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mind over mountain: a palestinian american educator's ongoing journey to support trauma-affected youth

mind over mountain: a palestinian american educator's ongoing journey to support trauma-affected youth

As a certified teacher and a Palestinian American, I am passionate about improving the lives of afflicted Palestinians currently living in conflict areas. I truly believe that today’s children are our future’s change makers.

This week, while most of us are reaching for our stretchy pants, preparing ourselves for a large Thanksgiving meal, UNRWA USA supporter Haneen Sakakini will be packing her hiking pants in preparation to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain. Apart from being an avid hiker, Haneen is a Palestinian American educator, with specific expertise in the impact that childhood trauma has on the well-being of children and their education. In combining these two sides of herself, she plans on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro as a way to fundraise and raise awareness for UNRWA's Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP) in the Gaza Strip, and she's calling it Mind Over Mountain. 

So what brings this young Palestinian American woman to the roof of Africa?

Haneen has always loved being outside -- it was a habit that her parents instilled in her through frequent hiking and camping trips growing up. During her two years living in Palestine (2012-2014) teaching at the Ramallah Friends School, she and a group of friends went on regular hiking trips. Most Friday's, they'd select a path in Jericho, pack their bags, eat their fill of manaeesh, and start their journey for the day. Haneen comments on hiking as a therapeutic process: "There is something about being outside in nature that just brings happiness and a sense of serenity, even with all the things happening around you and across the world."

Haneen is always up for a challenge, and Mt. Kilimanjaro has been on her bucket list for some time. She says that "it has always been that mountain in the distance that sparked a sense of curiosity for me." When she was given the option to join her company’s Kilimanjaro trek, she jumped at the opportunity.

Why the Mind Over Mountain fundraising campaign?

As part of the trek, each Kilimanjaro climber is required to fundraise for a cause meaningful to them. Beyond the requirement, Haneen sees this climb as a perfect opportunity to give back and raise awareness about a topic that is very close to her heart.

I wanted to give my self something to work for, I didn’t want to simply climb Kilimanjaro for my own personal gain, but I wanted to use it as a way to push myself in order to help others, others whose voices seem to get muffled due to the continuously evolving world we live in today.

When she learned about the UNRWA Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP), she says the decision to fundraise for it was a "no-brainer." She saw dedicating her campaign to this essential program as a way to mitigate some of the psychological impacts of war and occupation on Palestine refugee children.

Manaeesh-fueled hiking in Jericho

Manaeesh-fueled hiking in Jericho

While teaching in Palestine, Haneen points to a single experience as “the turning point” in her professional and personal pursuits. In the summer of 2014, a young 16-year-old boy from Ramallah was shot in the back and killed by Israeli military in the West Bank. This was the same summer as the Israeli military assault on Gaza which lasted 50 days and killed more than 500 children. Haneen recognized that the loss of this young boy represented just one of many incidents of violence towards Palestinians and that violence has integrated itself into every aspect of the Palestinian experience. And this violence is one that has spanned decades, traumatizing generations upon generations of Palestinians, especially refugees, in a profound way.

She sees education, which includes counseling, as an entry point into addressing some of this trauma faced by Palestine refugees, and deeply believes in the goals of UNRWA's CMHP in Gaza. She hopes that in climbing this mountain, she will also raise awareness and funds for a cause that spoke deeply to her as a Palestinian American educator. 

Ultimately, Haneen hopes to get her Ph.D. and further delve into this issue and aims to use her research to support children across the globe -- not just Palestine -- in dealing with severe conflict-related and induced trauma. 

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Haneen will be embarking on her big journey before you finish all your leftover turkey. And as a final note to the Palestine refugee children she hopes benefit from the Community Mental Health Programme, Haneen wishes to share the following message:

"Always remember that your brain fueled by your education is the most powerful tool in the world. Continue to shoot for the stars, never lose hope, and know that people around the world love you, support you, and hear you."

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catching up with unrwa alum, un director, and runner maher nasser

catching up with unrwa alum, un director, and runner maher nasser

Maher fist bumps with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; typical day at the office. 

Maher fist bumps with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; typical day at the office. 

Gaza and UNRWA have played an important role in my life and in bringing me to where I am today.

Meet Maher Nasser.

Born in Ramallah, Maher and his family are from a village called Muzeir'ah near Lydda. 

A jack of all trades, Maher has spent the past 30 years being a humanitarian working for the United Nations, three years running the NYC Marathon fundraising for UNRWA scholarships for women in Gaza and the West Bank, and a lifetime giving back to his community.  

His connections with UNRWA's work run deep, and he spent some time sharing with us how UNRWA's work and services has shaped him and his family and how he has continued to give back, never forgetting his roots, no matter how far away from Palestine he travels.  

His father worked for UNRWA and he along with his three brothers went to UNRWA schools from grades 1-9. While at the Ramallah Boys Preparatory School, he fondly recalls his favorite teacher, Abdul Aziz. He remembers sitting in his English class, excited by the prospect of learning a new language. After graduating, he then went on to study civil engineering at Birzeit University with a partial scholarship from UNRWA. His sister and younger brother also received higher education through UNRWA, and attended a two-year vocational school run by the Agency.

In 1992, he left Ramallah when he was offered an international position with the United Nations Drugs Control Programme in Vienna. He confesses that surprisingly the biggest shock when he left Ramallah wasn't the food, culture, or customs, but rather, the freedom from foreign military occupation.

Since his first stint abroad, Maher has lived and worked around the globe. He has held positions in Gaza, Jerusalem, Amman, Cairo, and New York, including a role as the Chief of the New York Liaison Office for UNRWA.

When Maher isn't at the UN, he spends his time running through the streets of New York City. Maher uses running as not only away to burn off the stress of trying to solve international diplomatic problems, but also as a way to raise awareness and funds for various causes, including UNRWA.

