It was exactly seventy years ago this week, on December 8, 1949, that the United Nations Relief And Works Agency (UNRWA) was founded.
It was tasked by the UN General Assembly to carry out relief programmes for the roughly 750,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled their homeland the previous year to escape being caught in the crossfire, or had been expelled from it, at times, in what is now well documented acts of ethnic cleansing, as happened, say, in Lydda and Ramle, the twin cities in eastern Palestine whose entire population was pushed out at gunpoint.
These refugees, from all over Palestine, arrived in the surrounding host countries harried and beaten, traumatised by the infliction on them of the greatest disaster that could befall a people: the dismemberment of their ancestral homeland — a homeland being the outward sum of a human community’s nobility.
Most had been peasants skilled only at tilling the land and living off its bounty, or petty shopkeepers skilled only at selling off the surplus produce of that bounty.
Or they had been carpenters and vendors and farm labourers and the like. Its small educated elite aside, Palestine was defined by a sedentary culture that, to its people, had for generations moved the treadmill of immemorially posited norms.
Now a life in exile, which they were ill-suited to deal with, awaited them. That’s when UNRWA, known to Palestinians today simply, but engagingly as ‘Al-UNRWA’, stepped in seven decades ago to give each one of these folks not just a handout but a hand up.
UNRWA’s empathy for Palestinian refugees was a projection of that admixture of guilt and compassion that member states of the United Nations felt for the way they allowed themselves to knuckle under US pressure in 1947 and vote, against their conscience, for the Partition Plan in Palestine
First, full disclosure. As a Palestinian who was, as a child, part of that refugee exodus and who grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut, my encounter with UNRWA was quotidian and intimate. The Agency, you see, was a force in our daily lives.
You turned to it for succour, from the time you were a five-year-old ready to attend first grade in school to the time, as a young adult, you were ready for vocational training, say, as a lab technician. Or you turned to it when in need of an airfare, say, to fly to Australia after your application for an immigrant visa had been approved.
And it was a force in our lives at every other time in-between — when you fell ill, when you went hungry and when you felt cold, for it, for it ran efficient clinics, doled out food rations and distributed warm clothing to those in need in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon, where it operated. And It took care of other tasks. It was there when you need it.
Perhaps UNRWA’s empathy for Palestinian refugees was a projection of that admixture of guilt and compassion that member states of the United Nations felt for the way they allowed themselves to knuckle under US pressure in 1947 and vote, against their conscience, for the Partition Plan in Palestine, without which the Nakba, the catastrophe of statelessness, dispersal and destitution that Palestinians have had to endure since then, would not have come about.
No need to recapitulate the mean-spirited nature of President Trump’s decision last year to cut off all funding that the US had, for seven decades provided UNRWA, leaving it high and dry, and the refugees it served destitute and embittered, feeling a taste of ash in their mouths every time they uttered the American president’s name. (Happily, the Agency has since been able to find alternate sources of financial support and thus moved on.)
On its 70th anniversary last week, the Acting Commissioner General of UNRWA, Christian Saunders, sent a message, essentially to these dependent refugees, that said in part, “Our commitment is simple. It is to provide you with the highest quality services and support so as to enable you to live long, productive lives and for each of you to reach your full potential”. Thanks, Christian.
Meanwhile, at the General Assembly, also last week, member states, defying President Trump, passed a resolution renewing UNRWA’s mandate through 2023. The measure was approved by a vote of 170-2. The two votes against? You guessed it — the US and Israel.
I am now well past the mark between seventy and eighty. In short, I’ve been around long enough to have seen this splendid agency go from caring for 750,000 refugees in 1949 to seeing it cover, by its protection mandate, 5.6 million of them today.
It will continue to do so until the United Nations has made certain that its own resolutions, calling for the repatriation of Palestinians to their homeland, are implemented. And if the formal rulings of an international body such as the UN continue to be ignored, well, then the implacable rules of history will surely one day kick in.
Meanwhile, using refugee camp argot, I say, Christian, keep the faith, baby. We hear you.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.