Palestinian refugees in Jordan fret over UNRWA’s fate, and their own

The agency provides refugees with services but, more importantly, with hope that they can return to their homeland.

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An English class at a school run by the UNRWA in Amman, Jordan, February 13, 2024 [Al Jazeera]

Amman, Jordan – Najwa Rabaia, a hard-working, gregarious nurse with a reassuring bedside manner, patiently administers vaccines to a three-year-old girl at a busy antenatal ward.

Her assistant holds the reticent child on a hospital bed, allowing Rabaia to swiftly administer one vaccine in her arm before turning her for another injection in the leg and eventually scooping her into the arms of her doting mother, Amira.

“Here, we’re like family,” Rabaia says, pointing at Amira. “I have known the children I treat here all their life.”

She shoots a knowing glance at Amira and says: “Sometimes the parents forget about their appointments; I had to remind Amira to come three times” – her scolding tone softened by a warm maternal grin.

Outside the room, dozens of Palestinian refugees wait in the busy UNRWA health centre next to one of the agency’s schools.

The centre lies at the heart of the Amman New Camp (ANC), known locally as Wihdat, one of four camps set up after the 1948 Nakba to house tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees violently expelled from their homes to make way for the establishment of the state of Israel.

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Amira, left, and Najwa Rabaia, second left, in an UNRWA clinic in Amman on February 13, 2024 [Al Jazeera]

In the playground, a raucous football game stops abruptly as a crowd of young boys pose the critical question – “Ronaldo or Messi?” – to a foreign visitor.

Life on a knife’s edge

The camp, an area of 0.48sq km (0.2sq miles), is overcrowded and brimming with life, home to a bustling market, countless shops and busy cafes.

About 62,000 Palestinian refugees live in the ANC and, with space severely limited, the camp has had to expand vertically, resulting in an eclectic mix of housing units.

No walls surround the camp, allowing its sprawling network of pockmarked roads to melt seamlessly into the surrounding areas of southeast Amman.

UNRWA does not control the camp. Instead, it lives in symbiosis with it, employing many of its residents who in turn rely on the agency to provide services such as education, healthcare and waste management.

The agency operates in five locations where there are Palestinian refugees: Gaza, the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

To provide for the needs of the hundreds of thousands of refugees it supports, it relies on contributions from countries and individuals.

It may not be able to do so much longer as Israel seems to have launched a campaign against it as it continues its assault on the Gaza Strip.

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UNRWA handles waste management at ANC in collaboration with Jordanian authorities [Al Jazeera]

In late January, Israel accused 12 UNRWA workers from Gaza of involvement in October 7 attacks on southern Israel by the Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian armed groups.

The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services immediately launched an investigation, and 10 of the accused staff members had their contracts suspended; two had already died, likely in Israel’s onslaught on Gaza.

UN investigators have not received any evidence from Israel to support the claim.

However, the international response was swift, with 16 donors suspending their funds to the agency.

The withdrawal of funds could have severe consequences for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where conditions have become so dire that children are dying from malnutrition and dehydration.

Some countries have resumed funding since then, including Canada which stated that it would increase its contribution, but UNRWA’s financial situation remains precarious as the bulk of its funds is missing.

Two key contributors, the United States – which contributed $422m in 2023 – and the United Kingdom – which contributed about $109m for 2023-24 – have yet to resume payments.

Starvation in Gaza, lost futures elsewhere

Since Israel began its relentless bombardment of Gaza on October 7, the entire population has relied on aid, mostly through UNRWA, for necessities, including shelter, food, water and hygiene.

Israeli soldiers operate next to the UNRWA headquarters, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, February 8, 2024. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez EDITOR'S NOTE: REUTERS PHOTOGRAPHS WERE REVIEWED BY THE IDF AS PART OF THE CONDITIONS OF THE EMBED. NO PHOTOS WERE REMOVED TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Israeli soldiers operate next to UNRWA headquarters in Gaza on February 8, 2024 [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged countries to rethink their decisions to withdraw funding, stressing that UNRWA is “the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza”.

However, the withdrawal of funds will affect more than the urgent needs of the Gaza Strip.

