From the battlegrounds of the Middle East come exemplary stories of courage and resolve that we must all listen to and learn from.
Batoul, a 14-year-old Palestine refugee, has known conflict and war for much of her life. During her flight from Syria, her father and brother were killed. When I met her in Ein el-Hillweh camp in Lebanon I was moved beyond words. Despite the trauma she suffered, she was the highest-performing student in her school. In tragedy she preserved dignity and she drew energy from despair: “Education is what gives me hope,” she said.
Batoul exemplifies how deeply Palestinians value learning and developing skills, often against all odds, and how they seek to rebuild after so much loss.
As the World Humanitarian Summit begins in Istanbul, there are many lessons that leaders and participants can draw from Batoul’s story. None is more important than renewed political action to resolve armed conflicts. Nothing will make a greater difference to Batoul and other Palestine refugees – not to mention millions of other civilians – than bringing about political solutions to their plight.
Batoul’s experience also highlights the immense value of investing in humanity. The summit will emphasize the importance of leaving no one behind and yet it will take very hard work to ensure all children can exercise their right to education, even in contexts of conflict and crises.
As workers on the ground, we are all too aware of the size of the challenge. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides education to 500,000 Palestinian girls and boys in 692 schools in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Batoul’s story is also the story of the specialists, teachers and school principals on the front lines. I have the deepest respect for their determination and dedication. They operate in some of the most challenging environments one can imagine and we in UNRWA have lost too many colleagues in recent years: 16 in Syria, since the conflict began, with 28 missing, and 11 in Gaza.
At the Istanbul summit, UNRWA is unveiling a new report whose findings are deeply disturbing. Our study, “Schools on the Frontline,” reveals that 44 percent of UNRWA’s 692 schools across the Middle East – that’s a staggering 302 – have been directly impacted by conflict and violence in the past five years.
In Syria, at least 70 percent of 118 UNRWA schools have at some stage of the war been rendered inoperative, either because they were impacted by violence or because we have used them as centers to house the displaced.
Our report is equally bleak about the impact of conflict on UNRWA schools in the occupied Palestinian territory: 83 UNRWA school buildings were damaged during the 2014 Gaza conflict; 90 UNRWA school buildings were used as designated emergency shelters for almost 300,000 displaced Palestinians, including at least 150,000 children. Six of these school buildings were struck by artillery shells or other munitions, causing deaths and injuries. Weapons components were placed by armed groups in three other schools.
In the West Bank, UNRWA’s delivery of education services after nearly half a century of Israeli occupation has been facing increasing challenges in a context marked by Israeli security force operations, including the frequent use of tear gas, student delays at checkpoints and school closures. This has been exacerbated with the upsurge in violence since last October. I join the U.N. secretary-general in condemning attacks on all civilians.
As for Lebanon, periodic outbreaks of violence have forced 36 UNRWA schools to suspend classes for up to a week at a time on different occasions. More than 50 percent of all our schools in the country have been impacted at one time or another.
Yet we remain undaunted. In Syria we are still able to offer daily classes to some 45,000 students, many of whom achieve results above the national average. Through our innovative “education in emergency” program we deliver classes to more than 50,000 children in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, through UNRWA TV broadcasts and interactive distance-learning modules.
In Gaza, the majority of our schools for a quarter of a million children reopened within weeks of the 2014 war ending. And as in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, hundreds of specifically trained psychosocial counselors work with deeply traumatized children.
At the summit, we will highlight UNRWA’s major investment in dignity, human development and a measure of stability for Palestine refugees, who represent 40 percent of those in the world’s protracted refugee situations.
Development action and emergency aid, expected to be a big theme at the summit, live side by side under one roof in UNRWA. Our teachers become shelter managers during times of crisis and later return to being teachers. Combining relief, social services, healthcare and education enables UNRWA to look at young Batoul not only as a victim of injustice and violence but also as an actor of her own destiny, with a contribution to make in life.
At the summit, we will join initiatives such as the “grand bargain” on humanitarian financing between donors and humanitarian organizations in a collective effort to work together more efficiently and effectively and deepen the resource base for humanitarian action including for Palestine refugees.
The U.N. secretary-general has underlined that the necessary means need to be mobilized to preserve and improve our investment in education for hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugee children. It is their future and their humanity that is at stake and, as his report reminds us, there is but “one humanity.”
Batoul has shown the courage to act. We must act equally decisively to help her and hundreds of thousands of UNRWA students realize the dreams they are working so hard to keep alive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.