It was the start of another day for the UNRWA team in Syria. Our convoy entered the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus on 31 January where, as usual, a river of people as far as the eye could see stood waiting for food. A colleague casually snapped a photo, unaware that he had captured an image that was to make history. We posted the picture at unrwa.org and within hours it had gone viral, with 8 million postings in the first 24 hours. It later formed the centerpiece of a social media campaign, in which nearly forty million people clicked to have the image featured on the two highest profile billboards on earth, in New York’s Time Square and Tokyo’s Shibuya district. In a beautiful act of global solidarity, people on two sides of the planet took “selfies” in front of the giant screens and we whizzed them back to Yarmouk. The message was clear. Yarmouk will not be forgotten. The UN will not neglect your plight.
Months on, though, and with the Syrian conflict now in its fourth year, little has changed in Yarmouk for the 18,000 besieged civilians who live there. That iconic image maintains its force precisely because its epic message is reinforced by the bewildering facts on the ground. More than fifty per cent of the 550,000 UNRWA-registered refugees have been displaced by the conflict in Syria with over half of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps where we work transformed into theatres of war.
Around 53,000 Palestine refugees from Syria have fled into neighbouring Lebanon where two-thirds of the Palestine refugee community is living in poverty and the majority are in camps which are already seriously overcrowded. The options for Palestine refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria have recently become very limited due to increased restrictions at the Lebanese border. Only exceptional cases are allowed to enter Lebanon. Those already there are increasingly vulnerable when their visas have expired after one year and they lack legal status in the country. This is leading not only to more anxiety among these double refugees but also reduced mobility for fear of detention.
Some fourteen thousand Palestine refugees from Syria have registered with UNRWA in Jordan, which despite our advocacy efforts has maintained a closed door policy towards Palestinians from Syria for a year and a half.
We in UNRWA have responded flexibly by adapting our human development work to the multi-dimensional needs of our increasingly displaced target population. Necessity has been the mother of invention. From a pre-war total of 58 functioning school buildings, comprising 118 distinct schools, and 23 health clinics, only 24 UNRWA school buildings and 14 clinics are currently accessible and operational. So we developed a “self-learning programme”, shifting education out of our schools where necessary, using print, computers and the UNRWA TV channel, to deliver lessons in all subjects to UNRWA students of all ages. We have also set up dozens of “teaching points” or improvised classes wherever the conflict allows; for example, in 43 non-UNRWA schools in Syria, students affected by the conflict, including those who are not enrolled in schools at all, can be offered an education.
To do this, we drew on the experience of our own UNRWA educationalists and the financial support of our international and local partners. We will soon be distributing approximately 50,000 self-learning packs for the new academic year. Materials will cover basic education for Grades 1-9, targeting the 6-15 age group. UNRWA has also developed an e-portal to provide further interactive learning opportunities for students who cannot access schools. In addition, over forty psychosocial support staff have been employed, trained and deployed to UNRWA classrooms to detect and assist children with special needs. Another 20 counsellors have been recruited and are undergoing training.
All UNRWA schools in Syria are operating under a double shift system. That is with one building opening early in the morning with one set of teachers and students, and then after four hours or so, a completely different set of teachers and kids arrive to use the same building. In some of our schools, there are even triple shifts. It is remarkable that amid the continuing conflict, UNRWA has seen an increase in the number of students attending regular classes, rising from a low of 22,000 to more than 41,000. Before the conflicts there were 67,000 UNRWA students in Syria, so we have much further to go, but results have nonetheless been encouraging. Over 30,000 students passed their end of year exams last year with nearly 8,000 students taking part in supplementary summer classes to help achieve this. We have been catering for the same number of summer class students this year and we believe that success rates will be maintained.
As for the health sector, with nearly half of our health centres destroyed or non-functional, we have established nine “health points” across Syria and intensified services at those clinics which are working. Our health points have allowed us to continue desperately-needed consultations; by moving healthcare out of areas of instability and away from established clinics, UNRWA has also been able to respond to the restrictions on movement that have affected thousands of our patients. In addition, we have re-assigned health professionals to facilities which are housing refugees, such as schools, so in some places UNRWA is able to provide medical services round the clock.
In Lebanon we have responded with equal flexibility. Over seven thousand Palestine refugee children from Syria have enrolled in UNRWA schools where the vast majority are receiving special classes because of differences between the Syrian and Lebanese curricula. The current academic year has been extended for an extra month in those schools where the children from Syria are taught. With the extra opportunity for learning and with the additional support that the self-learning materials provide, these children should be able to integrate into the regular classes of our schools in Lebanon. In anticipation of the long summer holiday months, invitations have been send out for a programme of recreational activities to the families of refugees from Syria, targeting grades 1 to 5.
Also in Lebanon, we have initiated an environmental health programme focusing on water conservation in all 12 camps, as part of our ongoing efforts to improve infrastructure in the camps swollen with arrivals from Syria. In our attempts to respond flexibly to the emergency needs of these new arrivals, we have distributed ATM cards to 15,000 families in Lebanon for support with food and housing bills.
UNRWA achievements in adapting our human development and humanitarian work to the pitiless conflict in Syria speak for themselves, but this has come with a high price. Twelve of our staff in Syria have been killed and 26 are missing. No other aid organisation would have sustained these losses without considering withdrawing from the conflict zone; this is not an option for UNRWA. Our staff are Palestine refugees, and though more than half of our team in Syria have themselves been displaced, we will continue to implement our mandate flexibly and with courage and commitment. As part of our protection mandate we will deliver services as the situation allows, but as part of that same protection mandate, we will also advocate privately and publically for the full enjoyment of the rights of UNRWA registered refugees. Make no mistake, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians just as we have for over six decades since our operations began.
However, do not be deceived by UNRWA’s ability to adapt, survive and in some cases thrive. Ultimately, the situation facing the Palestine refugees in Syria and beyond is untenable. There are many Yarmouks, be they under the blockade in Gaza, amid Israeli occupation behind the barrier in the West Bank or in the squalor of the camps in Lebanon. No one chooses to be a refugee, let alone remain one for over sixty years. Palestinians must be granted a just and lasting solution, as is the right of all refugees. According to the internationally-accepted paradigms for resolving the Middle East conflict, this must be based on international law and UN resolutions and it must be reached in consultation with the refugees themselves.
Failure to resolve the status of some five million dispossessed and exiled refugees will continue to deprive this volatile region of peace. As the Syria conflict has shown, and as that iconic Yarmouk image continues to demonstrate, neglect of this often forgotten population which we in UNRWA serve will have catastrophic consequences not just for them, but for a region that has already seen too much catastrophe.
Chris Gunness is the UNRWA Director of Strategic Communications
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.