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"I wouldn't be an engineer without UNRWA": from a refugee camp to a successful American entrepreneur, Nada Kiblawi shares her UNRWA story

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"I wouldn't be an engineer without UNRWA": from a refugee camp to a successful American entrepreneur, Nada Kiblawi shares her UNRWA story

UNRWA isn’t just about food handouts, though emergency services are very important. To me, UNRWA played and continues to play an instrumental role in sustaining the Palestinian people. Period. If not for UNRWA, I do not know what would’ve happened to refugees like myself.
— Nada Kiblawi
Nada, 1989

Nada, 1989

Today, Nada Kiblawi is a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman living in northern Virginia, alongside her husband and three adult children. Founder and co-owner of NHK Consulting, Nada provides engineering services to some of the world’s largest and most reputable companies.

However, her story and rise to professional and personal success begins with strikingly modest roots — Nada was born a Palestine refugee, a product of the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic), and one of thousands of Palestinians striving for a better future with modest resources.

While she has come a remarkably long way from her humble beginnings, she has not forgotten the struggles and opportunities that allowed her to get where she is today and how being born a Palestine refugee shaped her life, identity, and her desire to uplift those around her.


Wavel Camp in 2013

Wavel Camp in 2013

Nada’s family is originally from Lubia (close to Tiberias, Sea of Galilee), one of the many villages that was completely destroyed and depopulated during the Nakba in 1948. Forced to flee, her family became refugees and fled to Lebanon. There, they lived in Wavel refugee camp, which still exists in Baalbek, Lebanon, where UNRWA continues to provide services.

Born and raised in this camp and in poverty, Nada sadly recalls that she was deprived a normal, happy childhood. “I’m at a loss of words when I think back upon my childhood years,” she says. “All children born refugees are deprived a childhood. My land, home, and youth, were stolen from me and those of the fourth generation of refugees born into and raised in camps. Though I struggled along the way, I worked hard so my children do not have to suffer in the same way I did.” For Nada, the aspect of her life that offered a sliver of hope was school: “The only way out of our situation was to excel in school and show my value. I needed to shine against the darkness, and when I realized education was the key, that’s what I did. I excelled.”

We are here because of UNRWA. I would not be an engineer without it. My colleagues wouldn’t be doctors. UNRWA has made successful people around the globe, and this is how we show our gratitude.

She, along with all of her siblings, went to free UNRWA primary and secondary schools. She says, “without UNRWA, I would have been illiterate. My family simply didn’t have the money to pay for all of my siblings’ education. UNRWA made up my formative years. It was my education, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Reflecting back, one of the most striking memories from her childhood was that of her UNRWA teachers.

Nada recalls that they provided the support system, along with her family, that paved her way to success. One early example was her third grade math teacher. Doubling as the physical education teacher, he was muscular, stocky, and serious, and she remembers in the eyes of a petite 7-year-old girl, he was very intimidating. She recalls hiding in the bathroom during his classes, but because all of her siblings also attended UNRWA schools, she was quickly found out. Her teacher asked her brother why she was absent from class and in hearing the explanation, the teacher promptly brought her back into class and encouraged her by calling on her in class and pushing her to succeed. It was at this point she realized she loved and excelled at math. It quickly became her favorite subject and propelled her to ultimately study engineering.

This anecdote marks a pattern in Nada’s life — when faced with a daunting challenge, despite the temptation to shy away, she sees it as an opportunity to overcome and thrive.

Without UNRWA, I would have been illiterate. My family simply didn’t have the money to pay for all of my siblings’ education. UNRWA made up my formative years. It was my education, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Though her family encouraged her towards studying and practicing medicine, upon repeatedly hearing from her fellow classmates and peers that women couldn’t study engineering, Nada made up her mind to prove them wrong. Given her family’s economic situation, she was eager to finish her studies early and help support her family financially. Determined, she excelled to the top of her class, especially in her math and science classes. Nada studied hard, often by candlelight due to the absence of electricity in the camps, ultimately receiving a full UNRWA scholarship to attend the American University of Beirut (AUB) to study engineering.

