Yasser al-Hajj

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2017
This description of Yasser al-Hajj's work was prepared when Yasser al-Hajj was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.


Yasser reduces aid dependency in refugee camps through the creation of sustainable community greenhouses. In doing so, Yasser has given the power of food production to local refugee communities, cutting dependency on food aid in Palestine and the Levant.

The New Idea

Yasser is changing the dependency mindset and reducing food insecurity of Palestinian refugees through the creation of mostly rooftop greenhouses run by women and refugee communities. In doing so, a local market is created in which refugees can organize themselves for local production and sale of food products, rather than remaining dependent on humanitarian aid or volatile prices when roadblocks constrain the flow of food products into the camps.

Yasser creates sustainable employment opportunities for Palestinian refugees, educating them in agricultural and entrepreneurial best practices in order to maintain self-sustainable food production businesses in areas barren of agriculture and means of sustainable food practices. This approach both tackles the refugees’ problem of unemployment and helps food insecurity. As land is sparse in the refugee camps, Yasser creates space for agriculture by enabling families to build greenhouses on the roofs of their houses. Refugees use these greenhouses and mini-production facilities in their homes and in Karama organization, to grow vegetables and create organic food products. The self-produced goods not only secure food for the producing families, but also foster food independence in the camps. The production also serves as a source of income for refugees. Yasser’s initiative focuses on empowering women and youth—the most vulnerable members of the Palestinian refugee society —by encouraging them to lead and run local production lines. Through Yasser’s initiative, it is possible for young people and women to sustainably participate in the economic ecosystem as they are provided a safe employment opportunity within their familiar community.

Through this initiative, Yasser shifts not only the mindsets of refugees from one of dependency to sustainable self-empowerment, but also the thinking at the institutional level of international development agencies. He does so through institutionalizing his initiative and widening its impact through collaborations with UN-Habitat, UNHCR, UNRWA and the EU. Moreover, Yasser does not confine his work to refugees in the Palestinian territories, but plans to implement his initiative in Palestinian refugee camps across the Levant.

The Problem

Refugee camps suffer from the reproduction of poverty. There are 8.3 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, the largest share of them living in Gaza and the West Bank. Nearly 40% of refugee households suffer from poverty, with little access to resources other than those provided by humanitarian aid. According to the UN, women in Palestinian refugee camps are particularly vulnerable to poverty because of their inability to move outside the camp and find jobs as men do. A lack of infrastructure, education and economic systems prevent vulnerable populations in refugee camps (especially women and youth) from improving their situation. Moreover, lack of access to markets, agricultural land and economic perspectives reinforces high poverty. Such lack is seen due to security concerns thatlimit women’s movement and employment opportunities, while mistrust in society prevents women from finding employment outside the camps. On another note, labor force participation rates among women is 14.2%. It is worth noting that a country like Egypt, according to International Labor Organization (ILO), with an unemployment rate of those aged between 15 and 29 of 27.3%, has a labor force participation rates among women age 15+ of 24%. Thus showing how shockingly low the rates in Palestinian refugee camps are. In addition, World Bank data available for Gaza shows that more than 50% of those aged between 15 and 29 are out of work, with contributing factors being: low quality education, lack of means to connect to the job market, and mobility constraints between camps and cities that are imposed by the Israelis on Palestinian refugees. Along with high rates of unemployment, a further problem strongly linked to poverty, and highly stressed on by UN, is food insecurity. According to a 2013 annual food security survey by Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and United Nations (UN) agencies in the food-security sector, 1.6 million people (35% of the population) in Palestine are food insecure. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that any rise in food prices poses a high threat to families that are already vulnerable to food access instability.

One of the roots of the unstable economic situation of refugees is high dependency on resources provided by international aid agencies. There is also vulnerability due to Israeli government control—e.g. roads are often blocked, thus breaking the supply chain of products into the camps. On top of this, Palestinian refugees face challenges in finding jobs near their camps because of the high sociopolitical tension. Refugees are forced to travel far distances to find work, adding additional burdens to the already established un-systematized curfew hours that do not always conform to working hours. Previous attempts to improve refugee situations through humanitarian aid have led to short-term relief that failed to bring long-term sustainable solutions. This is because traditional development aid in the form of money donations and free hand-outs has led to dependence on an unreliable system rather than self-sustainable practices of independence. In fact, a great share of Palestinian refugees depend on food assistance from the UNRWA. According to the World Bank, the very high economic dependency is reflected in the West Bank’s GDP slowdown of 2.5% in 2015 which was mainly caused by the significant decline in foreign aid with previous aid not leading to sustainable measures of development.