When asked why he fundraises for Palestine refugees, Maher says, "Gaza and UNRWA have played an important role in my life and in bringing me to where I am today. The images of suffering and pain in Gaza, and the heroic efforts of UNRWA staff to alleviate that suffering have prompted me to do something concrete to help out. There are immediate humanitarian needs and a great thirst for hope and compassion. With my modest effort, I hope to contribute a bit of hope and some resources to an Agency that I know can deliver effectively." 

In 2014, Nasser participated in the Women's Health "Run 10 Feed 10" and raised over $5,000 for UNRWA’s Gaza emergency appeal through UNRWA USA.

Since 2015, Maher has also run the NYC Marathon to fundraise for education programming for women in the West Bank and Gaza.

Maher states that he "never thought [he] would ever be able to run a marathon, let alone three. However, knowing that this would give one or more young women in Palestine an opportunity to attend university and change their lives has given [him] the energy and determination to do so."

Maher will be running this Sunday November 5th, and we're excited to cheer him on! Tweet your support @MaherNasserUN.

Maher training for the NYC Marathon

Maher training for the NYC Marathon

Tweets from Maher

funding the future: dr. musa

funding the future: dr. musa

"I am where I am because of my unrwa scholarship"

“In 1948, there were a lot of attacks in our villages at the time, a lot of casualties. My father felt uncomfortable,” shares Dr. Abed Musa. Dr. Musa was 8 years old at the time. His family was forced to flee Yaffa during the Nakba.

“We began walking from our hometown and we saw a lot of bullets coming through the wheat fields. So we spent the night there and refugees started coming, on donkeys carts and mule carts. I was watching from the balcony.”  

But with so many others fleeing for safety, there was no room for the family to stay. They took a tractor from the family’s business and headed towards a small mountain town. The mountain’s cold weather was very different from the mild seashores of Yaffa. To welcome the refugees to their village, Dr. Musa’s father was invited to a mensaf dinner, a traditional Palestinian dish made of yogurt over rice and meat. “You eat it with your hand, and I was shivering because I was so cold. By the time my hand got to my mouth, it was almost empty!”

Eventually, the family settled in a refugee camp north of Jericho, where they were provided a tent by UNRWA. Dr. Musa was able to restart elementary school after almost two years and attended an UNRWA school held inside a tent. “We had good education, but when it rains, you see the water under your feet,” Dr. Musa recalls. After completing 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades at the UNRWA school, Dr. Musa went to a combination of government schools in Jericho and schools in Amman to finish high school.

Upon graduating, he found out that he was being considered for an UNRWA university scholarship through radio and newspaper announcements. “I was ecstatic,” he shares, when he was selected for a scholarship for the American University of Beirut.

“To come out of refugee camp and live in Ras Beirut -- it was a big shock for us,” remembers Dr. Musa. There were 11 students selected for the AUB scholarship, several of whom Dr. Musa still keeps in touch with. After graduating, Dr. Musa got married and moved to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco, then known as the Arabian-American Oil Company.

The first thing we did was educate our families.
— Dr. Abed Musa

While at Aramco, he sent a large portion of his salary back to his family to pay for his siblings’ education. “I could have gone to the States with many of my classmates and started my postgraduate education and specialization in medicine.  But I worked to help my family.” His lifelong commitment to education has rippled throughout his family, helping family members become doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers.

In 1971, Dr. Musa, his wife Sultana, and their son Hassan immigrated to the United States so that he could attend medical school at Syracuse Upstate Medical Center, now known as SUNY Upstate Medical University. He began his residency in obstetrics and gynecology, but was encouraged to study gynecologic oncology, which was an emerging subspecialty, by the oncologist at the hospital.

Dr. Musa’s career as a gynecologic oncologist spanned 37 years before he retired. He credits UNRWA for his success and his ability to give back to his family and those in need.

“I was a refugee at the age of 8, and I still believe UNRWA did a great thing for us. When I finished school and was educated through the UNRWA scholarship, I felt I was helped so much. I felt the need to give back and I did all my life give back to help educate people, to help anybody that needs it.  This is what I learned through UNRWA when I got my scholarship.”

You can help bright Palestine refugee students realize their educational potential and dreams in the same way Dr. Musa did by funding a full tuition scholarship or by donating any amount you can to the UNRWA USA University Scholarship Fund. Thank you for funding the future!

interview with scott anderson- unrwa's director of operations in the west bank

interview with scott anderson- unrwa's director of operations in the west bank

[D]espite living under occupation for the last 50 years, Palestine refugees are just like you and me. They want peace and stability. They want their children to be educated and successful. And they want jobs and possibilities.
— Scott Anderson

How did you first get involved with UNRWA? What does your current role entail?

My first real interaction with the Israel-Palestine conflict was as a senior in high school. I needed one additional social studies credit to graduate and my teacher, Wanda Phillips, assigned me to write a paper on the conflict with possible solutions. After my retirement from the Army in 2007, I saw a position in the Gaza Field office with UNRWA and applied.

I am currently the Director of UNRWA Operations in the West Bank Field. As the Field Director I oversee field operations. It is a busy job, but the real heroes are our nearly 5000 staff on the ground. They are the ones who makes sure that assistance and protection is provided every day to those in need.

There are approximately 780,000 registered refugees in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. UNRWA provides a wide range of services to refugees most in need. Our services encompass everything from education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency assistance. In the West Bank, UNRWA provides basic education to almost 50,000 students each year in our 96 schools. And in our 42 health centers, we do nearly 1.3 million patient visits a year.

How has your work with UNRWA shaped you?

