If you ask Sana Adawi, a 40-year-old resident of Arroub refugee camp, in the West Bank, learning about healthy cooking practices has led to a major change: “Women,” she says, “can now be the doctors of their families.”
She is describing the impact of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) initiative, 'Life is Sweeter with Less Sugar’. The campaign was launched on 7 April, World Health Day, in response to rising rates of high blood pressure and diabetes among Palestine refugees in the Agency’s five fields. These rates have more than doubled since 2001; in 2011 alone, UNRWA spent 41 per cent of its medication budget treating 211,533 refugees with one or both conditions, which, if unmanaged, can lead to complications including cardiovascular disease, damage to blood vessels and kidneys, and stroke.
One of the campaign’s main components is its educational sessions, currently being offered by eight UNRWA health centres in Jordan and eight Women’s Programme Centres (WPCs) in the West Bank. Participants learn about the disease and about diet, exercise and lifestyle changes that can help them. They also benefit from cooking classes and exercise sessions; many have already reported weight loss, improved blood-sugar levels or improved blood pressure.
The practical sessions on exercise and cooking have been especially popular. Dr Ali Odatallah, the UNRWA Field Disease-Control Officer in Jordan, explains that for patients, “It is a new experience, learning how to manage their diseases within the context of day-to-day life. This wider context gives life to dry medical information and strict directions.” Alla Al-Amla, a nutritionist who guides cooking sessions in Arroub, adds that by helping participants, who are mostly women, take better care of themselves, “we empower them to look after their own health, as well as that of their families.” She adds that healthier cooking practices “have also helped many families decrease their monthly expenses.”
Some of the campaign’s recommendations are simple, such as measuring cooking oil rather than estimating the amount; reducing salt, hydrogenated fats and food additives; and changing packaging methods. The campaign has also organized special activities during Ramadan, including, in Hebron, a group iftar for participants, hosted by the As Shams Centre for Non-Communicable Diseases. Participants used the lessons they had learned to make healthier versions of traditional Ramadan cuisine, proving that their new cooking skills are not just useful, but relevant to their lives. In addition, UNRWA has worked to train health staff in how to screen at-risk patients and counsel those suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure.
Scheduled to run for six months, 'Life is Sweeter’ has already had an impact on participants, such as Jamila Abdullah, 51, from Arroub. A diabetic, she says, “The new information has made me feel relaxed; I now know more about my illness.” In Amman New Camp, 52-year-old Mazoza adds that being friends with doctors and nurses “is a good feeling. I learned more about my disease from them, and now I have lost weight and have a healthier lifestyle.”
The UNRWA campaign has shown participants that healthy eating does not mean abstinence and deprivation. With what they learn at the sessions, the participants have the knowledge and skills to take meaningful steps on their own, through the groceries they buy for their families and how they cook their meals. As Sana Adawi says, the benefits have been “physical, psychological and social.”