In terms of economic independence, self-employment and entrepreneurship have been promoted in Palestine, yet due to social and economic exclusion, refugee communities have lacked economic capacity to sustainably grow; only 21% of employed Palestinian refugees are self-employed, compared to 40% of employed Egyptian citizens. Organizations (such as UNRWA, UN-Habitat, UNDP, and Refutrees) have attempted to help refugees grow their own plants, but these efforts were not connected to a greater economic market like that created by Yasser. Moreover, while UN efforts to support skills trainings and education have occurred, there has been little follow-up on enabling refugees to penetrate and enter a local marketplace and sustain such efforts, unfortunately leading to failed sustainable development attempts. Nevertheless, the dependence on a foreign driven aid system with a lack of alternative markets and food instability, is currently what Yasser is challenging and changing.

The Strategy

Yasser creates a sustainable local food market in the refugee camps by providing people with accessible home-based production techniques, training and equipping women and their communities to organize for production and sale, and fostering a local market. He trains Palestinian refugees to build and sustain greenhouses and production facilities, while also providing business management and marketing skills. He collaborates with the several UN agencies like UNRWA and UN-habitat for example, to coordinate between entrepreneurs and suppliers of needed materials for establishing businesses. He then supports refugees in scaling the impact of their business through his ever-growing network of entrepreneurs and local markets, within and outside of the refugee camps.

Yasser developed a technique of low-cost greenhouses, suitable for the roofs of homes in the refugee camps and made from easily available materials. For instance, his technique uses PVC pipes for drip irrigation and agriculture engineering and recycles vegetation by-products to be used as part of the soil for further plantation. He partners with the UNDP, UNRWA and UN-Habitat to provide necessary materials (such as seeds) and helps women establish their own rooftop greenhouses using other materials in their homes.

Women are also given the tools and knowledge to sustain their greenhouses in order to yield healthy harvests. Yasser’s organization trains the women to make soil and fertilizers and to fight plant diseases. As such, he enables Palestinian refugees to grow and sustain their own greenhouses. He partners with the UN and Ministry of Agriculture to support the training and to help with monitoring during different agricultural seasons in the year. As the initiative has grown, women are increasingly able to train and learn from each other rather than relying on Yasser’s organization and partners.

As part of the initiative, a contract is established in which refugees agree only to not produce drugs or mismanage the resources provided to them. Some women use the greenhouses soley for their own family needs or to sell to neighbors. But most collaborate with the broader network of women and families who maintain greenhouses, organizing to produce at a larger scale for market.

The women learn to form associations with elected leaders, through which time and labor are efficiently divided among the association members. For instance, households agree to grow different types of produce to maximize efficiency and production capacity and increase the diversity of product offerings. Yasser also works with them to establish facilities to process food products (such as pickles, dried herbs, and syrups) to tap a wider market. Women who don’t have space for greenhouses can participate in the food processing and packaging stages, or do administrative work or sales.

Through this organization, they create new market dynamics, which trigger and lead to change in the economic situation of their whole refugee community. Yasser makes sure that at least 80% of the leaders are women, whose activities were previously limited to preparing food for their households and caring for their children. Granting these opportunities to women and enabling them to fully leverage them, increase social capital in the community by enabling stronger kinship and community resilience against the adversity that refugees experience in their everyday lives. In addition, Yasser facilitates knowledge sharing between experienced and relatively new businesswomen, preparing them to sustain and scale food products markets inside and outside their camps.