UNRWA has provided me a perspective on humanity few others will ever experience. I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity while working in UNRWA. I’ve seen compassion, devotion to a higher cause, survival, overcoming very difficult challenges to help their community, despite facing death, terrorism and, sadly, hatred. However, it has been the positive inter-personal experiences through working with UNRWA that have given me hope that peace is still possible and obtainable.

To me the coolest thing about UNRWA is our impact: Every day, across our five fields of operations, we provide humanitarian assistance and protection to 5 million Palestine refugees.
— Scott Anderson

What do you think other Americans should know about Palestine refugees and how would you recommend them getting involved?

Every day, Palestine refugees in the West Bank face tremendous challenges related to the occupation: armed violence, military incursions into refugee camps, detentions, settlement expansion, restrictions on access and movement, forced displacement, and demolitions of homes. These are just some of the protection challenges affecting the daily lives of Palestine refugees. But despite living under occupation for the last 50 years, Palestine refugees are just like you and me. They want peace and stability. They want their children to be educated and successful. And they want jobs and possibilities.

There are plenty of ways to get involved:

  • You can be an advocate for UNRWA and Palestine refugees in your own community. Tell others about the challenges facing Palestine refugees and make them care!
  • You can support UNRWA USA by attending their various events as participant or as a volunteer.
  • And of course, you can make a donation to UNRWA and encourage others to do the same.
Scott enjoying a day in the classroom with some UNRWA students

Scott enjoying a day in the classroom with some UNRWA students

Can you share a story with us of a Palestine refugee who inspires you?

During my years with UNRWA, I have met a lot of inspiring Palestinians – both in Gaza and in the West Bank. Our Palestinian staff who work hard everyday to provide services to their fellow-Palestinians are among these inspiring people. The same can be said about the students in our schools. Despite living a life under occupation, they are all dedicated to learn, grow, develop and become strong representatives of Palestine.

One recent example is Amal Shawabka. I met Amal when I had just joined UNRWA in the West Bank Field last year and when she was still attending the UNRWA Fawwar Girls School. Amal grew up in Fawwar refugee camp, which is the southernmost camp in the West Bank. The camp is faced by high levels of unemployment and poverty. The camp and its residents regularly experience Israeli military incursions, camp closures and clashes. To most of us, growing up in such a difficult place would significantly limit our ability to study and learn. But not Amal.

Amal was the winner of the 2016 Palestinian Sciences and Technology Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP). As the STEP winner, she travelled to the United States to present her project “No Sliding on Roads”--a pioneering formula to prevent skidding on roads and improve road safety.

To me, Amal is a living testament of the potential of the Palestine refugee youth and the dedication of UNRWA teachers in building the base of their future.

Email us! Tell us why you care about supporting Palestine refugees. Do you have a story to share? We'd like to know! 

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On my sixth visit, I’ve never seen Gaza so devastated

On my sixth visit, I’ve never seen Gaza so devastated

I’ve visited the Gaza Strip for each of the past six years, including in 2014 a few months after Israel’s devastating military assault. And yet, I’ve never seen Gaza like I did when I had the privilege of visiting this summer.

I call it a privilege because, due to the blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel (with the support of Egypt), which is part of Israel’s now 50-year-old military rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories, internationals allowed in and out of Gaza are few, and Palestinians even fewer. This illegal land, air, and sea blockade, which has just entered its tenth year and amounts to collective punishment, as has been noted by the UN and human rights groups, has decimated the economy of Gaza and allowed for the near complete destruction of critical infrastructure. Experts use the term “de-development” to describe this once-bustling Mediterranean coastal enclave of two million Palestinians.

Nearly half the population are now unemployed and 80% rely on humanitarian assistance from organizations like UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Nearly one million refugees require UNRWA food assistance now, up from 80,000 people in 2000, before the blockade was in place. At its heart, UNRWA is a human development agency, running the largest and one of the best performing public school system in the entire Middle East, 10 times the size of DC Public Schools. But due to decades of Israel’s dispossession, occupation, and systematic oppression of Palestinians, UNRWA is forced to prioritize emergency interventions like food assistance and emergency protection. It’s an affront to humanity.

Upon arriving in Gaza, which requires a permit from Israel and extensive humanitarian coordination, I immediately saw the crippling effects of the ongoing electricity crisis which has been wreaking havoc since March. Electricity is now only available for 2-4 hours a day, a situation that has been exacerbated by internal Palestinian political divides. This has brought life to a near complete stop for many in Gaza, and has enormous public health and environmental implications. In 2012, the UN determined that if trends continued, Gaza wouldn’t be liveable in 2020. Today, the effects of the blockade, recurring violence, and now the electricity crisis have led the UN to conclude that Gaza is basically already unlivable.

The first day of my visit, I visited a water pumping station at Al-Shati refugee camp by the coast. There, I witnessed raw sewage pumping directly into the water. The sewage would normally flow to a treatment plant, but without electricity, that’s not an option. Instead, it pumps directly into the sea, not far from where people swim and fish. Their fish will be contaminated, just like their water. The sea, which is at the heart of Gazan culture, now poisons them. Despite more than 65% of the shoreline being unsafe for humans, people continue to go to the beach because it’s the only source of relief left during the sweltering summer.

At an UNRWA health clinic, I met with doctors and nurses who are facing the challenges of the electricity crisis both at work and home. A nurse shared with me that she wakes up at 2 am to do her family’s laundry because that’s usually when she has electricity. A doctor told me that he only gets 3-4 hours of rest each night because the heat keeps him awake. Regardless of their personal struggles, they both come to the clinic every day committed to providing quality healthcare for their fellow Palestine refugees.

Because the medical equipment runs on a different current than the clinic’s back-up generator, x-ray, ultrasound, lab testing machines and others aren’t able to run at full capacity, and the machines will break down much sooner than they should. The World Health Organization warns that at least 30 hospitals, 70 primary health care centers, and a blood blank in Gaza are at severe risk of full or partial closure due to continued power outages and not enough fuel or spare parts for back-up generators. It’s a health catastrophe in the making.

