OPINION | What it means to be a Palestinian refugee who needed the help of the UNRWA

OPINION | UNRWA still an essential humanitarian group

Imagine yourself as a child borrowing your brother's old jacket whenever you go in cold weather on a special trip out of your area. The same jacket would be borrowed by cousins for similar trips. Otherwise, you need to walk every day without a jacket for a mile to get to your elementary school.

That was the condition of my father and his family in a refugee camp in the West Bank in Palestine in the 1950s. Even an old jacket was a fortune in these difficult days when my grandmother discovered it inside a package of random second-hand clothes granted to them by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). That happened after they lost their ancestral land -- 500 acres in Beer Sheba -- in the 1948 war.

When the jacket was discovered, there was no need to trade it for another piece of clothing from other families because it fit my older uncle, who was very lucky to possess such a valuable item. Similar stories of borrowing or swapping clothing can be heard from many other Palestinian families (around 750,000) who were officially registered by the United Nations as refugees after the war.

Despite its limited resources, the UNRWA helped ease the pains of loss, poverty, weather, exile and alienation. My father benefited from studying in the UNRWA schools, received vaccinations from its doctors, visited its clinics whenever he felt sick, and ate from its relief (food) packages.

The UNRWA was -- and is still -- a very essential humanitarian resource that rescued refugees from starvation. It is a mercy from the fortunate to their fellow humans who are less fortunate in that blessed land. The limited basic food items provided by the UNRWA helped refugees to survive for years. They used to receive portions of things such as flour, lentil, frying oil, sugar, canned fish and dry milk that were distributed based on the age and size of the refugee families who were officially registered. Without such help, my father and other children who were in elementary schools or younger would have never studied or survived.

Many Palestinians are still living in difficulties especially in refugee camps (total of 61) in Palestine and in surrounding countries -- Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. These camps are overcrowded and lack many basic services. The survival of these refugees depends mainly on the international support to the UNRWA that runs schools, clinics and food/nutrition programs. Even outside the refugee camps, the underfunded UNRWA struggles to support Palestinians who suffer generational poverty, alienation and discrimination.

Around 70% of the population of Gaza are refugees who were forced to leave their lands in 1948 and 1967. Many are becoming refugee families for a third time in the current war. Tens of thousands are living now in the United Nations UNRWA schools that host families instead of students and teachers. Families share classrooms and sleep on the floor. If lucky, perhaps one would find a thin foam mattress or a blanket or some cardboard to sleep on.

All children who survived the bombardment are already underfed, and food and water are rationed to the minimum, just to keep them alive. Palestinians now are sharing the last bits of the UNRWA food, and many have already begun to eat animal food, grinding chicken and sheep fodder for bread. Rain and cold increase the suffering, and the spread of disease is on the rise with the collapse of the medical system and the deteriorating condition of hygiene facilities.

This is the disaster the UNRWA is struggling to alleviate. But at this critical time, UNRWA is abandoned by its larger donors. This intentional neglect of millions is very dangerous and catastrophic, and jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children, women and seniors is inhumane.

The resilience of Palestinians is beyond amazing, and their hope for a better life is astonishing. As my late father taught us, "hope is always there." But help is needed now. As my father used to help the less fortunate with whatever means he had, I'm sure fellow humans who are blessed with tender hearts will help. I appeal to your mercy and compassion to help before it is too late.

"Whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity" (The Quran 5:32).

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