacities for innovation, creativity, and critical thinking. Key to the reform plans has been the formulation of a Teacher Policy, which acknowledges the pivotal role of educators in ensuring the delivery of high-quality education through honing their professional development and career advancement endeavors. 

These structural reforms represent sustainable drivers for consolidating the governance and work of educational institutions, both formal and non-formal, for providing quality education to refugees. As it stands now, our participating youth have shown their concerns about the quality of education in UNRWA schools and other educational institutions they have attended. These reforms concern teacher preparation and training, improvement in styles of pedagogy, and infrastructure. 

By implementing the policy recommendations outlined in this paper, governments, NGOs, and Civil Society Organizations (CSO) can ensure the provision of opportunities to the youth for a better future in marginalized settings. 

Without progress taking place on the track of empowering youth, addressing community needs in refugee camps and gatherings will be ephemeral.



1: Smets, K., Mazzocchetti, J., Gerstmans, L., and Mostmans, L. (2020) ‘Beyond Victimhood: Reflecting on Migrant-Victim Representations with Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Belgium’. In L. d’Haenens, W.Joris and F. Heinderyckx (Eds.) Images of Immigrants and Refugees in Western Europe: Media Representations, Public Opinion and Refugees’ Experiences. Belgium: Leuven University Press.

2: Verma, G., Zek, P, and Skinner, G. (1994). The Ethnic Crucible: Harmony and Hostility in Multi-Ethnic Schools. London: The Falmer Press.

3: Owen, S. (2001). The practical, methodological, and ethical dilemmas of conducting focus groups with vulnerable clients. Journal of Advanced Nursing 36(5): 652–658.

4: Asm'a Awwad, "Al-Khouta 'B' Ba'da Ilgha' al-Unrwa Jahiza?" (Al-Akhbar Newspaper, Issue No. 3357, Wednesday, December 27, 2017), cited in Siklawi, R (2019) ‘The Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon Post 1990: Dilemmas of Survival and Return to Palestine’. Arab Studies Quarterly (41(1): 78-94.

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Feb 21, 2024
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