Skin rashes from heat and bacterial infections, potentially from direct exposure to sewage, are on the rise. In August, it was reported that a five-year-old boy in Gaza died from a brain disease caused by bacteria in the contaminated sea. Cases of psychosomatic illnesses and psychological stress continue to increase too, particularly among children.

An UNRWA counselor I met shared the story of an 11-year-old girl who had recently attempted suicide. One man told me they continue to swim and fish despite the dangers because death would be a relief at this point.

With the stress of simply surviving as great as it is, it’s not surprising that many have little energy left to have hope for the future. The two million people in Gaza are the victims of cruel politics — collateral damage in a cynical political game.

Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip deserve humanitarian support, but no amount of assistance will ever substitute for the necessary political action, including that of the US, to stop the violation of human rights that Palestinians face on a daily basis. Lifting the blockade on Gaza would be a start.

About Abby Smardon

Abby Smardon is Executive Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) USA National Committee

Funding the Future: Mouath

Funding the Future: Mouath

“Education is everyone’s tool that enables them to face the advancement of this world”

Growing up in the Askar camp in Nablus, Mouath Abu Hamdeh was exposed early to the medical field. At age 14, Mouath started helping out at a local pharmacy to deliver medications and met doctors, pharmacists, and labs, which sparked his interest to study medicine. He studied hard in high school and scored above 90% on his Tawjihi, an exam taken by all high school seniors in Palestine.

“Education, to me, is everyone’s tool that enables them to face the advancement of this world, to live and to adapt with the world surrounding them,” Mouath shares.

The stress of paying tuition has been erased by the scholarship and he can focus on completing my studies with honors. Without this scholarship, he would have been forced to take out loans to pay for medical school, and paying them back may have been impossible.

Askar camp is noisy during the day. It is difficult for Mouath to find a place to study or even take a nap. But for him, it is worth it because after he graduates, he hopes to help out his family and contribute to Palestinian society. Coming from a family of 11, this scholarship helps him cover his tuition costs without burdening his family and himself with student loans that may have been impossible to pay back.

Mouath didn’t choose just any college. He picked An-Najah National University in Nablus because its medical program is so highly rated. But he picked An-Najah also for practical reasons. The university is close to his camp and he doesn’t have to cross any Israeli checkpoints on his daily commute. After the construction of the separation wall, travel throughout the West Bank is much more difficult for daily commuters, who typically have to wait in long lines at checkpoints or travel longer distances to navigate around the Barrier.

Mouath is already beginning some of his real-world training at An-Najah’s hospital, where he is learning how to treat patients and choosing his medical specialty. He is still not sure what exactly he wants to specialize in, because everything has been interesting so far. He will continue exploring his interests and graduate in two years thanks to his generous scholarship sponsors.

“I want to thank my scholarship sponsors from the bottom of my heart. It means so much to us that the Palestinian diaspora in America cares about our education and our future.”

You can help bright Palestine refugee students like Mouath realize their educational potential and dreams by funding a full tuition scholarship or by donating any amount you can to the UNRWA USA University Scholarship Fund. Thank you for funding the future!

Funding the Future: Sadeel

Funding the Future: Sadeel

"I want to serve my community and people"

Sadeel Nasser may only be 15 years old, but she already preparing for her future as a doctor.

The tenth grader was inspired from a very young age by watching her father study while getting his Masters in Nursing. He now focuses on heart surgeries in Ramallah hospital.

Sadeel and her family live in Jalazone camp, right outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.  Originally from Kafr 'Ana, near Jaffa, her family fled their villages in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jalazone camp was established in 1949 and houses around 9,450 refugees. Sadeel attended an UNRWA primary school through 8th grade, right across the street from the Beit El settlement. The camp sees frequent settler violence and Israeli Security Forces incursions, and Sadeel and her friends each know a friend or family member that has been hurt or killed. She sees her becoming a doctor as a way to help.

“I want to serve my community and people.” To Sadeel, becoming a doctor is joining a humanitarian profession and serving her community.  

But Sadeel’s passion to serve her community doesn’t have to wait until she is a doctor. She was elected to her school parliament after two of her teachers recognized her leadership skills and encouraged her to run. When she first spoke to her parents about it, she recognized the school parliament as a way to help her community more and more.

First, Sadeel gathered support first from her classmates, then started branching out to other classes and sharing her platform. She would beautify the classrooms by adding handmade crafts, decorations, and other visuals to make the classroom an inspiring place to learn. This was Sadeel’s first exposure to the democratic process, where she then went on to campaign for two days and encouraged her schoolmates to vote using secret ballot boxes placed around the school.

Sadeel and the rest of the Girls School parliament were elected on December 10, also the anniversary of the declaration of human rights. During her tenure, Sadeel advocated for several programs in the camp to help all of the residents. She had an initiative on educating the public on combatting violence against women and the elderly in the camp. She and her fellow parliamentarians also created several free activities in the camp, including arranging a trip for the elderly.

By serving in Parliament, Sadeel gained many skills as a leader through trainings with NGOs and community-based organizations. She even had the opportunity to meet with Samantha Powers, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, to share her camp’s story.

You can help bright Palestine refugee students like Sadeel realize their educational potential and dreams by funding a full tuition scholarship or by donating any amount you can to the UNRWA USA University Scholarship Fund. Thank you for funding the future!

UNRWA alum, Soubhi Al-Aryan, donates computer lab to help refugee students in Jordan

Soubhi Al-Aryan, who now calls Austin, Texas home, knows the needs of a refugee student well. As an alumnus of the UNRWA school system, he remembers the obstacles he faced in Jordan in the 1960s. Still, he says that the environment UNRWA provided kept him focused and gave him the determination to “strive for a better life.”

