Inside UNRWA: Palestinian residents in the agency’s camps on why there is no alternative
The next Palestinian generation faces a bleak future unless US funding gaps are covered year after year
Thirty-year-old Anas Sarour has lived all his life besides Bethlehem in the Aida refugee camp, one of the 19 camps for Palestinians in the West Bank. The term refugee and camp may conjure up the image of haphazard tents – as it was for Mr Sarour’s family who were part of the 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled with Israel’s founding in 1948.
But, today, Aida is an urban slum with narrow winding streets and few sources of services besides the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Only even that, Mr Sarour lamented, is now facing a crisis.
Like so many Palestinians, Mr Sarour studied free of cost at an UNRWA school for free. His health care as a child was through UNRWA services. The Aida Youth Centre he now runs was started with UNRWA funds.
“It’s not just about the services,” he said. “It’s about identity. It’s about [UNRWA being] a witness to the refugees.”
But after the violence of the second Intifada (during which Mr Sarour was shot in the stomach during an Israeli raid of the camp) and the wall Israel then built, cutting off the West Bank, things began to change, he said. Over time, UNRWA faced funding pressures and cut back on the quality and quantity of education, health and employment services.
Prices at the clinics and class sizes have gone up, he said, while other assistance such as employment schemes and subsidised foods have been cut. UNRWA was therefore already shaky when last September the Trump administration entirely cut off its critical funding, sending the agency into crisis mode.
Now Palestinians stress again and again that, love UNRWA or hate it, there’s just no other alternative to it.
Mr Sarour’s community centre used to rely on UNRWA grants for programmes like art and music. At the centre, he said, “everything we were forbidden as children” – like recreational activities and spaces for play – they are trying to provide “for the next generation.” This is what keeps him hopeful. Except after the cuts, they have resorted to a GoFundMe campaign, along with other donors, to cover last year’s budget.
When the Trump administration cut off the UNRWA funds they said they’d restore it if reforms were met — without specifying any. Mr Sarour, though, has ideas for reforms he would like to see in UNRWA, like hiring more Palestinians, and especially ones from the camps, in higher positions, as they know better than anyone the conditions people face, he said. All of this, of course, needs money to happen.
Then again, Mr Sarour said he thinks that the United States never cared about reforms in the Palestinian refugees and the public’s interests.
Funding cuts are “not just about the financial issues,” he said. “It’s part of a strategy to make it like an agency without a main goal. To weaken it.”
Twenty-year-old Momen Zboun has never known life without the Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous, nominally interim Palestinian government based in the occupied West Bank that the 1994 Oslo Accords instated. He has also not known life as a Palestinian refugee without UNRWA, whose schools and clinics he has benefited from. But he is not optimistic.
“We’ve lost hope,” he said. “No one stands with us. No one knows what’s going to happen… the [Israeli] occupation is the cause of everything.”
Mr Zboun, from the Beit Jibrin (also called Azza) refugee camp beside Aida, thinks that the US’ still-secretive peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians will do away with the PA and send all Palestinians to Sinai, or somewhere else, so Israel can annex the West Bank. (The US has not publicly proposed any of this.) If this happened, he said, there would surely be a third Intifada, or uprising, “to go back to how it was before the first Intifada” – before the Oslo accords, the PA, the separation wall and the negotiated two-state paradigm.
Mr Zboun spent one-and-a-half years in an Israeli jail after being injured and arrested at a demonstration in 2016. Now, he is trying to save money to afford university.
Amid this all, his safe space is the Alrowwad arts and cultural centre in Aida camp. UNRWA had been one of their key funders. Mr Zboun used to volunteer with younger children at Alrowwad, and now is part of a Palestinian Dabke dance team. These are the kinds of investments that keep the children of Aida off the streets and out of trouble.
Like others interviewed, Mr Zboun said that UNRWA “services used to be better” in their quality and quantity. He was not sure now what would happen to it – or to people like him in the absence of sufficient PA services to serve as an alternative.
Still, he said, UNRWA is “essential for Palestinian refugees… to feel that someone is standing with and caring for them.”
The symbolism of UNRWA is everywhere in Palestinian refugee camps across the West Bank and Gaza Strip: it is part and parcel to the workings of everyday life.
“The role is more than just financial,” said Mutasem Abu Kheidar, 26, who lives in Aida. The cuts “have impacted us negatively in all parts of security”.
Like others interviewed, Mr Abu Kheidar and his mother, Nada, 47, both studied in UNRWA schools and said life here used to be better. Programmes used to offer more and people felt more like they benefited.
Now Mr Abu Kheidar works in a bakery as it is the only job he could find. Ms Abu Kheidar lamented that he and another of her sons have not yet married as they cannot afford the traditional marriage rites. Other sons are in Israeli prison.
They live in a simple home off of one of Aida’s narrow alleyways. The youngest, Abdullah, 9, is off from school for the summer and, as the midday sun bears down outside, he watches a TV show on a phone. They easily welcome strangers into their homes, but there’s an anxiety that permeates over what is to come.
In the current economic state, many Palestinians here cannot afford the small fee for a government-run school if there is no free UNRWA school available, Mr Abu Kheidar said.
“As long as Trump is President and clearly supporting Israel, it’s hard for her [UNRWA] to continue,” Mr Kheidar said.
What next, then?
Right now, Ms Kheidar said, “there’s no alternative”.
Updated: June 24, 2019 10:35 AM