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OPT/Syria: Refugee stories - Raising the roof, Yarmouk women take their future into their hands

Damascus, April 2009 - They are using their own hands to build a floor. It is hard work, but worth the effort. As the Palestinian women from the Yarmouk Centre attest, necessity is the mother of invention. Without sufficient resources to meet the needs of their pupils, they decided to take the matter of insufficient space into their hands. "There was no time to loose", says Mayda al-Hajj, one of the Centre's Committee members. "What would you do in our shoes, with growing demand and no external resources?"

Yarmouk Women's Programme Centre is one of the most successful projects of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in Syria. Run by a vibrant group of volunteers, the Centre aims to develop the economic and social capacity of Palestinian women in Damascus. "The Centre provides social and skill-training opportunities to the marginalized and disadvantaged women from the Palestinian community", explains Najah Zagmat, the UNRWA community development social worker in Yarmouk. "We help these women to cope with poverty, discrimination, ignorance and even domestic violence."

Since 2000, the Centre has been a meeting point for women from the Palestinian society of Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. "The Centre is the only place where my husband allows me to go alone", says Aala, 35 years old. "Of course, he is not really happy with that, but at least we can have an additional income."

Meant exclusively for women, the Yarmouk Centre is a female-friendly space that circumvents the social sensitivities and gender related topics of the Palestinian community. According to Amneh Saqer, the UNRWA Chief of the Field Relief and Social Services Programme, this sense of security is the reason for the Centre's popularity among the women from Yarmouk. "They trust us and believe we can solve their problems", Saqer says. "They can be sure that at least we will listen to their needs."

For many Palestinian women, the Yarmouk Centre is their only chance for any skill development. "Since I can remember I have had to work to help maintain my family", says Fatima, a seventeen-year old student at the Centre's literacy class. "Here, finally, I learnt how to read and write. Now I want to do a computer course". In addition to elementary education, the women work. During the latest crisis in Gaza, the Centre Committee came up with an initiative to organize a handicraft market to help Gaza's students in Damascus. As Zagmat explains, the Centre's philosophy is to enhance the skills of disadvantaged women so that they can generate income. "It is not the point to count our opportunities today", she says. "In this world we have to create the opportunities."

In 2003, the clear skies above the Centre clouded over. "Since the conflict in Iraq, the population of the Yarmouk camp has grown rapidly and completely overloaded the Centre", Saqer explains. According to the Agency's 'Need Assessment in Yarmouk', Palestinian women are a particularly vulnerable group in the camp. This is due to unemployment, a lack of skill-building opportunities, restricted mobility, poverty and illiteracy among the women. 24 per cent of females between 15 and 28 years old have either no education or primary education only. As Zagmat says, "A combination of these factors has brought these women to our Centre and forced us to expand the building with our own hands."

Nevertheless, the much needed construction work on the centres has been stopped recently by a lack of official permission. "Our situation is becoming difficult", Zagmat says. "The building is not adapted to an increasing number of women and children. Even with our limited capacity we already work double shifts - as a kindergarten in the morning and as a training centre in the evening. The new space is urgently needed."

In cooperation with the Centre's Committee, UNRWA has offered to expand the Yarmouk facilities. The project includes new space for a kindergarten, embroidery, a street-level shop, a sports activity hall, a computer laboratory, a library and even a coffee lounge, where women can socialize. The Agency seeks also to empower Yarmouk's women by extended training programmes, funding scholarships for the most talented students, increasing the capacity of the legal advice bureau and initiating a hotline for victims of domestic violence. However, as Saqer says, this is only the beginning: "Everything depends on donations. We are still looking for more than one million dollars to meet the most pressing needs of Palestinian women."

For many women, the Yarmouk Centre means much more than a 'second chance' at the labour market. "Obviously, this centre offers me new opportunities, a job and money. But more importantly, it gives me satisfaction, a sense of independence", says Maryam, a 35-year-old participant of the hairdressing course. As al-Hajj stresses, the centre encourages the women to manage their own life. "We are going far beyond the space and skill-building. Of course, we are trying to generate an income but we are also creating a new generation of women able to change their societal status in the future."

Text by Pawel Krzysiek