Who’ll Pay The Price

When UNRWA Is De­funded?

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - Muham­mad She­hada

The U.S. de­ci­sion to start de­fund­ing the United Na­tions Re­liefs and Works Agency prom­ises to lead to catas­tro­phe.

UNRWA, which pro­vides aid to Pales­tini­ans through a com­bi­na­tion of food, schools, and med­i­cal and other ser­vices, means life to more than twothirds of Gaza’s 2 mil­lion res­i­dents — the same way it did to me. I grew up study­ing in UNRWA schools. I can still clearly re­mem­ber the hap­pi­ness and ex­cite­ment in my late fa­ther’s eyes on my first day of school, the same UNRWA school where he stud­ied as a child. He put me in his old class­room, even sat me down on the same old wooden bench where he sat 30 years ear­lier. I re­mem­ber the dream in his eyes, that I’d be as suc­cess­ful in life as he was.

Even when he grew older, he al­ways took me with him to visit his old pri­mary school teach­ers so that he could pay trib­ute to how well they raised him, a tra­di­tion of ap­pre­ci­a­tion that I in­her­ited from him.

For my fa­ther, this was the school that made him an ac­com­plished doc­tor, and later made me an en­gi­neer. With­out it, he of­ten told me, “I would have re­mained a bare­foot refugee in a muddy camp flooded with sewage wa­ter.”

I loved my UNRWA school just as my fa­ther did. I de­vel­oped some of the best mem­o­ries of my life there. It was free, so ev­ery­one had equal op­por­tu­ni­ties. Stu­dents from all seg­ments of so­ci­ety were al­ways wel­comed: rich, mid­dle class, poor and even those far be­low the poverty line; we never felt the wealth di­vide. I re­mem­ber with great fond­ness those gifts made by stu­dents like us from Ja­pan; those cot­ton bags filled with col­or­ful mes­sages, toys, and origami and draw­ing pa­pers meant the world to me.

The teach­ers were paid bet­ter than those who worked for pri­vate or gov­ern­ment schools, so they per­formed far bet­ter. We had poetry and short story com­pe­ti­tions, draw­ing lessons, morn­ing ex­er­cises, field trips and com­puter tu­to­ri­als.

Con­trary to many re­ports, the UNRWA school I at­tended ed­u­cated my fel­low stu­dents and me about the Holo­caust. For a few years, UNRWA even had the fund­ing to or­ga­nize travel for se­lected stu­dents, to the Nether­lands and the United States. Stu­dents

would travel in two groups — boys and girls sep­a­rately — and were taken on tours of Holo­caust mu­se­ums. The group that went to the Nether­lands vis­ited the Anne Frank house. And while we did learn in UNRWA his­tory books about the Pales­tinian vil­lages that were de­stroyed in 1948, we also learned about the 1967 bor­ders.

We strove for ex­cel­lence, and were en­cour­aged to dream big, lim­it­less dreams, de­spite the ob­sta­cles around us. UNRWA pro­vided a gen­er­ous hand to over­come the tribu­la­tions of life in be­lea­guered Gaza. When I got top scores on my fi­nal ex­ams, I got to shake hands with UNRWA’s di­rec­tor, John Ging, at the cel­e­bra­tions for the best stu­dents.

When I was or­phaned, the en­tire school, all the teach­ers and stu­dents, came to my dad’s fu­neral. They were my sec­ond fam­ily. And later, the school staff did their best to make sure that I didn’t feel ashamed; they gave me and other or­phans free clothes, note­books, bags and gifts.

I wasn’t the only one to re­ceive such care. Each se­mes­ter, UNRWA sup­plied free med­i­cal glasses to near­sighted stu­dents and ran pe­ri­odic med­i­cal and den­tal examinations; it also pro­vided vac­ci­na­tions to all stu­dents. For many years, UNRWA made sure stu­dents had healthy meals by hand­ing out fruit, sand­wiches, milk and home­made pas­tries. These meals helped many poor stu­dents, who had no food at home, to be bet­ter fo­cused; a few chil­dren wouldn’t eat these meals but would hold on to them, tak­ing them home to share with their starv­ing fam­i­lies. For a few years, UNRWA was even able to give stipends to 200,000 stu­dents, about 200 NIS (about $60) yearly for each stu­dent. This tactic got more chil­dren back to school even when life was un­speak­ably harsh, and helped to raise lit­er­acy rates to above 98% in Gaza.

