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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

FEATURED NEWS

In a recent PBS interview, John Yang sat down with Scott Anderson to discuss the US administration's decision to cut UNRWA funding. 

You can help fund UNRWA. Donate here.

To learn more about Scott, below is an exclusive UNRWA USA interview from October 2017.


[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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Other recent interviews with Scott Anderson:

Ibtissam's message to the US Administration: "Think of the children and their future"

Ibtissam's message to the US Administration: "Think of the children and their future"

UNRWA is not a political thing — it’s helping the refugees, the children, the women, through health care, through schooling, through everything.
— Ibtissam Rizkallah of North Carolina, on what UNRWA means to her

Ibtissam Rizkallah was born in Shefa Amr, a city east of Haifa in 1944. At the age of 4, the Nakba began. Ibtissam and her family were forced to flee to Lebanon. Like many Palestinian families, at the time, they saw this as a temporary way to escape conflict and insecurity -- and thought they would remain in Lebanon for just a few months until it was safe to return home. And like many Palestinian families, this sadly did not turn out to be the case.

Ibtissam’s family -- at the time consisting of her three brothers and sisters, her father, and her mother, who was expecting another child --  took their one car and rented a house in Kafr Shima, Lebanon. A few months passed and they realized going home was not a reality in sight. Her father had to sell their car to make ends meet. They relocated to northern Lebanon, where her mother had some family, but moved from one house to the next due to financial difficulties.

Prior to 1948, Ibtissam’s father and uncle owned a small taxi company in Palestine where they shuttled people from Shefa Amr to Haifa. Due to the labor laws in Lebanon, Ibtissam’s father, as a Palestinian, could not continue his taxi business. He did, however, find employment through the newly established UNRWA, where he worked as a truck driver, transporting flour and foodstuffs to various refugee camps in Lebanon.

Her father was not the only one who looked to UNRWA as a pillar of support during a tumultuous time. Ibtissam credits most of her family’s education to UNRWA. Living in Ashrafiyeh in eastern Beirut, Ibtissam and her siblings went to a school run by nuns, where UNRWA funded their tuition. Every one of Ibtissam’s sisters received higher education through UNRWA, whether that was through an UNRWA scholarship at the American University of Beirut or through typing and secretarial courses held at the local YMCA.

Ibtissam, graduating from the Gaza Baptist School of Nursing in 1962

Ibtissam, graduating from the Gaza Baptist School of Nursing in 1962

While her father was working as an UNRWA driver, a Swedish woman named Ms. Kanstron, who was responsible for UNRWA’s education programming at the time, mentioned a reputable nursing program in Gaza, strongly encouraging him to consider enrolling one of his children in the program. When Ibtissam’s father approached Ibtissam’s older sister about it, Ibtissam asserted that if her sister was going to enroll in the program, she wanted to do so, as well. So, in the fall of 1959, the two sisters went to Gaza to begin their three-year training at the Gaza Baptist School of Nursing.

UNRWA provided them with a small stipend to supplement their tuition, and they were able to study without worrying about their finances.

With some sadness in her voice, Ibtissam says, "Gaza was different back then. The Gazan people were more safe and they did not have the same brutal travel restrictions that they do today. I feel for those people. They have a special place in my heart, and it’s difficult to see their conditions today."

Reflecting on her own experiences with UNRWA in the context of the current politicization of refugee rights, she says, "UNRWA is not a political thing -- it's helping the refugees, the children, the women, through health care, through schooling, through everything."

Ibtissam, her children, and grandchildren visiting Ramallah, Palestine in 2014

Ibtissam, her children, and grandchildren visiting Ramallah, Palestine in 2014

It was thanks to her nursing certificate from the program in Gaza that she was able to pursue a career in nursing in the US. Ibtissam married a fellow Palestinian, originally from Ramallah, living in the US. She left Beirut and traveled to live with him in Maryland in December 1967. When she came to the US, she initially chose to take care of the four young children they had together as opposed to working. Once her youngest son turned 5, she learned that in order to work as a nurse in the States all she needed to do was pass an American test and she'd be certified to practice in the US. So that's what she did and Ibtissam started working part-time in 1984. As a busy working mother, she would work evenings so that she could spend time with her family during the day.

When her husband passed in 1993, Ibtissam had to work full time to support her family. She credits her UNRWA degree to allowing her to support herself and her children in the absence of her husband’s salary and helping her land her first job in the US.

Ibtissam feels grateful for the role UNRWA played in her life -- that despite the heart-wrenching circumstances of being ripped away from her homeland, she and her family had a support system that they could lean on to reach their full potential outside of Palestine.

In response to the US' unprecdented decision to cut funding to UNRWA by 83%, she asserts:

When they [the US Administration] withhold money, they need to think of the children and their future. UNRWA does a lot of good for a lot of people, and I know so many people who got their higher education through UNRWA. Right now, it’s essential to make sure kids are educated to give them hope for the future.

