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UNRWA isn't just a relief agency, it's a symbol of the Nakba

UNRWA isn't just a relief agency, it's a symbol of the Nakba
4 min read
Jordan - Amman
19 February, 2024
For 75 years, UNRWA has been a vital lifeline to the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees living in exile and has become synonymous with their right to return.

Ahmad Saqr is an Arabic school teacher. He has a daily routine that involves waking up at six in the morning and walking through the tangled alleys in the Al-Hosn Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. He walks to the blue-painted UNRWA school, passing by the UNRWA Supplies Center, which used to provide flour and relief until the 1990s. Nowadays, it provides help only to the poorest cases.

Ahmad is one of two million registered Palestinian refugees living in Jordan. "UNWRA is a lifeline for Palestinian refugees here," Ahmad told The New Arab. "It's formed a part of our identity and struggle.

"UNWRA isn't just about relief, it's a reminder of what the Israeli occupation has done to our people. It's an international certificate of forced displacement and our right to return to our homeland," Ahmad said defiantly.

UNRWA offers education and healthcare services to approximately 30,000 Palestinian refugees residing in Al-Hosn camp. They depend entirely on UNRWA, which over the years has been forced to reduce its services both in terms of quality and quantity. 

Squeezing life out of UNRWA

Nasr Khaled, a young Palestinian living in Al-Hosn refugee camp, told The New Arab that the "blue flag above the schools is a sign of resistance and a compass that reminds me that 'living here is only temporary'. By stopping funding [to UNRWA], the United States has buckled under pressure from Israel to 'kill the witness' and our right of return."

But Palestinians in Jordan refuse to lose hope. At Al-Hosn refugee camp, 100 kilometres north of Amman, young men from the third and fourth generations after the Nakba are creating symbols for their right to return on the UNRWA school by drawing keys of the homes from which their ancestors were displaced in 1948 and 1967.

There are 5.9 million Palestinian refugees eligible for UNWRA services [photo credit: Mohammad Ersan]

The initiative was launched to reiterate how "UNRWA isn't just a relief agency or a source of employment, it bears witness to systematic displacement of the Palestinian people," says Rakan Mahmoud, former president of the Karmel Club in Al-Hosn camp. "That's why Israel wants to destroy it."

Keeping UNRWA alive

UNWRA offers various services to Jordan's two million Palestinian refugees, including education, health, and rehabilitation programs for women and people with disabilities. The education sector is the most extensive service that UNRWA provides in Jordan, and it serves 122 thousand students in 169 schools.

In 2011, UNRWA faced financial difficulties and attempted to reduce its support for rehabilitation programs and centres for women and people with disabilities.

This decision alarmed Iman Abu Khairan, a Palestinian refugee, and many other Palestinian women in the Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan. They put pressure on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) to continue supporting these projects.

Baqa'a camp is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan [photo credit: Mohammad Ersan]

Since the 1950s, UNRWA has established women's centres and centres for persons with disabilities and their families in 13 of Jordan’s 24 refugee camps. These centres include 14 centres for women's programs and 10 centres for community rehabilitation for the disabled.

Iman and other women in the camps took action by painting these centres blue and raising the UNRWA flag on them. They organised frequent sit-ins to urge the agency not to abandon these vital centres. Iman emphasised to The New Arab that "We want to send a message that the decision to abandon these centres is not your decision."

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Palestinian refugees base their right to return on the UN General Assembly Resolution No.194 issued on December 11 1948, which stipulates the right of return for Palestinian refugees and to be compensated for their losses. 

Today, Palestinian refugees living in Jordan say that the struggle to keep UNRWA alive is an existential one, done in defence of their right to return to the cities that they and their ancestors left in 1948 and 1967. 

For 5.9 million Palestinian refugees, the survival of UNRWA means keeping the dream of returning to Palestine alive.

Mohammad Ersan is a freelance journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Radio Al-Balad and His work has been published in Al-Monitor and Middle East Eye.

Follow him on X: @JournalistErsan