Breaking barriers, Nada was one of nine women accepted to AUB’s engineering program, and by the end of her first year, she was the only one to pass all her classes. She described the courses as brutal and cutthroat, but despite tremendous pressure from naysayers and with the support of her family and the refugee community, she graduated as the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from AUB!

Despite graduating at the top of her class, as a Palestine refugee, she was only allowed to work within specific professions in Lebanon. After marrying her husband Nazih, a fellow classmate, and witnessing the lack of professional opportunities and fear and uncertainty during Lebanese Civil War, Nada sought security and stability for her and her family. She and Nazih pursued the American dream and moved to America to seek opportunities in entrepreneurship, ultimately creating her consulting business, NHK consulting, which she continues to run to this day. She and Nazih are both UNRWA alumni, and she says the first thing they did upon becoming successful was fund other Palestine refugees’ education to help their fellow refugees achieve similar success.

Nada’s story is a testament of the potential of every human being and the importance of investing in all people, regardless of their refugee status or place of birth. Nada is not ashamed of her past, rather, she draws her strength and resilience from it.

She acknowledges the crucial role UNRWA played in her success and remains a proud and contributing alumna as chair of the UNRWA USA Alumni Association (USA) steering committee: “One way to pay back the Agency is to showcase that UNRWA produces success. We are here because of UNRWA. I would not be an engineer without it. My colleagues wouldn’t be doctors. UNRWA has made successful people around the globe, and this is how we show our gratitude.”

UNRWA Alumni Association (USA) Steering Committee, 2019 (from left to right: Mohammed Eid, Lori Mosher, Nada Kiblawi, Ahmed Arafat, Dr. Abed Musa, Ghassan Salameh. Not pictured: Rania Qawasma and Methal Debaj)

UNRWA Alumni Association (USA) Steering Committee, 2019 (from left to right: Mohammed Eid, Lori Mosher, Nada Kiblawi, Ahmed Arafat, Dr. Abed Musa, Ghassan Salameh. Not pictured: Rania Qawasma and Methal Debaj)

In describing the UNRWA Alumni Association (USA), she says she sees it as a “collection of professionals who share a common childhood and who can now share resources, become mentors, network, and give back to their society — not just their current society, but the society that created them — their community of Palestine refugees.”

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UNRWA changed my life and the lives of many people around me: Dr. Shadi Battah's UNRWA story

UNRWA changed my life and the lives of many people around me: Dr. Shadi Battah's UNRWA story

Dr. Shadi Battah is an American doctor, Palestine refugee, and former UNRWA beneficiary. He is a contributing guest writer to the Voices of UNRWA blog, where he shared the role UNRWA played in his and his family’s lives.


My name is Shadi Battah, and this is my UNRWA refugee story. It’s a story that both represents the unsettlingly common narrative of Palestinian displacement, loss, and reconstruction, but also my family’s unique journey from our homeland in Palestine.

Like many Palestine refugees, UNRWA has been a part of my life and the life of my parents. Both of my parents are UNRWA students and beneficiaries. My dad was born in Ein Karem (Southwest of Jerusalem) in 1941. During the Nakba, my grandparents and family were forced to flee to Jordan in 1948. My dad lived in a refugee camp until 1957 when he left to pursue an education and hope for a better life. It was his education that gave him the foundation and confidence to take this step. All his elementary and middle school education were at UNRWA schools. Through hard work, he ultimately became an electrical engineer.

My mother was born in Deir El Balah refugee camp in Gaza in 1951. Gaza was a very different place then. She was an UNRWA student and beneficiary from birth until she left to Egypt to pursue her education in the late 60s. Ultimately, she became a sociologist. I remember while growing up, she would repeatedly tell me about the UNRWA preventive health services and the daily milk, vitamins, and meals that she had received during her years at UNRWA schools. At this point, they were very poor, and as a result, the nutritional support she’d received at UNRWA schools was vital to her physical and mental growth.