Ruth and MaryAnn: the story of how two Ohioans got involved in UNRWA's work selling Canaan Fair Trade olive oil

Ruth and MaryAnn: the story of how two Ohioans got involved in UNRWA's work selling Canaan Fair Trade olive oil

Ruth and MaryAnn, dear friends and partners for Palestine

Ruth and MaryAnn, dear friends and partners for Palestine

Selling Palestinian olive oil is a great opportunity to spread the word about Palestine and speak to customers one on one about UNRWA’s work.
— Ruth Tracy

Ruth Tracy and MaryAnn Kerr are the kind of old friends that finish each other's sentences. When speaking to them, you get the sense they are of one mind -- equally driven and focused. Their energy and enthusiasm are that of someone a third of their age. They radiate positivity and passion. And one thing they're both passionate about -- the thing that brought them together -- is the situation of Palestine refugees. 

This is their story. 

Ruth first heard about UNRWA and its work while living in Beirut, Lebanon in 1967. She volunteered with an American women's organization raising funds for women's centers in the camps, specifically in Ein El Hillweh camp near Sidon. 

Fast forward several years -- Ruth wanted to maintain her connection with Palestine while living in the States and came across various organizations selling Palestinian products abroad. One of these was Canaan Fair Trade. After initially just ordering from Canaan, Ruth began to sell their olive oils to friends, family, and at the local farmer’s market. As to not compete with any other sellers, but rather work with them, Ruth asked the Canaan Fair Trade team if there was anyone else selling their products in the Cleveland area. They immediately mentioned a woman named MaryAnn Kerr. At the same time, Ruth was considering going on an Interfaith Peace Builder's (IFPB) delegation trip to Palestine and wished to connect with someone who had already gone on the trip. IFPB also pointed her to the very same person -- MaryAnn Kerr.

It felt like no small coincidence that MaryAnn’s name came up twice in such a short time, so Ruth gave MaryAnn a call, they agreed to meet at a Turkish restaurant, and the rest is history!

This was the first of many meetings and coincidences in their longstanding and growing relationship. Quickly, they realized that MaryAnn's husband and Ruth's former husband attended school together in Beirut. These connections made the world feel small, and they wanted to make it even smaller by creating a stronger connection between Palestine and Ohio.

Ultimately, with the encouragement from MaryAnn, Ruth made a trip to Palestine during the annual olive harvest and met the folks at Canaan Fair Trade. She said upon meeting them, she instantly felt a lightbulb go off and knew she chose the right way to place her efforts to bring greater awareness of the situation of Palestinians to the average American back home. Inspired, Ruth has been selling Palestinian olive oil in her home state of Ohio through Canaan's interfaith program in the US ever since.  

Olives, olive oil, and the olive harvest are all synonymous with Palestinian identity, so it is no surprise that MaryAnn and Ruth saw this as a powerful way to connect people to something complex and longstanding (the situation of Palestine refugees) via something simple, delicious, and accessible to the average American (olive oil).

All the while, through their sales they've supported Palestinian farmers, and organizations they care deeply about -- Interfaith Peace Builders, Canaan Fair Trade, and UNRWA USA. 

Ruth comments that "selling Palestinian olive oil is a great opportunity to spread the word about Palestine and speak to customers one on one about UNRWA’s work [...] many people don’t know about [UNRWA's] history and impact in Gaza and Syria."

Christmas shopping display at 'Beit Tracy' (beit is the Arabic word for house)

Christmas shopping display at 'Beit Tracy' (beit is the Arabic word for house)

Beginning in 2008, Ruth and MaryAnn worked together to share the proceeds from olive oil sales with UNRWA USA and two other nonprofits working in Palestine. In 2012, they formalized their relationship with UNRWA USA so that 20% of their sales would go directly towards UNRWA programming. 

When probed on why a mid-western American like herself is so passionate about UNRWA’s work and how she became aware of it in the first place, MaryAnn confidently asserts: 

I visited so many refugee camps, and UNRWA’s presence — including schools and medical care — really helped people survive. One of the most interesting things I noticed was the effort that UNRWA puts into helping people remember their culture. So much energy is spent erasing that cultural memory, and UNRWA has made a huge contribution to preserving it.

Though still dedicated to issues of social justice, in 2015, after years of enthusiastic volunteering, MaryAnn retired to spend more time with her granddaughter. Though she does not sell olive oil alongside Ruth anymore, they continue to be close friends, and she still continues to promote peace through her work with IFPB, among other organizations that work on the issue of Palestine.

Ruth continues to sell Canaan Fair Trade olive oil at the seasonal fair trade market and speaks as passionately as MaryAnn about UNRWA's work. She wants the broader American public to know:

Palestinian refugees have the same aspirations for a positive future as we all do and the occupation is the most egregious long-lasting attack on human rights that we know of, keeping Palestinians hampered in every way with no end in sight. Without UNRWA and its housing, education, job development, health and emergency relief programs, Palestinians would indeed be lost. Improving the futures of Palestinians is UNRWA’s true mission and should be widely supported.

Check out the Ohio Fair Trade schedule to see when Ruth may be selling Canaan products near you. Please note, the last event of the holiday season is the Women Speak Out Annual Peace Festival and Bazaar at Pilgrim Church, 2582 W. 14th Street, in Cleveland on Saturday, December 9, 2017. 

If you cannot make the event, anyone living in the Cleveland who wishes to order Canaan products from Ruth, delivered right to your door, can do so by calling (216) 408-6297.

If you live outside Ohio, you can buy your own Canaan Fair Trade products online and 10% of your purchase will be donated to UNRWA USA.