Soubhi would eventually move to Kuwait and then to California where he completed a degree in civil engineering at the San Jose State University. It wasn’t an easy journey, he had to work several years before university just to pay for the plane ticket to the States. But Soubhi believes “education is essential to move forward in life” -- a value universally-shared by Palestinians. Education is what allowed him to get where he is today. And now he’s giving back.

The importance of education is a value instilled in UNRWA students by their families and by the Agency’s teachers, refugees themselves, from day one. In fact, for over 60 years UNRWA has worked to ensure that all the Palestine refugee children it serves have access to quality education to achieve his or her full potential. Having a deep appreciation for what UNRWA provided him as a young student and once the time was right, Soubhi knew he wanted to help other UNRWA students get the leg up they needed to succeed in life.

His most recent contribution to UNRWA came in the form of a brand new computer lab for Al-Jofeh Elementary Girls & Boys School in Jordan. The school, which is located in South Amman, an underprivileged area of the city, runs on a double-shift system with more than 1,300 Palestine refugee children from grade 1 through grade 5. As of June 2017, this refurbished computer lab, once obsolete, is now equipped with ten new computers, one new projector and a screen, and necessary electronic accessory items, all thanks to Soubhi.

Students like Sadine and Maya, fifth graders at the school, are thrilled to have access to this new lab.

“I like to know what lies beneath the oceans. It should be so beautiful!” says Sadine. Her favorite subject is science and she is fond of nature and animals particularly, the undersea world. Maya is interested in English language and wishes to improve her speaking and writing skills. “Listening to songs in English and following English language lessons on Youtube channels make the learning more enjoyable!”
 

Soubhi told us he wanted to provide refugee children with access to the latest technology, which they might not have at home. “Because the world is becoming a more globalized community, it is important for this new generation to have access to the internet and other educational tools that will enhance their future by increasing their chances of attending university and their employability.”

Soubhi chose UNRWA because of the lasting impact the Agency left on him. He knows the opportunities UNRWA has consistently provided Palestine refugees because he experienced them firsthand. Now he hopes to give that chance to others who are in the same position Soubhi was once in. He encourages us all to reflect on the opportunities given to us and to pay it forward.

You don't have to donate a computer lab to make a difference, but supporting UNRWA’s work gives Palestine refugee students, not just in Jordan, but around the Middle East, a chance at a better life.

You can find out more about what we do and how to support this work here.

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Today, the UNRWA school system is one of the largest in the region, with nearly 700 schools, UNRWA teaches nearly 500,000 children each year. According to a recent World Bank report, UNRWA’s students are among the most highly educated in the Middle East.

If you are looking to make a lasting investment to impact the future for Palestine refugees, please contact Abby Smardon, Executive Director, at abby@unrwausa.org.

Jameleh, a social entrepreneur for change

Jameleh, a social entrepreneur for change

Here we are with Jameleh, third to the left, and her colleagues! 

Here we are with Jameleh, third to the left, and her colleagues! 

Our staff gets to the Middle East as often as we can to follow up on the projects our donors are funding and to meet the people benefiting from UNRWA’s critical, and often life-saving services. This is a special time for us to share with the refugees we meet stories about you and all the things we’re doing in the United States as individuals.

I’ve been serving UNRWA USA since August 2015. In February of this year, it was my turn to visit the field -- my first time to Palestine. I am an American woman from the Pacific Northwest who grew up between Seattle, Hawaii, and Costa Rica, and with no familial ties to the region. I’ve always stood for progressive causes and social justice, so it was natural for me to join the staff of this organization, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to take a trip like this.

Because I know not everyone has the opportunity to visit Palestine, I am writing to share with you the experience through my perspective.

My colleague Nada and I met dozens of incredible humans on this first visit, but since my return, I've been thinking a lot about one particular person -- Jameleh. She’s a humble, yet very powerful woman who lives in Jericho, and is making life better for her neighbors through innovation. We met Jameleh in Aqbat Jaber, the refugee camp she's lived in all her life, just south of East Jerusalem.

Jameleh, the star of my story

Jameleh, the star of my story

Nada and I came to Aqbat Jaber as part of our tour of the West Bank to learn about different Cash-for-Work (CfW) programs (more about that later), including a new lunch program at the UNRWA school there.

We were welcomed by a delicious spread of traditional Palestinian food -- meat pies, kibbeh, tabbouleh. We may have thought we were just there for a tour, but we left with energy, inspiration, and an incredible story to share with all of you.

Palestinian meat pies made fresh by the amazing women we met in Aqbat Jaber

Palestinian meat pies made fresh by the amazing women we met in Aqbat Jaber

Back to Jameleh, my shero, and the star of my story. Jameleh was concerned about the school lunches children in her community and wanted to find a way to provide healthier meals. With help from CfW, she and her now business partners, started a cooking program in the camp. It grew so fast that soon, they were running the entire school’s lunch program and providing healthy, high quality, and affordable meals.

Today she runs her own Community-Based Organization (CBO) which is staffed by individuals participating in UNRWA’s CfW. I learned that UNRWA is working with all the CBOs in the Aqbat Jaber camp by supporting them with CfW laborers. CfW opportunities are created in coordination and based on the needs of local CBOs. This quarter alone, 77 CfW laborers are contracted to work in Aqbat Jaber. In 2016, 8,222 households overall benefited from CfW, including 4,833 male laborers and 3,389 female laborers.

This program offers an array of employment positions including working as administrative clerks with partner organizations, rehabilitating and maintaining schools, clinics, and other public structures, working in kindergartens, libraries, and other service offices. Other opportunities include rehabilitating public parks and playgrounds, maintaining multi-purpose halls and community centers, and enhancing public infrastructure including local roads, sidewalks, and water drainage and sanitation networks. CfW puts special emphasis on women, with initiatives aimed at encouraging innovative projects by women, like Jameleh's.