Flash forward to 1978. I was born in Lebanon at the height of the civil war and we fled the country to Jordan where I spent my early childhood. We spent a couple of years in Kuwait and we were vacationing in Jordan for the summer when Iraq occupied Kuwait. This was a severe blow to my dad’s career. In the aftermath, my family faced severe economic hardships. Despite being a middle class family in terms of level of education and aspirations, we lived at the poverty line (and frequently slipped below it) through my teenage years.

I was enrolled in UNRWA’s Al Jofeh elementary school, in southeast Amman from the 7th through 10th grade. I can’t emphasize the importance of what UNRWA has provided me during those formative years: despite over-crowded conditions (40 students or more per teacher) and limited resources, I received an excellent education that prepared me for an uncertain future.

I have fond memories to this day of my math teacher Sameeh, English teacher Sami, and many other very dedicated staff that managed to steer the ship and deliver good results, despite all the odds. This staff, refugees themselves, was exceptional and received employment opportunities through UNRWA. Some of the experiences I had during those formative years included correspondence with a twin school in Sweden that sponsored a science day at the modest lab we had then. This dramatically helped and positively impacted me and my fellow students. This relationship became very important for my personal story down the line. I finished the 10th grade with top scores, and I was instructed by UNRWA staff to keep up the good work and come back at the end of high school (12th grade) to apply for a scholarship to help with my college expenses.

UNRWA’s work is vital on so many levels but above all it gives Palestinian kids education and hope for a better future. In my opinion, hope is as important as water and food and is pivotal to maintaining stability and peace.

shadi’s family + childhood

Though I’ve worked hard, I definitely hit a lucky streak. I don’t believe that the education, healthcare, dreams and hopes of the most vulnerable Palestinians should depend on the luck factor. That’s why UNRWA’s work is so important. I’m forever indebted to UNRWA. UNRWA changed my life and the lives of many people around me.

I completed my 11th and 12th grades at a public school supported by the government in Jordan. Jordan has been my home and a country that has supported Palestinians immensely and with unwavering commitment throughout the years. Again I scored high, but I have to say that I was very frustrated and sad at the end of high school, as I didn’t see how I’ll be able to cover any tuition expenses considering the lack of resources.

In this moment of need, my UNRWA sister school in Sweden made a one time financial contribution that allowed me to register for medical school in the fall semester of 1996. The cost of tuition for the entire year was about $1500, which is negligible compared to costs in the United States, but nonetheless, it was an insurmountable amount for me and my family at that point. That contribution allowed me to get my foot in the door and gave me time to circle back with the UNRWA education division and apply for a tuition scholarship. When the grants were announced early in 1997, I was very happy to learn that I was a recipient of the scholarship. It was this scholarship that carried me through medical school. There was no way I could have attended medical school without UNRWA’s financial support.

One thing lead to another and I ended up moving to the United States in 2004 to pursue training in internal medicine. I further specialized in pulmonary and critical care, which has allowed me to enjoy a very rewarding relationship with my patients and community.

Shadi with his wife Carisa and two sons Sami and Ramzi

Shadi with his wife Carisa and two sons Sami and Ramzi

I feel fortunate to have continued to develop and prosper in my personal and professional life, and my successes helped me support many people in my circle, whether in my immediate community or thousands of miles away. I've recently decided to become an American citizen as I've always believed in the core values including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and how those notions apply to individuals and nations alike.

I believe that the most vulnerable Palestinians deserve to live in freedom and have the chance to pursue their dreams and hopes, as well. UNRWA's work and support makes this possible, and I'm a living example of how UNRWA's work not only benefits Palestinians but also Americans and people around the world. With the opportunity and support that UNRWA provides, UNRWA alumni are more likely to become productive world citizens. UNRWA’s work is vital on so many levels but above all it gives Palestinian kids education and hope for a better future. In my opinion, hope is as important as water and food and is pivotal to maintaining stability and peace.

