BEIRUT/AIN AL-HILWEH: Despite the optimism shown Monday by staff and students at the ceremony to celebrate the opening of UNRWA schools across Lebanon, the pressure under which the organization is operating was all too obvious.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome,” began 15-year-old Ali Abou Jaras, head of the student committee at Haifa Intermediate School in Bir Hassan. Then he paused.
“Should I begin? I can’t hear anything from the speakers.”
“It’s a small room,” one of the officials in the front row of a hot, crowded classroom told him. The young student continued: “Today our schools opened again. Today we return to see our classmates and partners taking their classes.” Eventually someone handed him a lapel microphone, which he held to his mouth to deliver the rest of the speech.
The decision to open the schools run by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees was taken as recently as Aug. 16, Claudio Cordone, director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, told The Daily Star. How long they will stay open is uncertain.
The organization has funds for its operations in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, only until the end of September. “As long as we have money and financial support from other countries, we will continue with our services, and this is why we’re opening the schools even though we only have [funding] for one month,” Cordone added.
The organization now faces a $217 million budget deficit, after the United States recently announced a decision to withdraw all of its funding. In a statement last week, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation” catering to an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry decried the move Sunday, calling for an emergency meeting of the Arab League, a proposal echoed Monday by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Cordone told The Daily Star such a meeting was due to be held next week, adding initiatives by the European Union were “being considered.” Jordan’s foreign minister said last week the kingdom would host a fundraiser at the U.N. in New York at the end of September.
The constant need to search for new sources of funding is preventing the organization from dedicating itself to providing necessary services and aid to refugees, Cordone said, adding that the organization was “engaged” in improving management and undertaking reforms.
“We really would like to spend time concentrating on how we can improve things and how we can make sure that this community of 5 million-plus refugees obtains what are basic services. These are very vulnerable people, and that’s what we want to concentrate on – not how we can find the money, week on week, month on month,” he said.
Echoing comments made over the weekend in an open letter to Palestinian refugees by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, Cordone said that U.S. cuts to UNRWA funding and recent comments by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley – who said the issue of Palestinians’ right of return should be “off the table” – amounted to “the politicization of a humanitarian organization.”
“We exist because the U.S., the parties and others have failed to come up with a lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.
“For as long as that is not resolved in a just way, either UNRWA or someone else will have to take care of this population,” he said.
At a school in south Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh, Zeinab Kaddoura, who was accompanying her son to his first day of school, expressed similar concerns. “[U.S. President Donald] Trump wants to erase UNRWA, and we all must stand in the face of any project that aims to deprive the Palestinian refugee of his right,” she told The Daily Star.
“Not getting an education means illiteracy, poverty and unemployment,” student Osama Ali said, calling on other countries to increase funding to UNRWA. Striking a combative tone, Ali said getting an education was a means of fighting Israel and enabling a return to Palestine.
Back in Bir Hassan, Ayman Amin, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Haifa School, said that education was important to Palestinians’ sense of dignity. “As Palestinian students in Lebanon, education is even more important, as abroad they say that Palestinians are ignorant,” he said.
“How can they say this if I’m given the right to education?”
Amin, who performed at the opening in front of assembled dignitaries and media, said he harbors dreams of being a singer.
He was accompanied onstage by 10-year-old Rawan, whose mother, Fatima, emphasized the importance of schooling for her two children.
“It’s really important,” she said. “It’s their future. It’s their life. There’s no future without education.”