As a mother, a trained chef, and a person who is passionate about health, I was really moved by this program Jameleh started. Cooking and food is a universal experience and one of the most accessible ways to share our culture and history with others.

Jameleh and the other women didn’t stop with school lunches. Constantly paying it forward, profits from the lunch program were used to start a kindergarten, and then a guesthouse for tourists. With a little financial assistance and training from UNRWA, these women have made a BIG impact on their entire refugee community.

The guesthouse in Aqbat Jaber

The guesthouse in Aqbat Jaber

These are the kinds of people that you support through UNRWA's CfW. With the economy in the oPt crippled by 50 years of ongoing occupation, UNRWA provides much-needed opportunities for Palestine refugees to support themselves and their families.

As I said at the start of my story, these trips are such an important time for us to connect in person with the refugees UNRWA serves. I'm so happy I was able to represent you there and to tell these women about the work we're doing here in the United States.

Let's support the work they're doing there, so community visionaries like Jameleh have a chance to be who they dream to be.

-Sarah Gayoso, Events Officer, UNRWA USA

"The only thing that can change the future is education."

Hanan al-Hroub is a second-grade teacher at Samiha Khalil Secondary School, a governmental school in Ramallah. On February 17, it was announced that she was one of the top ten finalists for the Global Teacher Prize. The annual competition, facilitated by the UK-based Varkey Foundation, is a million dollar award presented every year to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession.

The prize serves to recognize and celebrate the efforts of teachers around the world and the impact they have on their students and communities. This year, Hanan is the only teacher from the Middle East who has been shortlisted in the top ten.

Originally from Dheisheh refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, Hanan explains that her life growing up in the camp was the main motivation to become a teacher: “It imbued me with the persistence and resilience I needed to face challenges.

Being a child in a refugee camp is different from being a child anywhere else in the world,” she explains. “Children elsewhere can enjoy their childhood, but not Palestinian children. The games that we played were affected by the surrounding conditions. You grow up aware and informed about the politics and what’s happening around you.”

But her eyes light up when we ask her about her memories as a student at the UNRWA Elementary School for Girls in Dheisheh. “I never forgot the quality of my education there or my teachers,” she recalls. “UNRWA teachers are very distinguished. They provide students with high-quality teaching and inspire them.”

She continues: “My school was unlike other schools at the time. We had plenty of games and the girls from my school would participate in the sporting competitions that took place in our districts. We also had many activities that stimulated our minds, challenged us mentally.” But the library at her school seems to have left the deepest impression on Hanan: “I still remember the library. It was full of books. You couldn’t find a library like that at any other school.”

“Being a child in a refugee camp is different from being a child anywhere else in the world,” recalls Hanan. Hanan grew up in Dheisheh refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. © 2016 UNRWA photo by Alaa Ghosheh

As a teacher, she speaks passionately about how education can be used to counteract the negative impact of the violence that Palestinian children – particularly those living in the camps – are frequently exposed to. “When I was a child, I was exposed to violence. Even today, my own children and my students still suffer from violence, and it affects their behavior.” During the second intifada, Hanan’s husband, Omar, was injured after being shot by Israeli security forces. Her children, who witnessed the incident, were left in shock. “After that, I felt that they were suffering and isolated from the community,” she says. “They lacked confidence, and they were afraid to go to school for a while.” She believes that her children’s schools didn’t provide the psychosocial support they needed to deal with the trauma in the aftermath of their father’s injury, and it affected their performance in the classroom. The experience inspired Hanan – then a first-year student at Open Al-Quds University – to study elementary education so that she could help other children who had been exposed to violence to overcome the psychosocial effects and trauma that often follow. “If children who suffer from violence are not given the assistance and support they need, they will be lost,” she says.  

“From the very beginning, I make sure that the students understand that in that classroom we are a family – we belong to each other,” says Hanan. “I feel as though I am very important to them.” © 2016 UNRWA photo by Alaa Ghosheh

Hanan’s inspiring approach to education centers on ‘Play and Learn’, whereby she integrates educational games into the classroom, often using tools and toys created from everyday household materials. She also emphasizes the importance of creating a ‘safe space’ for her students where they can learn in a peaceful, happy and comfortable environment.

“By playing these games with my students, I try to decrease the effect of violence among them, particularly those who themselves exhibit violent behavior,” she says. “I try to change these behaviors – which often contribute to a lack of participation and focus – and replace them with confidence, dialogue and mutual respect.” 

Hanan explains that she often tailors her teaching and games to meet the unique needs, skills and capacities of her students: “It’s important that the students understand that they all have a role to play in their future, even if their academic outcomes aren’t high.” She adds, “From the very beginning, I make sure that the students understand that in that classroom we are a family – we belong to each other. I feel as though I am very important to them.”

Her efforts have had a noticeable impact; today, her approach is widely replicated by her colleagues and has led to a decline in violent behavior in schools where it is applied. She has shared her experiences at conferences and seminars and detailed the methodologies she uses in her book, We Play and Learn.

When asked how she feels about being shortlisted for the prestigious award, she smiles warmly. “For me, it shows that the world recognizes, believes in and respects this kind of approach to education. It also shows that Palestinian teachers can be creative, face challenges and compete despite the circumstances we live in.”

She adds: “The only thing that can change the future is education. Education can affect change and help us build the Palestinian community and state we want.”