Though I’ve worked hard, I definitely hit a lucky streak. I don’t believe that the education, healthcare, dreams and hopes of the most vulnerable Palestinians should depend on the luck factor. That's why UNRWA's work is so important. I'm forever indebted to UNRWA. UNRWA changed my life and the lives of many people around me.


More about Shadi

I spent most of my life in Jordan where I attended UNRWA’s Al Jofeh school from 7th to 10th grade. I finished high school with honors from Al-Hussein College High School in Amman, and enrolled in medical school at Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid. My tuition was mostly paid for by an UNRWA scholarship, without which I would not been able to attend college. I graduated in 2002, and shortly afterwards, I decided to come to the US to pursue higher medical education. I finished my residency in internal medicine from Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati in 2007, and then I went to University of New Mexico Hospitals in Albuquerque where I did a fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. Afterwards, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where I joined a private practice as an Intensivist. I've been providing critical medical care to Alaskans for the past 8 years or so both at the bedside and via telemedicine platforms. I'm currently enrolled in the Certificate of Physician Leadership program and will be starting work on my MBA from the University of Massachusetts in 2019.

I got married to my wonderful wife Carisa in 2013, and we have two boys and are expecting another baby soon. We live in Alaska and spend a significant amount of time in Northern California, where my wife's family lives. In my free time I read, play chess, and join local pick-up soccer games. I have a keen interest in startups, especially in the healthcare space and in high tech.

From Gaza to North Carolina: Mohammed Eid's refugee story

From Gaza to North Carolina: Mohammed Eid's refugee story

When I look in the mirror, I still see that same unkempt little boy from the camps in Gaza. I cannot forget that I made it so far due to the support of UNRWA humanitarian assistance.
— Mohammed Eid

Mohammed Eid is a 28-year-old Palestine refugee, who has lived in Rafah camp in the Gaza Strip where UNRWA provides services for his entire life. Until recently, like most children in Gaza his age and younger, he has only known life in Gaza -- a small piece of land half the size of New York City. That's because due to 11 years of comprehensive air, sea, and land blockade and little to no freedom of movement, over 90% of children have never left the Strip. This changed for Mohammed when he received a prestigious Rotary Fellowship to pursue a master's degree in Global Studies and International Development through a joint program at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. Though he currently lives in North Carolina, he will return to Gaza after completing his program. 

In an interview with UNRWA USA, Mohammed shares with us what it is like to grow up in the Gaza Strip and to come closer to realizing his dreams through higher education. He says UNRWA was there every step of the way, giving him hope, and he when he returns to Gaza, he plans on taking his knowledge to better the humanitarian system that allowed him and his family to survive. 

[UNRWA USA]: What was it like to grow up as a refugee in the Gaza Strip? 

[Mohammed]: I grew up in a 200-square-foot house, with five siblings and our parents in Rafah Camp in Gaza. The street was my living room, my study area, and where I played. As a child, I had never seen a baseball field, a swimming pool, or the cinema.

[UNRWA USA]: How was UNRWA present in your life? Could you share some memories from your childhood related to UNRWA's food assistance program, in particular?

A young Mohammed, Rafah, the Gaza Strip

A young Mohammed, Rafah, the Gaza Strip

[Mohammed]: I remember the excitement I felt as a child when my father returned home from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Social Service and Supply Center with our family’s monthly assistance package. He would be carrying heavy bags, and the sense of relief I felt that we once again had food and medicine made me hug his legs until he nearly toppled over. I still remember that package, stocked with oil, flour, lentils, rice, and sugar.

