When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War left nearly 250,000 Palestinian refugees stranded in Gaza, the United Nations turned to AFSC to help organize relief services. Early in 1949, 20 AFSC staffers faced a sea of people and began distributing food, clothing, tents, and blankets. Ultimately, a renowned African-American physician, Dr. Jerome Peterson, came to manage medical care.

While staff from other relief agencies lived apart in guarded houses, the Quakers “lived as close as we could … open and present and among the people all the time.” By 1950, when the United Nations took over, more than 100 AFSC staffers had worked in Gaza—most of them in their 20s and early 30s. They had managed to help Palestinians create schools, maternity centers, metal shops, and recreation clubs.

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  • Many tents in a field
    Camps were roughly grouped around three cities: Gaza (the largest), Khan Younis, and Rafah.
  • Large group of people of different ages in a mass, mostly looking at the camera.
    While early AFSC staff had very little relief experience, they sought out religious and community leaders to help organize systems to support daily life.
  • Tent made of patched fabric and rope.
    The cold, rainy winters in Gaza made adequate shelter essential.
  • Girls in a line carrying blankets.
    Even with donated blankets, nights were so chilly that people often huddled together to stay warm.
  • Man measuring out lentils or grain for a woman and child.
    Lentils and beans supplemented flour and oil in the refugees’ meager diets.
  • Woman holding a child.
    There were many children in the camps. UNICEF reported providing milk for 108,000 children and mothers.
  • Teacher facing several lines of students sitting on the ground, raising their hands.
    AFSC set up schools for both girls and boys, who were excited to learn.
  • Children walking in a line
    Even in these surroundings, “they had the boundless eagerness of school children everywhere,” wrote one volunteer.
  • Young boy standing while other children sit on the ground nearby.
    Initially, children had no writing tools. They learned by reciting aloud and sat on the mats, sacks or the ground.
  • Teacher standing in front of a classroom of students sitting on benches with a blackboard behind him.
    With donated chalkboards and supplies, teachers were able to improve the instruction for the camp’s children.
  • Man wearing a small tank on his back sprays a tent while a woman holding a baby looks on.
    Under the leadership of public health specialist, Dr. Jerome Peterson, volunteers sprayed diligently against disease-breeders such as mosquitoes, sand flies, and fleas.
  • Woman with Quaker armband examines a young child while a slightly older boy looks on.
    Volunteers like Quaker nurse Maira Hollmen, from Finland, provided clinic services in each camp, supplemented by three local hospitals.
  • Men work around large kettles.
    Tens of thousands of people passed through the distribution centers and clinics each day. Camp residents could take a shower once every 10 days.
  • Man wearing a Quaker armband talks with two other men, all seated.
    Partnering with Palestinians was critical to success. Here, AFSC staff member Evan Jones (right) discusses problems of the day with the camp assistant.