Hanan al-Hroub was announced as the winner of the million dollar 2016 Global Teacher Prize during the awards ceremony held in Dubai on Sunday, March 24, 2016. The announcement was made by Pope Francis in a video message broadcast at the event, which also featured tributes from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Prince William, former US President Bill Clinton and Stephen Hawking. UNRWA congratulates Hanan on her inspiring achievements and celebrates the remarkable contributions that teachers like her make every day in Palestine and around the world.

Meet Amal & Mahmud

A Palestine refugee family’s story from Syria to Lebanon…

21 year old Amal describes how she was forced to quit her education and to flee the conflict in Syria by moving to Lebanon. “We had a life in Syria,” said her father Mahmud man, sitting in his small flat in the crammed Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in a suburb of Beirut, in Lebanon. “We thought we were coming to paradise, but in fact, life here is hell.” This is the situation from many Palestine refugee families who are forced to flee the lives they set up and start over with nothing, in a brand new place.

Mahmud, a Palestinian refugee, fled Syria in 2012 with his wife and daughter. The family moved to different parts of Beirut, but unfortunately in Beirut, the rents are quite high. After dwindling resources, they were forced to move into Shatila, in the south of Beirut.

Under Lebanese law, Mahmud, a former shop owner, is unable to work so he now relies on his 21 year old daughter to support the family. “In Syria I was at university studying trade and commerce but now I am the source of income for my family. I have a good education so I work teaching private lessons,” Amal.

An icon two years on begs some unsettling questions

Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesperson

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It is now two years since the iconic photo of thousands of bewildered, besieged civilians in the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, Damascus was taken. Traumatized and drained of all emotion, children, women, the sick, the elderly, the dying waited in the besieged camp for food from UNRWA, the UN agency mandated to bring them aid. It was an image whose graphic power seared itself into the collective memory of our age, as the word “Yarmouk” was added to the appalling lexicon of man’s inhumanity to man. The photo went viral and thus became an icon of Syria’s pitiless conflict.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon was later to describe Yarmouk as akin to the lower regions of hell; a refugee camp that had become a death camp. Yarmouk was once home to some 150,000 Palestinians. Each has a humanity, an individual dignity that must be recognized, respected and nurtured.

Yet two years on, as peace talks begin in Geneva and just days before the London conference on Syria, this haunting image begs some discomfiting questions. Where are the individuals now, whose faces stare compelling out at us? Are they alive or dead? Did they become part of a lost generation? Were they left behind? The majority are Palestinians yet is the plight of this marginalized community being overlooked, dwarfed by the sheer enormity of the Syrian tragedy?

We owe it to each and every individual in that photo, to ourselves and to future generations to find answers to these questions. Without them, the stain that is Yarmouk will forever be on the conscience of humanity

Meet Jaleelah

Meet Jaleelah, a Bedouin Palestine refugee living near Jabal al baba. Like many other refugees, Jaleelah faces constant hardships, especially during the harsh winter. ““Our home is made of zinc sheets and the rainwater leaks into our house from all sides. In the winter, my children are usually soaked by the time they get to school because we do not have transportation. We cannot depend on electrical heating because of frequent power cuts. If there is a windstorm or heavy rain, the roof of our house might be blown away.”- Jaleel.

Imagine living under the constant fear that your home could too be ripped away from you at a second. Imagine not knowing when the next time your family will have a meal is. Life as a refugee is not easy, and it is our mission to help the less fortunate. UNRWA has provided assistance to 5 million plus Palestine refugees, but through increased funding we would like to help out the entire refugee population.

UNRWA condemns demolition of the homes of Palestine refugee Bedouins families at risk of forcible transfer; decries desperate humanitarian consequences

Director of UNRWA Operations in the West Bank, Felipe Sanchez, has condemned the demolition of Bedouin homes in the West Bank by the Israeli authorities. “The humanitarian consequences of this destruction of property are grave and I am seriously concerned, particularly about the children who are now homeless,” said Sanchez.

The demolitions were carried out on the morning of January 6, 2016 by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) in the vulnerable community of Abu Nwar, in Area C near East Jerusalem. In the midst of the winter, a total of five residential structures were demolished, leaving 26 refugees, including 17 children, displaced and without a home.

With more than 7,000 inhabitants, the majority of them Palestine refugees, Abu Nwar is one of 50 Palestinian Bedouin communities in Area C that have been slated for transfer to three proposed “relocation” sites by the Israeli authorities. The communities have refused to be relocated and have faced the daily threat of their homes being demolished.

In May 2015, the UN warned about the rapidly advancing plans to transfer the Palestinian Bedouins and the risk of demolitions after residents of Abu Nwar were informed by the Israeli authorities that they would have to move to the Al Jabal area outside of East Jerusalem, where the preparation of the ground had been taking place for several months.

Prior to and during the demolitions on January 6, 2016, residents were repeatedly informed by Israeli Civil Administration officials to move to the proposed transfer site of Al Jabal West. UNRWA has been providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the displaced communities.

Demolishing residential structures exacerbates an already coercive environment, driving Bedouin communities off the land they have inhabited for decades. UNRWA recalls that Israel, as the Occupying Power, has strict obligations under international law regarding the prohibition of the destruction of private property and of forcible transfer, including as a result of policies creating a coercive environment. Forcible transfer is a grave breach under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

“The distress in the community is heartbreaking,” said Sanchez. “When children should be enjoying their holidays from school, they are instead picking up the broken pieces of their destroyed homes. How can a child grow up in such an environment? I condemn these demolitions and reiterate my call to respect the Bedouins’ decision to remain where they are,” said Sanchez. “I urge the Israeli authorities to halt all plans and practices that will directly or indirectly lead to the forcible transfer of the Bedouin.”

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, and financial support has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, deepening poverty and conflict. As a result, the UNRWA General Fund, which supports core essential services and most staffing costs, operates with a large deficit. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large deficits, are funded through separate funding portals.

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Meet Sham.