Over the course of four years, Yasser enabled 100+ families to build 15+ greenhouses, and is currently establishing 10 production units in 2 camps. The success of Yasser’s initiative has been built on the establishment of a sustained network of 600+ volunteers, 30 project-based employees, several NGOs and government institutions interested in enabling the economic empowerment of Palestinian refugees. Since 2013, Yasser has empowered 50+ entrepreneurs, and 150+ women who are engaged in different services to support the selling of food and dairy products like packaging and delivery for example. Yasser has managed to extend the reach of his workacross three cities (Bethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah) in Palestine. He has also targeted over five highly populated camps like Dehisha (15,000+ inhabitants) and Aida (3,150+ inhabitants) for example, where population growth rates of over 5% annually have led to camps housing refugees at three-times their intended limits. On the top of that, Yasser’s enabled all supported families to find a sustainable alternative responding to 100% of their need for vegetables, herbs and some processed foods (such as dried tomatoes). In a further two camps (Aroud and al-Fawwar) camp leaders successfully replicated his model. Yasser as well empowered greenhouse and production facility owners to sustain a profit of $150/month, who were previously depending on their husbands. In addition, his model has been replicated in three other camps to date (al-Azza, Aida, al-Fawwar) through UNRWA and UNDP. He also co-implemented the West Bank Job Creation Programme (JCP) with UNRWA in three camps (Dehisha, Aida, and al-Azza) impacting more than 100+ entrepreneurs.

Yasser has recently received $1.1 million from the EU to expand his work to other camps. This will enable him to train 2500+ entrepreneurs starting in January 2017. The goal will be to establish 130 production facilities across 13 camps in Palestine. He will also expand to new markets, opening channels to sell herbs to pharmacies and start production of roses for sale to shops, as well as the development of a palm tree farm managed by young refugee entrepreneurs and focused on the processing of palm products. Yasser also plans to engage agricultural engineers to help scale the trainings that he provides. Additionally, after having implemented a pilot project in Zaatri camp in Jordan, Yasser wants to lobby the EU delegation for Palestine to help replicate his model in refugee camps across the Levant.

The Person

Yasser was born in 1974 to a Palestinian refugee family, where he grew up in Deheishe Refugee Camp in the West Bank. His father maintained a small garden outside their home that provided some food for the family, but Yasser quickly learned how difficult it was to sustain a family in refugee camps. When Yasser was four years old, his father moved to Saudi Arabia to find work and remained there for many years. Back at home, Yasser was learning other realities of the Palestinian existence. Two of his uncles were killed by Israeli forces, and as a boy, Yasser himself was nearly choked by an Israeli soldier for intervening to try to protect a friend. These experiences led him at a young age to join the First Intifada, which led to several stints of imprisonment by occupying forces before he was 18 years old for things like throwing stones at military cars.

After being in and out of prison numerous times, and realizing that throwing stones was really just a game, Yasser started looking for more constructive ways to help his community. He decided that he wanted to continue his high school education, which eventually led to obtaining a university degree. During high school, and throughout his university years, Yasser was engaged in organizing several activities and recreational trips for his peers to bond with nature and the environment. He also began to heavily engage in voluntary work, building new roads in the community, helping get food to those who did not have access to it, providing lessons to children, whose schools were either demolished or closed by Israeli forces, helping his community reopen a medical center that had been shut down. After finishing university, he grew a network of volunteers, inviting peers to work toward the improvement of life conditions in refugee camps. In late 1990s, he co-founded the Ibdaa Center in Palestine where he offered an open place to vulnerable youth and women, while also initiating programs that support inter-cultural exchange.

In 2002, during the 2nd Intifada, he saw a child waiting to pick a fight with a Merkava Mk4--one of the strongest battle tanks in the world--using a small handmade bomb. Remembering his own childhood and recognizing the futility, he wanted to help this child and the new generation to find a different path. Yasser took the bomb from the child to guide him to a more productive outlet. Yasser decided to build a computer lab and library in which children could express themselves and develop in safe places. He recruited volunteers to teach computer skills. Yasser ultimately built a network of international and national organizations, as well as international donors, enhancing his work in community development. While organizing health lectures for women during this time, he realized that the women already had what they needed and that it was not on them or anyone to ask for their rights but rather to live them. He started the organization Karama (Dignity) to begin shifting the mindset of dependency that reproduced the social and economic conditions of refugees in Palestine and across the Levant.