Palestinian Refugees
Prior to 2018, the United States was the largest contributor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA provides educational, medical and other resources to Palestinian refugees. While poverty rates of Palestinian refugees differ from country to country, about 25% live in overcrowded, unstable, underfunded and often unsafe refugee camps.

The services that UNRWA provides are vital to Palestinian refugees suffering from poverty. As a result, when diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Palestine severed, the organization lost 30% of its annual funding and basic resources became limited. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent financial crisis occurring, UNRWA’s resources have experienced severe strain.

In a United Nations press briefing in November 2020, UNRWA Spokesman Tamara Alrifai said, “Despite the immense efforts to raise sufficient funds in 2020 to maintain UNRWA’s critical services to 5.7 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, as of yesterday November 9, UNRWA has run out of money.” As a result, the organization had to cut pay for its 28,000 employees, most of whom were refugees themselves, during a global pandemic and international financial crisis.

Twenty-seven days into his presidency, President Joe Biden promised to restore diplomatic relations, including aid, with Palestine. These are three ways that impoverished Palestinian refugees may benefit when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Palestine resume.

Medical Care

Over 3 million refugees rely on UNRWA’s medical services for basic medical care. Because UNRWA’s financial crisis is also happening during a global health crisis, the biggest strain has been on the organization’s medical services. Medical facilities have been running low on supplies, staff and medicine. The strain on medical services disproportionately affects Palestinian refugees.

Seham al-Lahem, a young expectant mother, and other Palestinian refugees have requested that UNRWA cover their medical fees at a non-UNRWA facility. “We have been hearing of the financial problems facing UNRWA, and it has left me worried about my delivery and the medical services provided to me and my newborn,” said Seham al-Lahem. With the financial struggles facing UNRWA, it is possible that she may not receive the cash she needs to pay for her delivery.

Palestinian refugees are three times more likely to die from the virus than the general population and must rely on local governments to receive vaccines. In Lebanon, for example, 6,200 Palestinians have already registered to get the vaccine. However, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Palestinian refugees rely on Israel to provide vaccines. Israel has not, as of yet, provided the Palestinian territories with any doses.

UNRWA Commissioner-General has cried out for global help to provide vaccines for Palestinian refugees in the territories and in the diaspora. “I am counting on the international community to ensure the availability of vaccines to refugees worldwide, including Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory and throughout the region,” he said. It is possible that, with U.S. funding, it would be more feasible for UNRWA to connect Palestinian refugees living in the territories with vaccinations.

Food Assistance

UNRWA’s food assistance program is also under strain due to the pandemic. The organization is now asking for its donors to provide additional funds so that they can feed 1.2 million Palestinian refugees experiencing hunger. UNRWA’s food assistance programs are absolutely essential for those facing rapidly declining financial conditions. In Gaza, 75% of refugees lack the ability to put food on the table. To remedy this, UNRWA currently provides food packages to 620,310 refugees and cash-credit to another 389,680 to ensure that all Palestinian refugees meet their daily caloric goals.


There are over 526,000 students in 711 UNRWA elementary and preparatory schools. These UNRWA-run schools provide books, school supplies and mental health counseling. Although UNRWA schools have stayed open despite funding cuts, the organization struggles every year to meet educational funding needs. Every year, the organization, parents and students worry that schools might not be able to open up again.

This uncertainty threatened the future of Palestinian refugee children. Education is important for children to gain the confidence, knowledge and connections required to transcend their socio-economic situation.

Schooling also meets a social need for child protective services for refugee children. According to the UNHCR, teachers and counselors at refugee schools often connect children experiencing abuse and violence with the appropriate resources. With restored funding from the U.S., UNRWA children, parents and teachers could thrive without worrying that educational opportunities may cease at a moment’s notice.

The US’s Opportunity to Embrace Humanitarianism

UNRWA’s services are essential to the health, food security and education of Palestinian refugees. The organization provides basic resources to an economically and politically vulnerable population. No political situation should ever get in the way of basic human needs such as access to food and healthcare. Therefore, it is vital that the U.S. include the restoration of funding to UNRWA in its plan to re-extend diplomatic relations to Palestine.

– Monica McCown
Photo: Flickr

Refugees In Lebanon
In the past years, Lebanon has accrued approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, aside from the large population of Palestinian refugees already present. While the country has provided a hospitable environment for those restarting their lives, there are many issues with access to food, shelter and education for refugees in Lebanon.