On that day, my mom would bake bread, and we would dunk it in sweetened tea. Sugar was a privilege and we were only allowed it once a week. My father always offered bread slices to the rest of the family before taking his share. Those days when we received our food package always felt lighter than other days. We sat at the table together as a family for a long time, our stomachs full and our daily anxiety lifted – at least for the time being. I dipped my bread all the way down to the bottom of my tea, soaking it completely until the tea was dripping all over my hand. My mom would get upset, but I would look at my dad, and he would just smile.

[UNRWA USA]: You are currently in the US studying for a dual master's degree. Clearly, education has been an important part of your life for some time. Can you share with us what it was like to go to school in Gaza and how you see education as a lifeline?

[Mohammed]: For nine years, I attended a local school for refugees run by UNRWA. The building consisted of a few classrooms built from corrugated metal; it was freezing cold in winter, scorching hot in summer. I studied English and learned computer skills without access to an actual computer. Music and physical education would have been a luxury. I liked my school a lot. Teachers used games to teach us and encouraged us to build teams. I felt a strong sense of belonging. I felt the teachers really cared about us.

My life changed when UNRWA offered my father a teaching job with a monthly salary of $400. Because of that job, my father was able to send me to Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. I had the choice to study anything I wanted, and I chose English language because I wanted to be able to communicate with people around the world. Upon graduation, I joined 1,800 other Palestinians in applying for an UNRWA job program and was one of just 110 to be accepted.

Mohammed speaking at a Rotary meeting in the US in 2017. He is in the US studying for his master's degree through a Rotary Fellowship.

Mohammed speaking at a Rotary meeting in the US in 2017. He is in the US studying for his master's degree through a Rotary Fellowship.

[UNRWA USA]: During the 2014 Israeli military assault in Gaza, you went from receiving UNRWA food assistance to being one of those delivering it. Can you tell us about that experience?

[Mohammed]: During the 2014 Israel military assault on Gaza, I joined UNRWA’s emergency response program. Our role was to evacuate civilians from the bombed areas and host them at refugee shelters run by UNRWA. We also provided emergency assistance to fellow refugees who were targeted by the random aerial bombings. Victims were civilians of all ages, and the bombing was indiscriminate. We even lost many UNRWA staff members while on duty. 

[UNRWA USA]: That's really tragic, and we're so sorry to hear of all you've been through. Can you share with us how this experience shaped your current educational and professional aspirations?

[Mohammed]: After the assault ended, UNRWA invited many international experts to provide training courses and workshops to develop the staff response skills during the rise of conflict in Palestine. One of the international trainers admired my dedication and hard work and advised me to apply for a graduate fellowship he was familiar with in the United States. He promised to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I received that fellowship. Today I live in North Carolina where I am studying Global Studies and International Development through a joint program at the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

My goal is to learn how to improve emergency response efforts for victims around the world. When I look in the mirror, I still see that same unkempt little boy from the camps I was growing up, I cannot forget that I made it so far due to the support of UNRWA humanitarian assistance. Today I’m here to carry on this mission, to research and study new ways to help and support crisis victims, to help bring their sufferings' to an end.

[UNRWA USA]: As someone who is well versed with UNRWA's work, what is your message to Americans who do not have a sense of its impact and role in your life and the life of the average Palestine refugee in Gaza?

[Mohammed]: I’m proud to have the chance to work with UNRWA, the largest humanitarian platform in the Middle East. If it wasn’t for UNRWA, children and women would starve to death. Young men would lose hope and get caught in a vicious circle of violence. A whole generation would grow up without proper education. For all of those, UNRWA is the only hope in that part of the world.


Mohammed receiving a certificate of gratitude by Bo Schack, Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza Strip, due to his contributions to the agency.

Mohammed receiving a certificate of gratitude by Bo Schack, Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza Strip, due to his contributions to the agency.

