UNRWA Commissioner-General Visits Syria, Commends the Courage and Determination of Palestine Refugees
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl visited Syria from 18 to 20 November 2017, meeting with Palestine refugees, UNRWA staff and senior government officials.
The primary feature was a visit to Khan Eshieh, on the outskirts of Damascus, one of the most embattled Palestine refugee camps in Syria, which sustained significant destruction and loss of life. The Commissioner-General met with UNRWA staff who had kept education, health-care and emergency relief programmes operational throughout the worst of the crisis affecting the camp in 2016. Under the extreme circumstances of conflict, UNRWA staff had taken extraordinary measures to protect installations, notably, the equipment of the camp’s health centre. They prevented looting from occurring, at great personal risk.
The security situation having now improved in and around the camp, UNRWA is rehabilitating some of its damaged installations and restoring the full range of its services.
Mr. Krähenbühl met with the wife of an UNRWA staff member, Mr. Husein Muhsen, killed during the confrontations and paid tribute to his remarkable years of service. Addressing UNRWA staff at the clinic, the Commissioner-General said: “I am deeply honoured to meet you and have an opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the unbelievable strength and courage you displayed under such difficult circumstances. You deserve the highest appreciation and respect.”
During a discussion at one of the UNRWA schools, three female students, Rama, Majd and Fidaa, spoke of the traumas they endured. Two lost their father during the conflict and the father of the third went missing. They expressed their determination to continue studying hard, dreaming to become engineers or lawyers and, despite the pain etched into their young faces, speaking warmly about the psychosocial support and education they receive.
In separate events in Damascus, the Commissioner-General met with a dozen students from the devastated Yarmouk camp, whom UNRWA had brought out, first to sit their exams and now to attend professional training in the Agency’s Technical and Vocational Training Centre. Mr. Krähenbühl heard how these young men and women had continued studying in Yarmouk even when electrify ran out, using the light of their mobile phones. He congratulated them on their extraordinary determination which symbolizes the resolve of Palestine refugees to study and preserve opportunities despite the most unfavorable and dramatic odds.
The Commissioner-General visited a job fair organized by UNRWA with companies interested in recruiting qualified youth graduating from two years of professional training. Providing employment opportunities for young students is a remarkable way of protecting livelihoods in the challenging Syrian conflict environment.
Hearing the testimonies of so many young Palestine refugees during this visit, the horrific cost of the conflict, the depth or the trauma and the need to relentlessly advocate for better protection of the rights of Palestine refugees was once again made abundantly clear. Respect for the rules of international humanitarian law must be vastly improved and assistance to these communities sustained and where possible increased.
The Commissioner-General met in Damascus with H.E. Dr. Faisal Miqdad, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and Mr. Ali Mustafa, Director-General of the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR).
These meetings were an important opportunity to discuss the situation of Palestine refugees in Syria, the need for ongoing steps to ensure their security and protection, as well as access to some of the delicate areas where Palestine refugees are located, such as Yarmouk. Mr. Krähenbühl noted with satisfaction the renewed access to Khan Eshieh and sought renewed cooperation on access to Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem. Mr. Krähenbühl expressed recognition for the support from the Syrian government that made 58 school buildings available for UNRWA education programme, as many of the Agency’s schools are damaged or not presently reachable.
The Commissioner-General also appealed for ongoing protection and respect for UNRWA staff, who face significant risks in their daily activities. This is a matter of utmost importance and UNRWA itself has taken several initiatives to strengthen its ability to support staff facing a diversity of security concerns.
The visit of the Commissioner-General to Khan Eshieh includes a message that Palestine refugees should not be forgotten at a time when a multiplicity of crises is affecting the Middle-East: “The world needs to hear the powerful and moving voices of this traumatized refugee community. They deserve respect, the preservation of their rights. Walking through the streets of Khan Eshieh, meeting students and staff, I felt so strongly the need to ensure, with all our energy, that nothing would allow interrupting our vital services to them.”
UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA Programme Budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s Programme Budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals.
UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.
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