Recently, Lebanon has created an education system called “double-shift” schools located primarily in Beirut. The double-shift model has two shifts of students attending class each day, allowing Lebanese schools to reach beyond the already-enrolled students. The new afternoon shift gives Syrian refugees, who are not yet at the same education level as their Lebanese peers, an opportunity to receive quality education.

Education has been made free for both Lebanese and Syrian students to eliminate any discrimination against refugee students. Lebanon is able to thank international aid for allowing them the ability to provide education to all students. These international donors have paid up to $600 for each student to attend a double-shift school.

Some schools are able to accommodate up to 700 refugee students in the afternoons. Among the 259 schools offering double-shift education, there are now 85,000 children enrolled.

The increase in provided education for refugees in Lebanon also increases the access to food that many children are often without. The U.N. World Food Program has begun providing food access in schools for up to 10,000 children. The refugee children are provided with a snack, fruit and a box of either milk or juice when attending class. With access to regular meals and education, refugee students are able to pursue many of the same opportunities as their peers.

Though Syrian refugees have been unable to pursue sufficient education after being displaced, efforts are being taken to improve these issues largely through international aid. Providing basics such as food and education for refugees improves the ability to live normal lives for many of the children.

Amanda Panella

Photo: Flickr

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency’s (UNWRA) health program has dramatically decreased the risk of communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases among Palestinian refugees in Syria. However, doing such great work is challenging among crowded refugee camps that are not easily accessible. The threat of contagious diseases is always present.

The threat of a potential typhoid outbreak spreading to the capital of Damascus was prevalent in July, had UNWRA not been allowed to help. The largest “unofficial” camp at Yarmouk emptied of Palestinian refugees after fighting began between Islamic State, local groups and government forces. Refugees are temporarily in Yalda and other towns close by controlled by armed groups that have reached deals with the government. The groups have strong leaders and civilian committees that collaborate with UN agencies.

UNWRA was able to deliver whatever was needed to refugees between April 23 and June 8. They provided 6,000 food parcels each month, and healthcare. Since June 8, UNWRA has no longer been allowed, as a result of assassinations in Yalda, supposedly by insurgents. Those inaccessible places saw the loss of UNWRA host areas for the distribution of water and medical services.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other aid organizations have little access to these areas where there is a strong need for water purification tablets and hygiene kits. In a similar situation last year, access was eventually granted. In other parts of Syria, 10,000 Palestinians have been displaced to a small Aleppo camp with no electricity or water. To the east of Aleppo city, the large Neirab camp is under government control.

UNWRA has done everything it can in the places it can access. UNWRA staff wasted no time when they heard about the potential typhoid outbreak in Yarmouk. They took blood and water samples from those who showed symptoms, and within 24 hours typhoid medicine was delivered to Yarmouk. Currently, the number of cases is decreasing and under control.

UNWRA is hopeful about preventing outbreaks, with its rapid response of reporting cases to UNWRA senior staff, having medicine in Damascus office and 3 month supply kept at clinics. The concern for areas that are not easily accessible is still present.

Agencies are preparing for worsening conditions in Deraa and Aleppo. Before the conflict started in 2011, there were 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UNWRA in Syria; today, there are 480,000, 95 percent of which need constant aid. The number of consultations for medical services has gone up from 100 to 500.

Palestinian refugees are closed off from Jordan and Lebanon, which leaves them with two options: staying in a war zone or being smuggled to Turkey, where they will take unreliable boats to Europe.

UNWRA needs $414 million just for Syria this year due to the 2014 appeal being only half funded. Due to under-funding, it will have to postpone the school year for 700 schools for half a million children unless they receive $101 million from donors by August. A source believes they should qualify, considering they are one of the countries taking part in the US-led campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which already has cost $5 billion.

UNWRA devotes half of its budget to education; schools ensure continuity and stability for children in conflicted Syria and Gaza, unstable Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Jordan, all trying to manage the influx of Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

In the past decade, donor contributions have not kept up with population growth. UNWRA offers protection and services to 5 million refugees, but it currently only has enough money to provide relief and healthcare, leaving education out of the equation.

Paula Acevedo

Sources: Europa, Irish Times
Photo: Mashable