Khan Eshieh Refugee Camp

Khan Eshieh Refugee Camp

Khan Eshieh Camp

11 December 2023
Wael Harsh

Khan Eshieh Camp is considered the second largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. It is located about sixty kilometers from the border, which makes it the closest camp in Syria to Palestine; for that reason, the late Palestinian president Yasir Arafat is said to have dubbed it al-Awda (Return) Camp after he visited it in the 1980s.

The war in Syria took its toll on the camp, as its residents left it in search of safer areas. They quickly returned to it after the Syrian government re-established control over the surrounding area and the security situation became stable once again.

Establishment and Demographics

Khan Eshieh Camp was established in 1949 on a plot of land with an area of 0.60 square kilometers, acquired for use by the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees. The camp is located on the highway linking the governorate of Damascus to Quneitra governorate, 27 kilometers southwest of the Syrian capital.

Geometrically, the camp is shaped like a diamond: from the entrance, it narrows as one heads toward the east, then widens in the middle only to become narrow once again from its exit toward the west. The Aʿwaj river runs past the camp to the south. To the camp’s east lies the town of Drousha and to its west Manshiyet Khan Eshieh, while to its north lies land that is part of the towns of Qatana and Beitima, and to its south lies land that is part of the towns of Zakiya and Deir Khabiye.

The influx of Palestinian refugees to Khan Eshieh began in 1948, given its proximity to Palestine among Syria’s camps, and from there the refugees spread out to the other Palestinian camps. Later on, it was also inhabited by Palestinians who had earlier sought refuge in the Golan Heights and were then displaced when Israel occupied it in 1967.

Most of the inhabitants of Khan Eshieh Camp come from the Upper Galilee, with a sizable number of people from the villages of the Hula Valley. About half the camp’s population belongs to the al-Mawasi clan. The other clans represented inside the camp are al-Sbeih, al-Wahib, al-Heib (a relatively small number), al-Zanghariyya, al-Shamalneh, al-Samkiyya, al-Talawiyya, al-Khawalid, al-Qudayriyya, al-Waisiyya, al-Sayyad, al-Saqqar, and al-Barahmeh, as well as clans from the villages of Kirad al-Baqqara, Kirad al-Ghannama, Kirad al-Khayt, Ghuwayr Abu Shusha and Yaquq. The rest of the camp’s residents come from villages in the Hula Valley, such as al-Dawwara, al-Qaitiya, al-Salihiyya, al-Khalisa, Mallaha and al-ʿAbisiyya. In the 1980s and 1990s, families living in the Yarmouk camp, who originated from other Palestinian villages in the districts of Haifa, Safad, and Tiberias, such as the village of Lubya, came to live in Khan Eshieh.

The camp population has increased steadily over the decades. In 1987, its population was estimated at 11,128 refugees; then 12,573 in 1994; 15,731 in 1999; 16,951 in 2002; 19,000 in 2006; and 20,000 in 2011.

Generally speaking, Khan Eshieh Camp has maintained its tightly knit social fabric despite changes in the world around it. This can be ascribed to its clan-based demographic makeup, which has helped in easing several economic and social burdens on the camp’s inhabitants, particularly after they started a charitable association that provides material aid and at times cash aid as well.

Infrastructure and Building Development

The refugees who first came to Khan Eshieh Camp lived in tents given to them by UNRWA. The tents offered little protection from the elements: The camp overlooks an open and elevated area and is bordered on one side by Mount Hermon (Jabal al-Sheikh), which is often covered with snow in the winter; summers are very hot and winters are very cold. High winds tore the tents, often splitting them open at the seams. In an attempt to handle the problem, UNRWA hired tailors to restore the tents. Sometimes the tents would be uprooted by severe hurricanes, forcing their inhabitants to take shelter in the mosques of nearby towns until the storm abated and they could put up their tents once again.

In 1951, camp residents built houses with mud or straw walls and wooden ceilings. Then, in the early 1970s, reinforced concrete was brought into the camp, which improved the quality and safety level of the houses.

As a result of the swell in population in the camp and given its limited space, construction began to expand outside of it. This happened in two directions: the first was to the southwestern side of the camp, on the other edge of the Aʿwaj River, where the area of new plots ran parallel to that of the camp’s area, from the town of Drousha in the east to the old khan, or caravanserai, in the west. The second expansion was on the other side of the main road (Damascus–Quneitra), and the area it covered also ran parallel to the camp’s area. This area was within the municipality of neighboring Manshiyet Khan Eshieh’s jurisdiction; construction was more modern, housing plots were larger, and public services were better than those in the camp.

Sanitation in the camp is the shared responsibility of three official agencies, as per to the zoning division of the camp. UNRWA and GAPAR are in charge of the original camp, while in the two areas considered extensions of the camp, sanitation services are the responsibility of two separate municipalities: the eastern section of this expansion comes under the administrative jurisdiction of Drousha and its public services are thus provided by that town’s municipality, while the western section of this expansion comes under the administrative jurisdiction of the village Manshiyet Khan Eshieh, and its public services are provided by the village municipality.

The homes of the old camp were connected to the electricity grid only in 1976. As for water, the residents of the old camp had to rely in the past on old storage tanks that were not sufficient for their needs, which prompted UNRWA to construct a larger tank in cooperation with GAPAR, which could be filled with water from artesian wells dug next to the camp from which water could be pumped directly into homes, as well as by tanker trucks from the municipality of Artouz.

With the assistance of UNRWA, GAPAR built a new sewer network that collects sewage and drains it into a large ditch dug on one edge of the camp, from where it is discharged into the nearest sewer network.

Socioeconomic Conditions


The residents of Khan Eshieh Camp are known for their high educational qualifications, which has opened the labor markets open to them in the camp, in the surrounding vicinity, and in Syrian cities. The camp is known for having many education workers, so much so that the camp has been able to meet its own demand for teachers, along with that of the neighboring towns and villages.

The camp’s residents have also worked in agriculture, especially in the large farms that were widespread in the 1980s. Some have also worked as brokers for buying and selling agricultural land and reclaiming it, while others have opened their own shops.

Health Care

When the camp was founded, UNRWA opened a dispensary, which was basically a large tent, with one doctor and one nurse who provided treatment. Since then, it developed into a medical center staffed by several doctors and nurses. However, given that it had to serve a large geographical area beyond the limits of the camp, the patient–provider ratio was disproportionately large, which made examination and treatment there inadequate.

The camp has one private hospital, al-Salam Hospital, located on the main road between Damascus and Quneitra. A clinic run by the Palestine Liberation Army and named after Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini offers medical services at nominal prices; the camp has a number of private clinics offering various specialty services. Health centers run by the Syrian government are found in the neighboring towns, where services are provided free of charge to both Palestinians and Syrians.

In April 2009, UNRWA upgraded its old, crumbling health center, with the help of a grant it received from the United States government, which gave patients the opportunity to receive superior medical service than had been offered by the old health center.


The residents of Khan Eshieh camp are known for their attention to education. From the moment the refugees arrived, schools were set up in large tents provided by UNRWA, where students were taught by teachers hired by the agency. Later, these tents were transformed into solid structures made mainly of mud. When reinforced concrete began to be used in construction, the number of schools grew from one to three and then increased to six schools in the 1990s. Four schools operate on a dual morning/evening shift system, and two schools operate only on the morning shift.

The primary and preparatory schools (Grades1–9) in the camp are affiliated with UNRWA, while the only secondary school inside the camp is affiliated with the Syrian Ministry of Education. Several kindergartens and private learning centers operate in the camp. In October 2008, UNRWA reconstructed the Bir al-Sabiʿ and Deir ʿAmr schools with a $1 million grant from the US government.

The Relationship of the Camp’s Residents to Their Surroundings

The residents of Khan Eshieh have built a good relationship with the areas surrounding the camp. Most of the people living in these areas share with the camp residents the experience of being displaced from their original lands in the Syrian Golan Heights. These friendly relations have continued to this day; the camp is considered a major market for the sale of goods produced in the neighboring towns. People from towns near the camp also visit it daily for the services it offers: a bakery and other retail outlets and a hospital.


Since its inception, GAPAR has played a major role within the camp. It administers the camp and provides services, and both roles have made camp living easier.

The Syrian government has ministry offices in the camp whose function is to facilitate the provision of public services to residents, such as electricity and telephone service and public safety.

Political Activity and Civil Society in the Camp

Khan Eshieh is considered to be one of the more vibrant Palestinian refugee camps in terms of political and cultural activity. Various Palestinian factions are active in it, and a significant number of Palestinian politicians and intellectuals have emerged from it. The camp is also distinguished for development work done by a number of institutions active within it, as well as the developmental programs sponsored by UNRWA through its centers inside the camp, such as the Social Development Center and the Youth Empowerment Center.

After the security situation in the region stabilized, some local organizations became active in providing relief as well as nutritional and medical aid to the people of the camp. One example is the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development, which coordinated with the Farmamundi Fund for Humanitarian and Aid and Emergencies (FAHE) to benefit nearly 8,000 people from Khan Eshieh.

The Camp After 2012

As the events in Syria unfolded, Khan Eshieh Camp chose to stay neutral. Its residents took the initiative to provide relief and humanitarian services to people who left their areas after the anti-regime forces occupied them. It is estimated that the camp took in about 50,000 displaced people, most of whom were Syrians, and they were housed in the camp’s homes, farms, and mosques. However, the camp itself was no longer a safe place after groups of armed men entered it. This led to the departure of a large number of both its residents and the displaced persons taking refuge it; the overall population of the camp dropped to around 10,000 and then to 2,000 by 2016. After the Syrian army regained control of the region in which the camp is located, its residents began to return gradually, and by 2022 the population was about 16,000.

The infrastructure of the camp and some of its buildings have suffered damage from the war. For example, the water supply has been compromised; although most camp residents use private wells, lengthy power cuts make it difficult to draw water from them.

Selected Bibliography: 

“On the Mend: Palestine Refugees in Khan Eshieh Camp Get Better Health Services.” Reliefweb, 11 May 2009.


UNRWA. “Khan Eshieh Camp.”


المركز الفلسطيني للإعلام. "مخيم خان الشيح للاجئين الفلسطينيين في سوريا.. المياه عنوان لأزمة حادة".


مركز المعلومات الوطني الفلسطيني-وفا. "مخيم خان الشيح".


موسوعة المخيمات الفلسطينية. "مخيم خان الشيح".


الهيئة العامة للاجئين الفلسطينيين العرب. "مخيم خان الشيح"