In hard times, UNRWA pro­vided the fi­nal bar­rier against ex­treme liv­ing con­di­tions. When the Pales­tinian Author­ity couldn’t pay its em­ploy­ees’ salaries for more than a year, UNRWA pro­vided food pack­ages to most peo­ple in need — and it still does, to mil­lions of peo­ple. Af­ter mil­i­tary con­flicts, UNRWA helped thou­sands of dis­placed peo­ple re­build their homes, and UNRWA schools or­ga­nized sum­mer camps to try to re­lieve stu­dents of the pain and the dark mem­o­ries. These camps pro­vided tens of thou­sands of tem­po­rary jobs to a youth pop­u­la­tion where un­em­ploy­ment is the high­est in the re­gion.

Sadly, over the past few years, UNRWA’s fund­ing has fallen short, and its bud­get has be­come more aus­tere. At­ten­tion has de­vi­ated away from its mean­ing­ful and cru­cial work, work that af­fected every as­pect of life for mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans.

I fear that my younger si­b­lings and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions won’t en­joy the same chances I had, now that many UNRWA schools have to op­er­ate in two or even three shifts a day, now that schools and clin­ics are un­der­funded and some are be­ing shut down. What op­por­tu­ni­ties will young Gazans find now that teach­ers no longer re­ceive in­come, and now that stu­dents find no in­cen­tives for learn­ing given the de­press­ing en­vi­ron­ment and bleak fu­ture?

Gaza has re­ceived many harsh blows in re­cent years, and the sit­u­a­tion has only been get­ting worse and worse. Gaza’s econ­omy is highly com­pro­mised and dys­func­tional. The pri­vate sec­tor is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent, and 80% of the pop­u­la­tion de­pends on aid for ba­sic sur­vival. Ha­mas’s gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees re­ceive just a frac­tion of their salaries — about $300 every two months, which barely sup­plies the needs of the av­er­age Gazan fam­ily of seven. Most P.A. em­ploy­ees are swamped with poverty and debt, strug­gling to put food on the table. The like­li­hood of young, highly ed­u­cated grad­u­ates find­ing a job is close to zero.

UNRWA’s em­ploy­ees are now the only ones who re­ceive their salaries on time. Theirs are the house­holds still ca­pa­ble of keep­ing the dev­as­tated econ­omy run­ning with min­i­mum pur­chas­ing power, and UNRWA is now the only in­sti­tu­tion ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the poor­est mem­bers of Pales­tinian so­ci­ety. When UNRWA opens new po­si­tions for teach­ers each year, tens of thou­sands com­pete fiercely over a hand­ful of va­can­cies, and the queues are end­less when the whole bur­den is put on an or­ga­ni­za­tion strug­gling to fund its own staff.

A pop­u­la­tion with noth­ing to hope for is a pop­u­la­tion with noth­ing to lose — which means peo­ple are more likely to turn to in­sur­gency and vi­o­lence. De­fund­ing UNRWA would be syn­ony­mous to shoot­ing a bul­let in the head of Gaza’s few re­main­ing frag­ile bar­ri­ers to counter in­sur­gency. It would leave the door wide open for a del­uge of chaos and un­rest.

UNRWA is Gaza’s painkiller, one that should re­main un­com­pro­mised un­til a true so­lu­tion to end Gaza’s pain is im­ple­mented. Tak­ing it away in the mid­dle of in­creased agony and dev­as­ta­tion would be like cut­ting off its oxy­gen sup­ply.

An uptick in vi­o­lence is a cer­tainty. With UNRWA gone or un­der­funded, many peo­ple will have noth­ing to lose.

Muham­mad She­hada is a writer and civil so­ci­ety ac­tivist from Gaza and is cur­rently a stu­dent of de­vel­op­ment stud­ies at Lund Univer­sity in Swe­den.

A pop­u­la­tion with noth­ing to hope for has noth­ing to lose.

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