By Middle East Affairs
An elementary school run by a UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which also provides trauma counseling fears that U.S.threats to cut its funding will leave children with little to no hope for the future.
In Taalabaya, Lebanon, 10-year-old Sarah has come a long after narrowly escaping the Syrian war five years ago. She is the star pupil in her class and loves learning, she also has bright hopes for the future, that would certainly be made all that much harder if her school has to close down.
Sarah’s family is one of five million Palestinian refugees and their children who were forced to flee from their ancestral homes in Palestine during the 1948 war that spurred Israel’s creation. Most families have settled in West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, even generations later some are still refereed considered refugees awaiting their return home.
The family chose not to give their last name for security reasons as they have been through a lot since they become refugees for a second time when they had to escape their home after it was bombed with a rocket in 2013 during the Syrian civil war.
UNRWA, the oldest and largest UN relief program in the Middle East runs Sarah’s school in Jafna Elementary School, which is also a community lifeline for families. UNRWA which is in danger of shutting down its services, offers health care, education, and social services to millions of refugees who have been displaced multiple times by the ongoing crises in the region.
UNRWA funding was supposed to be $125 million but President Trump announced it was cutting out $65 million of its funding for Palestine. It then gave $60 million so the agency wouldn’t immediately shut down but vowed that any more funding would only be provided if the agency went through reforms. U.S. ally, Israel has accused UNRWA numerous times of continuing the conflict by supporting Palestine’s right of return, at the same time President Trump has accused Palestinians of their lack of cooperation in progressing the Mideast peace plan.
When the funding cuts were announced, other countries pledged $100 million for funding for next year, but that money won’t be enough as UNRWA is still missing the $350 million needed to continue operating.
The UNRWA’s chief education program officer in Lebanon, Salem Dib said,
“If the financial crisis continues, there are no guarantees that we will be able to start next year’s school year. There are dangers regarding continuity of education for all Palestinian refugees, whether they are from Lebanon or from Syria.”
Currently 36, 000 children study at the 66 UNRWA schools in Lebanon, out of those children 5,500 have been forced to flee from Syria after the war began in 2011.
It is extremely difficult for Palestinian children to go to public schools because they are already at maximum capacity with Syrian refugees.
Aware of the dire conditions of the situation international donors promised $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring countries in 2018, however, this is still $7 billion less than the United Nations needs to carry out its work.
Lebanon itself is in a crisis, and faces tremendous economic downturns, making life that much harder for refugees in Lebanon. Refugees face growing hostility from political parties whose support for the Syrian government is growing. As their support for President Assad grows stronger, so does their message that Syrian refugees go home, almost impossible considering that living conditions in Syria that have destroyed cities, wiped out homes, and left almost nothing of the country’s infrastructure in place.
Sarah’s family hopes that she can get a scholarship that would allow the family to leave Lebanon and find a home someplace safer. The family of five has lived through a lot, they remember the heavy shelling that covered them in dust and shook their house in Damascus.
Ghadir, Sarah’s father remembers, “When I saw my wife and children covered with dust and shaking, I told myself we have to leave.”
Now they live in a tent in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, Fatima, Sarah’s mom says,“If my children leave school they’ll be lost.”
Lebanon has offered them safety from the bombing in Syria, but not much else. The family’s sole source of income is the UN assistance, occasionally Ghadir gets work under the table in a restaurant. Once he tried to sell corn on the side of the road to earn much-needed income for his family but became scared when he saw Lebanese military storm the area, the consequences would have been severe if he was caught selling without a work permit.
With the help of a counselor at school, Sarah was able to find counseling for the trauma she suffered in war, experiences that many of her classmates have gone through as well.
Her counselor Samah Khalil says that the trauma makes it difficult for children to concentrate or interact with each other, Sarah was able to recover quickly.
Now she loves learning English and is excelling in school, the ten-year-old dreams of becoming a cardiologist when she grows up.
Samah said, “Sarah is a special student, she is the best in her class and she is loved by her classmates,” she said. “She is great in every aspect.”
The executive director of Educate A Child, Mary Joy Pigozzi, is in charge of providing psychological counseling in the UNRWA schools. Through the services that her organization offers, they try to grow the skills that young people need to become future leaders.
Pigozzi says, “Like Sarah, some of these children have had to overcome many difficult situations, which makes it even more important that we prioritize their educational opportunities. Access to quality education is a human right.”