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Sham, on the right, was 10 days old when her father left to try to reach Europe. He never made it, dying in a traffic accident in the desert between Sudan and Libya.

Like so many Palestine refugees from Syria, Sham’s family is struggling to survive in Lebanon. #shareyourwarmth with them.

https://getinvolved.unrwausa.org/shareyourwarmth

© 2015 UNRWA photo by Maysoun Mustafa

UNRWA Promotes Diversity and Tolerance on Human Rights Day Sounds of laughter and children playing games drifted across the school yard on an unusually warm and sunny December morning. One could assume this was a normal day at the Aqbat Jabr Coed School in Jericho, however today was different, today they were celebrating Human Rights Day. The excitement in the air was palpable as students performed plays, songs and dances around the different themes of diversity, tolerance, equality and more. UNRWA schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan brought together students, parents and teachers along with representatives from countries around the world to participate in activities to mark the day. Most activities were from the Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance (HRCRT) toolkit which is part of a United States-funded education program that supports the integration of these human rights concepts into all subjects. Some guests were asked to identify actions that promote diversity, others watched as students acted out a skit about gender equality. One classroom demonstrated an exercise on democratic processes and leadership as they cast ballots for their new school parliament representative. Heba abu Laban, a 13-year-old member of her school parliament in Gaza, has been studying human rights since first grade and talks about her experience. “I have learned a lot about diversity and human rights. Now I know that people have different religions or colors, but while we all have the right to be different, we need to be treated equally.” Human rights education is not only about knowledge and understanding. It is also about changing attitudes and behavior. Explaining the impact of this program, UNRWA teacher Maison Askar said, “what I have observed is that there is less intolerance among students in the school, they are more respectful with each other and towards each other’s opinions. They consciously listen to each other.” Throughout the year the HRCRT program helps cultivate an environment of understanding, tolerance and appreciation for differences, both inside and outside the classroom. One involved parent remarked, “By learning about human rights in the UNRWA school, my children gained different perspectives regarding certain issues. They became more tolerant of other viewpoints, and they listened to others.” The HRCRT Toolkit is being implemented in an increasingly challenging environment across all five fields of UNRWA operations, where some children witness and experience human rights violations first hand on a regular basis. Teaching children to resolve conflicts through dialogue rather than violence, and to respect each other’s rights is an important component of the programme, which also extends to the entire community through events and advocacy videos. Thanks to the generous support of the United States, this program enables all 500,000 students enrolled in UNRWA schools to promote a culture of human rights.

UNRWA Promotes Diversity and Tolerance on Human Rights Day

Sounds of laughter and children playing games drifted across the school yard on an unusually warm and sunny December morning. One could assume this was a normal day at the Aqbat Jabr Coed School in Jericho, however today was different, today they were celebrating Human Rights Day. The excitement in the air was palpable as students performed plays, songs and dances around the different themes of diversity, tolerance, equality and more.

UNRWA schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan brought together students, parents and teachers along with representatives from countries around the world to participate in activities to mark the day. Most activities were from the Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance (HRCRT) toolkit which is part of a United States-funded education program that supports the integration of these human rights concepts into all subjects.

Some guests were asked to identify actions that promote diversity, others watched as students acted out a skit about gender equality. One classroom demonstrated an exercise on democratic processes and leadership as they cast ballots for their new school parliament representative. Heba abu Laban, a 13-year-old member of her school parliament in Gaza, has been studying human rights since first grade and talks about her experience. “I have learned a lot about diversity and human rights. Now I know that people have different religions or colors, but while we all have the right to be different, we need to be treated equally.”

Human rights education is not only about knowledge and understanding. It is also about changing attitudes and behavior. Explaining the impact of this program, UNRWA teacher Maison Askar said, “what I have observed is that there is less intolerance among students in the school, they are more respectful with each other and towards each other’s opinions. They consciously listen to each other.”

Throughout the year the HRCRT program helps cultivate an environment of understanding, tolerance and appreciation for differences, both inside and outside the classroom. One involved parent remarked, “By learning about human rights in the UNRWA school, my children gained different perspectives regarding certain issues. They became more tolerant of other viewpoints, and they listened to others.”

The HRCRT Toolkit is being implemented in an increasingly challenging environment across all five fields of UNRWA operations, where some children witness and experience human rights violations first hand on a regular basis. Teaching children to resolve conflicts through dialogue rather than violence, and to respect each other’s rights is an important component of the programme, which also extends to the entire community through events and advocacy videos.

Thanks to the generous support of the United States, this program enables all 500,000 students enrolled in UNRWA schools to promote a culture of human rights.

3 ways you can contribute to the #ShareYourWarmth campaign this winter: 1) Create a free fundraising page, set a goal, and encourage your friends and family to join the campaign by donating to you! https://getinvolved.unrwausa.org/events/unrwa-usas-givingtuesday-campaign/e63866 2) Like and share our #shareyourwarmth posts on social media to raise awareness about Palestine refugees and UNRWA’s programs in the Middle East. Your efforts will amplify our outreach to folks across the United States. Every little bit counts towards providing warmth to Palestine refugees this winter! 3) Change your cover photo to let friends and family know about the #shareyourwarmth campaign.


3 ways you can contribute to the #ShareYourWarmth campaign this winter:

1) Create a free fundraising page, set a goal, and encourage your friends and family to join the campaign by donating to you!

https://getinvolved.unrwausa.org/events/unrwa-usas-givingtuesday-campaign/e63866

2) Like and share our #shareyourwarmth posts on social media to raise awareness about Palestine refugees and UNRWA’s programs in the Middle East. Your efforts will amplify our outreach to folks across the United States. Every little bit counts towards providing warmth to Palestine refugees this winter!

3) Change your cover photo to let friends and family know about the #shareyourwarmth campaign.