Palestinians receive flour bags distributed by UNRWA in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip Image Credit: Reuters

If you can think of a more selfless, more useful and more resolutely committed aid organisation in the world today dedicated to lightening the burden of a stateless people by extending them a helping hand to move on in life, all the while letting them know that they are not alone, that it is there for them at every turn, than the one this column is about today, well, feel free to edify me — me, once a stateless person myself who was, as a youth, beneficiary of that group’s largesse.

In short, we’re talking here about an aid organisation that gives you not a handout but a hand-up.

But who is giving what to whom and why?

In 1949 the UN passed a resolution that allowed for the establishment of a subsidiary body of the General Assembly called the United Nations Relief and works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known by the acronym UNRWA or simply Unrwa, which became operational on May 1 the following year — a body that ever since has played an indispensable role in providing vital services for the welfare, well-being and human development of these refugees and, in later years, their descendants.

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In other words, Unrwa, or as Palestinians engagingly call it, Onrewa, was there to see to it that these Palestinian refugees, in particular young Palestinian refugees, would achieve their full human potential in a world that had given them its back and so callously turned a blind eye to their plight and a deaf ear to their pleas for justice.

Look, the people that Unrwa was helping were stateless. And stateless people, in the words of Hannah Arendt (who herself had been at one time stateless) are commonly “denied the right to have rights”, including the right, in their host countries, to engage in employment “whether paid or unpaid” or the right to have their kids enrolled in government schools.

Unrwa went on to employ tens of thousands and to open schools for us (on any given day then, this aid agency opened the doors of its well over 700 schools to roughly 500,000 students every morning) that enabled countless Palestinian kids to acquire an education and go on their way — an education without which countless numbers of these kids would’ve grown up to be illiterate, useless to themselves and the world they inhabited.

More than that, Unrwa also sent many graduates of its high schools to vocational training centers where they were apprenticed as electricians, dental assistants, lab technicians, welders and the like, which enabled them to find gainful employment in the Gulf States and live normal lives.

UNRWA - A lifeline for Palestinians

And, Oh, yes, Unrwa, bless its heart, was also always there for you with that hand-up, one that you needed as a destitute, stateless Palestinian refugee. Here’s a case in point: If, say, you were an 18-year-old kid who had been given a scholarship at a university in Australia but just did not have the kind of money needed to pay the fare on a ship that took you down under, that selfless, useful and resolutely committed aid organisation would come to your rescue. I myself was that 18-year-old.

The long and short of it is that without that kind of hand-up, the latent talents of many Palestinians of my generation would have remained fallow. Yes, Unrwa knew that, as we say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

I submit to you that those thousands of Palestinian doctors, teachers, journalists, writers, lawyers, engineers and other professionals in the Palestinian diaspora today, living in countries as far apart as New Zealand and Canada, all productive members of their communities, owe their start in life to that hand-up from our Onrewa, an aid group that has been with us, of us and about us since that catastrophic time in our history we call the Nakba, and that recognises us as a people whose collision with history has rendered us stateless through no fault of our own, a people that the world has punished beyond the call of any putative guilt on their part.

Now this world, led by the United States, along with a cascade of a dozen or so of copycats, is threatening to cripple, perhaps even entirely dismantle Unrwa because a handful of its workers, among the 13,000 it employs in Gaza, turned out to be bad apples.

Come on, y’all. Get a grip!

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile