The US is gambling with the future of half a million kids in the Middle East

The US is gambling with the future of half a million kids in the Middle East
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The humanitarian situation is getting worse in the Gaza Strip and throughout the Middle East, as the United States continues to withhold critical assistance from Palestinian refugees by freezing funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Families are running out of food, health clinics are in danger of closing, and UNRWA security officers are being laid off. The hundreds of thousands of young girls who attend UNRWA schools — a system that since the 1960s has achieved gender parity — are at risk of losing their education if there’s no money for teachers.

Failing to follow through on its historical commitment to support this vulnerable community, of which it has been the single largest donor for nearly 70 years, means that the U.S. will be responsible for denying the basic human rights of a generation or more of refugee children. Instead, America must demonstrate that it holds dear the notion that no marginalized community is more important or worthy than the next.

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While the U.S. withholds $300 million in funding for Palestinian refugees, putting people’s health, education, and ability to become increasingly financially independent on the line, a few other countries have advanced their planned contributions. But rather than fill the large void the U.S. is leaving, others are waiting for leadership from the U.S., and to follow whatever model it sets.

 

In 1950, UNRWA began operations caring for Palestinian refugees. Seven decades later, there are more than 5 million of these refugees living throughout the Middle East, including nearly half a million in Syria where the conflict has rendered many of them refugees twice, if not three times, over.

Yet due in part to the services provided by UNRWA, they have hope for the future. The agency works across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Gaza Strip to provide health care, education, food assistance, and vocational training programs. The agency manages over 140 health centers providing maternal health and an immunization rate of 99 percent.

Though UNRWA’s 700 schools educating 525,000 children are often in conflict-ridden and unstable environments, its system is one of the highest achieving public school systems in the Middle East. Its microfinance loan program enables refugees, especially female-headed families, to develop economic independence. These services provide critical public health and other life-saving interventions that no other agency, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), could fulfill. 

UNRWA’s mandate through the UN General Assembly is to care for Palestinian refugees until a just and lasting solution to the conflict is found. As a humanitarian agency, a solution to the politics is not something UNRWA can provide or impact. It is intentionally outside of its scope of work. So, UNRWA will continue its mandate to provide for these refugees until the countries of the world direct the agency otherwise.

But UNRWA needs money to do it. The U.S. government has been UNRWA’s partner for decades and has always made good on its word. It is part of the American legacy abroad to care for those in need. More than 100 members of Congress sent a letter to President Trump urging him “to continue vital U.S. contributions” to UNRWA.

UNRWA relies on the U.S. government’s funds, and makes budgetary decisions based on what has been pledged as a dependable commitment. If the U.S. government fails to commit the $300 million still remaining in order to match the $360 million contribution it made last year, not only are UNRWA’s operations threatened, millions of lives are impacted, and the stability of an already volatile region is put at risk.

When I visit UNRWA schools, the children I meet tell me about their dreams to see the Statue of Liberty, to attend universities, to become the doctors and engineers who will transform their communities. We must foster these dreams, not shutter them. The alternatives are far worse. If we neglect their education and health, this generation will fall through the cracks. At worst, they will become victims to the violence that surrounds them.

With American support, UNRWA will continue to deliver critical services and advocate for the rights of Palestinian refugees. Just as all of us do, they deserve a fair chance at a bright future. Their humanity is our humanity, and we cannot move forward as a country and as a people, if we leave those most vulnerable behind.

Abby Smardon is executive director of UNRWA USA.