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Meet Ghassan Salameh: UNRWA USA's new board chair

Meet Ghassan Salameh: UNRWA USA's new board chair

The UNRWA USA board of directors announced that after 8 years of dedicated service and outstanding leadership as the chair, Ambassador (ret.) Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. has been appointed chair emeritus. The board elected Ghassan Salameh as the new chair, succeeding Ambassador Wilcox in that role.

Though Ghassan has been a member of the UNRWA USA board for six years, his connection with UNRWA runs far deeper. Recently, Ghassan spent time with our staff to share more of his personal story.

Ghassan’s family was one of the tens of thousands of Palestinian families dispossessed from their home and made refugees during the Nakba in 1948.

His family fled to Lebanon, and like many Palestinian families faced years of very difficult conditions. The early years were especially hard, extended family members squeezed together in one room and struggled to make a living. His family's problems were further exacerbated by his father's tragic accident, leaving him blind and unable to work. Under these challenges circumstances, UNRWA served as his family's lifeline.

UNRWA provided a monthly allotment of food, healthcare services, and most importantly, an education. For his elementary and middle school years, he attended UNRWA's Carmel School in Al Hadath, a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Many of the students at his school were bused from the neighboring Palestinian refugee camps. He graduated in 1968, followed by high school at the Vatican sponsored Pontifical Mission for Palestine refugees in Dbayeh refugee camp. His last year of high school, he attended the Lebanese Evangelical School for Boys. 

Ghassan's UNRWA school: Carmel School Al Hadath, Lebanon

Ghassan's UNRWA school: Carmel School Al Hadath, Lebanon

"My formative memories from my childhood years all come back to UNRWA and the critical role it played in our lives,” reflects Ghassan. "My family is successful today because of what UNRWA did for us then when we had no one else. My three brothers and I are all UNRWA graduates. Without UNRWA, people like me wouldn’t be where they are."

And though 'where they are,' physically translates to scattered across the world, Ghassan and his former UNRWA classmates still remain in touch. From Australia to Canada to the Middle East, they remain connected through a Facebook group where they update each other on recent events, share photos, and reflect on childhood memories.

Each year, they hold a reunion, and this year, more than a dozen of them came together in Las Vegas, Nevada. While they say what happens in Vegas stays there, Ghassan couldn’t help but share his happiness in the opportunity to see old friends. He said what was most rewarding was to see all of his UNRWA classmates now, successful within their own fields, and with families of their own. He proudly commented that the emphasis on the importance of education was a value they all passed on to their children.

Ghassan came to the United States when he was 20 years old and received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from the California State University-Sacramento and an MBA, focusing on marketing and finance, from the University of San Francisco. From there, he rose through the ranks of Booz Allen from Associate to the coveted position of Senior Partner. Since retiring from Booz Allen, he has held senior management positions at top global companies and is currently the Chairman and CEO of Rubix Holdings, a technology and investment company that has just launched its first two global social media platforms, with more on the way.

The embodiment of the ‘American dream,’ Ghassan is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He credits his success to his family, UNRWA, and many other people and institutions who helped him along the way. Consequently, he has dedicated much of his time, energy, and resources, to giving back to those who supported him and especially to the Palestinian community with a dual focus on education and health.

Ghassan has done so through his work as an UNRWA USA board member since 2012 and most recently, through an upcoming campaign and fundraiser through the Bethlehem University Foundation entitled "The Way to Bethlehem.” On May 15, 2018, Ghassan will embark on a 40-day pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, as a way to raise awareness for Bethlehem University, draw attention to the issues of freedom of movement facing Palestinians, and highlight the importance of access to education.

When asked about the challenges he foresees UNRWA facing and his focus as board chair for UNRWA USA in the coming year, he advises: 

UNRWA has always struggled to keep its funding, but this year is a much greater struggle — it is a major crisis. Without international, especially American support, millions of refugees will be impacted, and those who will be impacted most are children. Food, health, and education are fundamental and when the lives of children are at stake, we must set aside politics and focus on what is important.

