The UN Agency for the Palestinian refugees, UNRWA; is faced with deep economic problems at the time its programs have become life-saving for many of the refugees, not least those still in Syria.
There was a donor conference resently in Rome for UNRWA which gave some additional resources. The coming two days there will be a conference on Syria in Brussels which ought to look at the humanitarian crisis. The situation has worsened with the US government decision to hold back on previously pledged contributions to UNRWA.
The UNRWA Commissioner-General is appealing for support in an article now being published in international media. It is presented below.
Palestine Refugee Children in Syria Brave “the Checkpoint of Death” For the Sake of Education and Dignity
By the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Pierre Krähenbühl
Local people call it “the checkpoint of death”. For two years, 900 Palestine refugee students registered with UNRWA risked their lives passing through it every day to get to school in the neighbourhood on the other side.
The school’s education coordinator says “these children dream of becoming doctors. Armed opposition groups would harass them as they waited to cross, sometimes confiscating their books. But they persevered because education for them is a matter of life and death; their only hope”.
Yarmouk, the refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus from which the students were moving was once the thriving home of 160,000 Palestine refugees. Today there are just an estimated 6,000 remaining. In 2015 ISIS moved into the camp, taking most of it. Harrowing images of the siege of Yarmouk have long shocked the world. All UNRWA schools in the camp have been severely damaged or destroyed.
Six weeks ago the checkpoint was closed entirely and when it opened briefly two weeks later, the majority of the 900 children made the painful decision to leave their family homes and move in with relatives and friends in areas on the other side to ensure they would not be prevented again from access to school.
Their determination is symptomatic of the value Palestine refugee communities attach to education, which explains why despite alarming levels of insecurity and dramatic challenges posed by the conflict, some 48,000 students continue to attend UNRWA-run schools, compared with 60,000 before the war.
Through an innovative approach including lessons on satellite TV and self-learning materials, UNRWA has provided continued access to education in Syria and beyond for Palestine refugee students.
These children are part of a pre-war population of 560,000 Palestine refugees in Syria. Over 120,000 have fled abroad, including approximately 32,500 to Lebanon and 17,000 to Jordan. The vast majority of those who stayed behind are in need of sustained humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic food and shelter needs. Almost 60 per cent of those still in Syria have been displaced at least once.
UNRWA’s emergency programmes aim to meet these basic needs, to provide food and cash assistance this year to 418,000 Palestinians in Syria as well as those in Lebanon and Jordan.
In addition, we provide primary healthcare to registered Palestine refugees in 15 clinics and 11 health points across Syria, despite 8 of our 23 health centres being destroyed.
This life-saving work is under threat after a major donor withheld over 300 million US$ of funds to UNRWA in 2018. This decision severely impacted our emergency appeal for Syria which is currently US$ 165 million underfunded.
It also critically impacted our budget for core programmes in education, health, relief and social services in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Access to Education for 526’000 Palestine students, to health-care for 3.5 million patients and to emergency services for 1.7 million people are at serious risk across the Middle-East.
UNRWA has responded robustly. First, we turned to our donors to ask them to advance their expected contributions, which many did, for which we are grateful. We also launched the #DignityIsPriceless campaign and a pledging conference was held in Rome. Key donors responded generously. To date 150 million dollars of new money has been pledged, by countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Canada, Norway, India, Switzerland, France and beyond. These are very significant and welcome steps and I believe this will create momentum for other donors – existing and new – to come urgently forward so that our services can continue. A lot more needs to be done.
To illustrate our determination and unique ability to deliver, let me tell you about Faisal, a 56 year old UNRWA teacher from Dera’a Camp, in the south of Syria. He leaves his house at 6.30 every morning, travels a circuitous journey of 60 kilometers, crosses two frontlines and four checkpoints, to teach his class of third grade students inside Dera’a. The three UNRWA school buildings there have been destroyed, but 300 children attend a make-shift school where Faisal teaches.
Faisal’s journey took ten minutes before the war. These days he and 14 UNRWA staff members put their lives on the line, journeying to Dera’a to provide young boys and girls with an education.
Their courage is typical of the 4,000 UNRWA staff in Syria and the risks they take are all too real. 18 of our staff have died since the start of the conflict, 23 are missing.
In light of the dangers Faisal and his colleagues face every day to keep our crucial services running, I cannot imagine informing him in a few weeks’ time that we would have failed to mobilize the needed financial support to safeguard our education, health-care and emergency work, as well as his employment. This would be truly inconceivable.
UNRWA stands for hope and the preservation of rights for a profoundly vulnerable community. I call on the world to take a stand for the 900 students from Yarmouk and for Palestine refugees from Syria. Their dignity and UNRWA’s mission matter.