Soldiers walk past damaged buildings in Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus.
(photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
Syrians marked 8 years since the Arab spring protests led to civil war in their country this month. For over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, that anniversary is somber. It represents a period of intense suffering during which most were driven from their homes and thrown into abject poverty.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says that ninety-percent of the Palestinian refugees it cares for require emergency humanitarian assistance. Prior to the war the number was only six percent. In addition fifty percent of the schools that UNRWA administers, which serve 66,000 pupils, half were damaged in the war. Of the 560,000 refugees registered with the agency before the war, 438,000 remain in Syria. Around 17,000 fled fighting to Jordan and 28,000 ended up in Lebanon. The community is “scattered,” says UNRWA. These refugees are descendants of Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the 1948 war, Israel’s war of independence. Besides Syria there are large Palestinian refugee populations in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
In discussions with Elizabeth Campbell, Director of UNRWA’s Near East representative office in Washington and Peter Mulrean, Director of UNRWA’s representative office in New York, the agency revealed the challenges it now faces. The organization has around 4,000 staff in Syria, of which 18 were killed and 28 remain missing due to the war. The Syrian civil war has largely ended with Syria divided. Eastern Syria is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces which have been fighting ISIS with their US-led Coalition partners. Northern Syria is partly controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Most Palestinians in Syria live in government controlled areas.
For UNRWA the ending of the war comes at a difficult time financially as the US administration has withdrawn funding. According to Mulrean UNRWA has requested $277 million in humanitarian appeal this year. The US used to be the largest donor to UNRWA but now the agency does not expect US funding for its emergency appeal or usual operations. The conflict in Syria may be winding down but the Palestinian community there represents one of the communities deeply affected by the war. This is coupled with the US decision to cut funding to UNRWA in 2018. In 2017 the US had provided $364 million to agency. “It has definitely made it difficult to operate in Syria and now the needs are higher than ever. We have more things that we need to do as an agency before the war. The population was largely self sufficient before the war but are largely dependent on the agency,” says Campbell.
Last year fighting began to die down in Yarmouk, where 160,000 Palestinians had once lived prior to the war. The area, the Palestinian refugee camp that dates to the 1950s, was largely destroyed in the fighting, UNRWA said. Photos over the years have shown destruction that looks like the gutted cities after the Second World War. According to Campbell UNRWA was able to access the area in October and this gives an opportunity to talk about rebuilding and reconstruction. But UNRWA can’t take the lead on that, the Syrian government largely has to figure out how to proceed in terms of planning large-scale reconstruction.
The challenge is that UNRWA is only one of many groups that are seeking funding for Syrian reconstruction and aid. On March 14 the foreign ministers from 14 countries gathered in Brussels at a UN-EU meeting and pledged almost $7 billion to Syrians. This includes Syrians displaced in Syria and also the millions of Syrian refugees abroad.
UNRWA is trying to put a positive face on the difficult times ahead. Campbell notes that despite the massive displacement for Palestinians, these times have shown extraordinary resilience. “Despite the adversity the population is facing, last year the top performing student [in Syria] was a Palestinian refugee girl in the 9th grade who scored the highest on her exam.” throughout the war UNRWA was able to adapt and find ways for education to continue remotely, she notes. This includes remote learning via television and other innovative methods.
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