Ghassan's impressive business background and personal connection with UNRWA provide greater insight to our work. His service to the board has and will continue to be instrumental to UNRWA USA's growth. We look forward to the continued guidance and leadership Ghassan will provide our board and staff as we continue to grow as an organization in our pursuit of improving the lives of Palestine refugees.

From Palestine to Syria to Ohio: Dr. Yanes' Story

From Palestine to Syria to Ohio: Dr. Yanes' Story

I know very well what UNRWA does and have reaped the fruits of its efforts. Thanks to it I am here to say these words.
— Dr. Basel Yanes

Dr. Basel Yanes was born in Beit Dajan, a village outside of Yaffa, Palestine, in 1947. In 1948, his family, like over 750,000 Palestinians, were forced to flee their home and become refugees. Displaced, his family left for Syria, and Dr. Yanes grew up in Damascus, where, as a newborn he joined other refugees who had lost everything upon leaving Palestine.

Syria was markedly different in his youth -- unimaginable to most given the destruction and horrors that have grasped the country since the start of the civil war in 2011. He recalls Damascus wistfully, recalling it was a "quaint cultural city with good universities having a drastically smaller population of around 500,000." His father was able to get a job within two years at UNRWA, and ultimately rose through the ranks to become the Director of the Southern District in Syria.

While his family did not live in the refugee camps, he had many friends and family that did in Syria. He clearly recalls a center run by UNRWA that distributed lunches to Palestine refugees and remembers as a child standing in line eager for daily rations.

Young Dr. Yanes, alongside his family in Damascus, Syria

Young Dr. Yanes, alongside his family in Damascus, Syria

With a deep sigh, Dr. Yanes says, “UNRWA helped us survive. My father’s job helped us survive.”

Soon after his father was employed by UNRWA, he was bringing home an income that covered their family’s basic necessities. Upon finishing high school at the free public school, Dr. Yanes (then, just Basel) applied and received an UNRWA scholarship to attend university and medical school.

“If I didn’t have the UNRWA scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school at the University of Damascus and be where I am today,” he confidently states.

After medical school, Dr. Yanes went to the US to complete residency at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, and then went on to do a fellowship in hematology and oncology at Ohio State University Hospital. He completed his fellowship in 1976 and has called Dayton, Ohio home since then.

Dr. Yanes is a proud Palestinian-American and an asset and leader to his community:

For nearly 50 years I have been a proud, loyal, and committed American citizen. As a cancer specialist I dedicate my life to my community and patients.
— Dr. Yanes

This is exemplified by his impressive contributions to the medical field and his Ohio community. He has and continues to work in private practice and is president of the DBA Dayton Blood and Cancer Center in Dayton. In the past, he served as the President of the Medical Oncology Hematology Associates, and today he imparts his wisdom and knowledge to others by teaching as a Clinical Professor at Wright State University.

When asked about his identity, especially in a time that politics, identity, and immigration are on the forefront of the public mind, he continues: “I feel fortunate to be able to straddle two worlds by growing up in the Middle East and spending much of my life in this country [America], I had the opportunity to have both cultures shape the man I am today.”

Dr. Yanes with his family in August, 2016 on his 70th birthday

Dr. Yanes with his family in August, 2016 on his 70th birthday

While much of Dr. Yanes’s extended family is dispersed around the world, following the start of the war in Syria, stateside, he is the proud father of three children and grandfather to one girl, all of whom live in various cities in the US.

As a father and grandfather, he speaks with concern about Palestine refugee youth and states with a heavy heart:

I look at the Palestinian children, forgotten under unbearable conditions. They bear hunger, disease, oppression, and despair. The hand extended to them by organizations like UNRWA soothes their wounds and gives them hope. It rekindles their belief in humanity. I look at them and hope they will have the opportunities I had. One day, I know they will grow up and serve to create greater peace and humanity. My message to the US government? Do not let politics kill their hopes and shatter their dreams.

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.

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!

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!