School an oasis of calm for refugees in Jordanian camp

Unrwa will have to launch a supreme effort to make up for the lack of US funds

A celebratory welcome for Khlifa bin Jassim al-Kuwari, director of the Qatar Fund for Development, which donated €43m to finance schools such as the Baqa’a elementary school in Jordan

A celebratory welcome for Khlifa bin Jassim al-Kuwari, director of the Qatar Fund for Development, which donated €43m to finance schools such as the Baqa’a elementary school in Jordan

 

After we lose our way in narrow, steep alleyways strewn with broken stones and walled by windowless two-storey homes, two little lads offer to guide us to the Baqa’a elementary school for boys for the celebratory opening of the school year.

We barge through tight traffic past second-hand clothes stalls, pollution-blackened car repair garages and an ancient sewing machine, its operator awaiting mending jobs. This choked, congested, overpopulated urban camp is Jordan’s largest for Palestinian refugees. Housing 119,000, it was established in 1968 for Palestinians driven from their homes after Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Within the spacious, tidy school compound, scores of little boys wave Qatar’s dark red and white flags to greet Khlifa bin Jassim al-Kuwari, director of the Qatar Fund for Development, which donated $50 million (€43 million) to finance Unrwa schools during this year of crisis. The agency’s Jordan director, Roger Davies, emphasises the importance of the occasion by saying for Palestinian refugees “education is held above all [other] human rights.”

Harsh confines

Girls in bright red, green and yellow dresses perform a Qatari dance in honour of the guests from the Gulf and blue and white balloons lift into the clear blue sky above the harsh confines of Baqa’a as the Qatari delegation prepares to leave.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Unrwa commissioner general Pierre Krähenbühl says at the beginning of 2018 the agency’s shortfall was $146 million. After the US cancelled $300 million of $364 million the figure became $446 million.

In response the agency launched a global campaign to expand its funding base. India has increased its donation from $1million to $5 million. Indonesia and Malaysia have increased their contributions. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have each contributed $50 million. “There is genuine solidarity [with Unrwa] because of the US stance,” says Krähenbühl.

During a meeting convened on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney added €1.5 million to the €6 million Ireland had already pledged – which already included an increased contribution of €1 million. Krähenbühl says in total an additional $122 million was raised during the general assembly. This leaves $64 million to be secured for 2018, if the agency is to maintain current services.

During 2019 Unrwa will have to launch a supreme effort to make up for the lack of the US contribution at a time donors have other crises to fund. Krähenbühl says Unrwa must avert cuts that would force it to reduce the number of children in its schools from 500,000 to 400,000.

He argues it is essential to keep schools open as their “grounds are the only protected areas where refugee children can think about things. In addition to learning, schools provide release from pressures and a certain degree of normalcy” for children living in cramped conditions.

In the same vein, Unrwa’s health centres supply more than medical care, he points out. “They serve as social and community centres” for refugees.

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