UNRWA and UNHCR: From hopelessness to hope

UNRWA could use its resources to create a better future instead of relegating the descendants of the 1948 war to another generation in limbo.

July 27, 2011 22:26
3 minute read.
Chile Flag

Chilean Flag 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

There are 1.6 million people in the Gaza Strip, most of them in UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency) “refugee” camps.

With support from more than 35 major Western democracies, UNRWA could be dealing with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip from a strictly humanitarian point of view, and not as a political organization that maintains refugees in “temporary”camps for 63 years under the promise of return to villages from 1948 that no longer exist.

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Could UNRWA provide humanitarian aid without considering the politics? Seeking an answer, we traveled to Chile.

Chile is the first nation to welcome Palestinian refugees and rehabilitate them through a program administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Under this program, Palestinians in Chile received refugee status, with all the relevant rights and privileges.

UNHCR helps Palestinians leave the UNRWA refugee camps and settle in better conditions.

In Chile we met a community of Palestinian refugee families, established by UNHCR, and we also met UNHCR representative Fabio Varoli.

The refugee families lived in Palestine until 1948, when they moved to Iraq. They got special privileges when Sadam Hussein was dictator; but after his regime fell, they suffered from threats, torture and isolation. As a result, most moved to the Iraq–Syria border, where they lived in UNRWA refugee camps.

The Chilean government sent delegates to these camps and offered the Palestinians a rehabilitation plan. In 2008, thousands were transferred from Iraq to Chile.

The Palestinian Refugees Rehabilitation Plan in Chile was the result of a presidential decree implemented by the Chilean government. The government helped refugees once they arrived, giving them a chance to build a better life there. The VIARICA organization also participated in the project, which found widespread support among Chilean citizens.

Varoli spoke about the warm welcome given to the refugees, which included comprehensive media coverage. As part of the rehabilitation plan, the refugees received a grant to buy an apartment, find a job and classes to learn the local language. They also underwent a social process that helped them create a productive life in their new home.

Currently, there are thousands of rehabilitated refugees in the original community, and it is the largest outside the Arab world.

Even when their rehabilitation plan ends, they can still receive help. But most of them do not really need it. As a result of the rehabilitation plan’s integrating them into Chilean society, most are able to earn a respectable living.

The Chilean government gives them all the rights of foreign residents. Most work in restaurants, supermarkets, stores, and as teachers in Muslim schools.

When we visited the Hamlam family’s restaurant, we saw a reflection of their lives as Palestinians: Arabic food, pictures of mosques, even a flag of Palestine.

The restaurant is a popular place, and from everything we saw, the Hamlam family seems to have succeeded in building a new and better life in Chile.

They have formal documents from the Republic of Chile (Cedula de Identidat Etranjero) recognizing them as residents.

This document is valid for five years. In a year, they are supposed to get a Refugee Certificate, and after seven years they will receive full citizenship.

Varoli added: “Chile was the first state to welcome the Palestinian refugees, and became an example for other nations that did not accept refugees in the past. Now other nations are willing to welcome them, following Chile’s example. In addition, this successful project is a good example of collaboration between the Chilean government and the citizens of Chile.“ In light of the success we saw in Chile, and the continuous failure in the Gaza Strip, perhaps UNRWA could follow the example of UNHCR and use its resources to create a better future for everyone, instead of relegating the descendants of the 1948 war to yet another generation in limbo.

The writers are employees of the Sderot Media Center

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