Jordan is the largest of the five fields in which UNRWA works, supporting more than one million Palestinian refugees across the kingdom.

It says it has 25 health centres in Jordan, doing 1.6 million annual medical consultations.

“Our approach is primary healthcare, which aims to prevent diseases, not just treat them,” Dr Salam Ghanem, the experienced, articulate head of the ANC health centre, says as he winds his way through a web of beige corridors.

The centre serves about 43,000 patients, which means a cut in funding could have a serious effect, not just on ongoing treatment but also on the prevention of health issues, especially among young mothers and babies.

Instead of a cut in funding, if anything, the health centre needs more money to deal with increased demand after the COVID-19 pandemic, he explains in a frustrated tone.

In the 10 official camps across Jordan, UNRWA also provides waste management services for more than 400,000 refugees, which is essential in preventing disease.

The UNRWA operates 161 schools, serving more than 100,000 students in Jordan.

UNRWA at a glance

In a school library, a group of school parliamentarians – elected by their peers – discuss the effects a withdrawal of funds will have on the education system.

Farah, a softly spoken, erudite 16-year-old parliament head, says if the education provided by the UNRWA were to stop, then it would significantly affect the future of thousands of Palestinian refugees with their opportunities in the workplace considerably “weaker”.

There is an even split of boys and girls among the parliamentary representatives, reflecting the gender equality instilled in the UNRWA schooling system.

Sabah, a chatty, confident representative, says her schooling is important to help her follow in the footsteps of her older sister, who went through the UNRWA schools and is now a doctor.

Her eyes light up as she talks about her sister: “She is a VIP now, she can paint so well, she holds conferences everywhere, she is a role model!”

Farah adds that the UNRWA-run schools provide Palestinian refugee children additional support and security.

Sitting next to Sabah is Abdul Rahman, a sincere 16-year-old boy who runs an anti-bullying campaign while other representatives run homework support groups.

Groups that offer children a space at school to address issues they may face at home, such as early marriages or child labour, Farah explains.

UNRWA also provides vocational training to nearly 4,000 students who cannot afford university.

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Students at an UNRWA school in Amman’s al-Wihdat camp on February 13, 2024 [Jehad Shelbak/Reuters]

Like Malek Emad Mohammed Shalash, a friendly, 23-year-old who was born to a Palestinian refugee family who could not afford university tuition.

Instead, he got a place at one of the UNRWA vocational training programmes, eventually leading to a successful career as a concrete laboratory assistant.

He is now the breadwinner in his family.

However, he states emphatically, as important as it is to have financial stability, it is also about the “strong sense of pride” that comes with completing a diploma and learning a trade.

UNRWA and the right of return

Mohammad Khamis, ANC camp and community officer, looks out over a children’s playground as he rounds off a tour of the UNRWA facilities.

“I have been in this post since 2012, and I feel safe and proud that I work for the agency,” he says firmly.

As a Palestinian refugee, he explains, although the services provided by UNRWA are critical, it being an international body that recognises and promotes the right of return for Palestinian refugees is more important.

UNRWA was established to assist in implementing the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which affirms the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

As Olaf Becker, director of UNRWA Affairs at the Jordan Field Office, explains: “Our mandate is to serve Palestinian refugees until a just, durable solution is found.”

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Boys interrupt a football game to demand an answer to who is the world’s best player [Al Jazeera]

If UNRWA is forced to cease or drastically reduce its services as it has warned, then the return will look ever more distant for Ahmad and hundreds of thousands of other Palestinian refugees.

“Every country that withdraws their funding hurts us … it feels like a direct attack on our right to return,” he says.

UNRWA has warned that it could be forced to reduce or cease its operations by the end of April if funding is not resumed.

Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Turkey never suspended their funding, and now Sweden and Canada have resumed their commitments, but the total amounts will not make up for the overall shortfall.

What services will be prioritised if UNRWA’s finances are hit hard remains unclear.

“Our first option would be [to] scale down our services and it might take different modalities but it’s very difficult. What do you choose, healthcare versus education or sanitation?” Becker says.

Mohammad Khamis at the UNRWA centre in Amman on February 13, 2024 [Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera