Why it's important to do more for West Asia's refugee children

Refugees are often perceived as a burden. But UNRWA graduates have gone on to make invaluable contributions to their communities and economies, becoming teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists

By Philippe Lazzarini

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Photo: UNHCR
Photo: UNHCR

Published: Mon 13 Feb 2023, 9:55 PM

For nearly 75 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has been delivering education to refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Beyond enabling refugees to continue learning, UNRWA provides them with a safe haven — a place where they can escape the conflict, violence, and deepening economic crises that shape their everyday reality. But our ability to meet refugee children’s needs is being increasingly constrained, for a tragically simple reason: lack of money.

The only UN agency running a full-fledged school system, UNRWA, offers students a chance to reach their potential. Since 1950, more than two million refugees have graduated from UNRWA schools, which, in the 1960s, were among the first schools in the Middle East to achieve gender parity. And we continue to play a vital role in the region’s education system: some 550,000 Palestinian children currently learn in more than 700 UNRWA-run schools.


Refugees are often perceived as a burden. But UNRWA graduates have gone on to make invaluable contributions to their communities and economies, becoming teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists. One alumnus controlled a drone helicopter that skimmed the surface of Mars. Moreover, every year, our vocational and training centres provide 8,000 young people with the skills they need to become sought after in the labour market.

Simply put, UNRWA provides quality and inclusive education that enables refugees to live dignified, productive lives. And it does so under the most difficult of circumstances. In Syria, UNRWA schools have remained open, and counselors have offered psychosocial support to children, even in the most tumultuous periods of the country’s civil war.


UNRWA schools also act as refuges. In the West Bank and Lebanon, they are sanctuaries for children enduring harsh living conditions. As Jana, a ten-year-old girl living in the Al-Arroub refugee camp in the West Bank, put it, “School is like a second home. It’s the only place where we can have fun, learn, and meet friends.” In Gaza, schools are transformed into shelters in times of conflict.

Moreover, UNRWA schools seek to foster respect for human rights, peaceful conflict resolution, tolerance, and critical thinking. For example, in 2001, UNRWA established school parliaments. From helping to resolve conflicts between students to engaging their community and representing students in discussions with school administration, our 28,000 student parliamentarians — including Jana — are advancing the interests and education of their peers, while gaining firsthand experience in responsible citizenship. Dozens of UNRWA schools connect every year with their counterparts on different continents to collaborate on global challenges like protecting the environment.

UNRWA is also working to modernise its curricula in line with global trends toward digitalisation and connectivity. Our Strategy on Information and Communication Technologies for Education (ICT4E), launched last year, aims to close the technology gap by providing tablets to students, increasing access to the internet, and introducing ICT/computer classes to provide the skills graduates need to compete in local, regional, and global job markets.

The value of UNRWA’s work is indisputable. But chronic underfunding is restricting our ability to do it. Already, Palestinian refugee children too often learn in schools with inadequate facilities. Their classrooms are overcrowded, and they learn in double shifts. They lack access to recreational spaces or equipment, and often even to basic needs like food, clean water, electricity, and the Internet. Many cannot afford transportation to and from school. And, though trauma is widespread, the psychosocial support we offer is often insufficient.

Refugee children — one of the world’s most underprivileged populations — deserve better. UNRWA needs reliable and sustained funding to cover the monthly salaries of more than 20,000 teachers and other education personnel, and invest in continuous training of teachers. We need funding to make up the learning losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, support children’s psychosocial health and well-being, and provide the appropriate resources and facilities, from science labs to playgrounds. And we need funding to adapt our schools to the digital age and pioneer new programmes.

There is perhaps no worthier investment. Funding UNRWA’s educational programme is tantamount to investing in a better future — for refugee children, their families, their communities, and a region in turmoil.

(Philippe Lazzarini is Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East)

— Project Syndicate


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