<style>.post-40656 .entry-title{color: }</style>314
<style>.post-40656 .entry-title{color: }</style>314
<style>.post-40656 .entry-title{color: }</style>314
<style>.post-40656 .entry-title{color: }</style>314
<style>.post-40656 .entry-title{color: }</style>314

Dreams Never Die

UNRWA USA’s Commitment to Gaza’s Future

By Laila Mokhiber

Before the ongoing war on Gaza, my UNRWA USA colleagues and I had bold aspirations to help redefine the future for Palestine refugees in Gaza. We intended to expand our university scholarships program for UNRWA school graduates, establish an endowment for sustainability, and launch an initiative called “Digital Futures” to create cloud-based jobs and revolutionize the digital economy for the majority refugee population. These initiatives weren’t just lofty concepts; they were meant to be pathways for a population suffocating under siege with soaring unemployment rates. Already, we were funding the education of 250 exceptional college students and had forged promising partnerships with major Silicon Valley companies. These dreams have since dimmed, overshadowed by a haunting concern: I just hope the students, their families, my friends, and my colleagues stay alive. The gradual de-development of Gaza has already tragically claimed too many futures. But dreams never die.

For the past 16 years, Gaza has endured a land, air, and sea blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. This blockade has not only severely crippled Gaza’s economy but has restricted access to basic human needs – food, water, medicine, and electricity. As a result, an entire generation of Palestinians faces limited prospects for the future. Once a thriving coastal enclave, Gaza was a destination for leisure. People from other parts of historical Palestine would come to Gaza for a beach vacation, a weekend of retail therapy, and a spicy seafood meal. But under the weight of the blockade and subsequent wars, Gaza was systematically reduced to rubble. Despite this, Gaza is one of the most educated places in the world, boasting some of the highest concentrations of advanced degrees anywhere on the planet. Yet, job opportunities beyond UNRWA are scarce and don’t match this intellectual capital. The initiatives we at UNRWA USA dreamed of making happen held the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

People fleeing from Rafah, May 2024.

I’ve had the rare privilege of experiencing Gaza’s indomitable spirit firsthand through frequent field visits over the past decade. Palestinians in Gaza epitomize resilience, resourcefulness, creativity, and unyielding determination. Despite the blockade, they are steadfast and they persevere. Palestinians build businesses, pursue education, and support their families against all odds. It is often said that the people of Gaza are the most entrepreneurial in the world. There was so much beauty despite the immense challenges. We saw reasons for hope and wanted to inspire change by using our connections in the United States to give the many promising young Palestinians a chance.

As a fourth-generation Arab American of Palestinian descent, my visits to the occupied Palestinian territory have been both humbling and enlightening. I’ve been privileged to access opportunities denied to many of my peers back in my ancestral Palestine. Driven by a sense of duty, I work as Director of Communications for UNRWA USA, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. Through my position, I’ve witnessed the pivotal role of UNRWA in providing a lifeline for refugees, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA has been educating and nurturing generations of refugees for over seven decades, its regional network of over 700 schools serving as havens of hope. These institutions have not only provided education but have also raised multiple generations of leaders, sweet refugee students eagerly gathered to learn in lively classrooms at vibrant UN-blue schools covered in hand-painted murals. During the summer months, these school courtyards transformed into joyful summer camps that our signature Gaza 5K walk/runs fund as part of UNRWA’s mental health program. Yet, since October, these same schools have been transformed into shelters for hundreds of thousands as Gaza endures a relentless Israeli military assault, leaving no safe place for anyone, not even children. The scale of this horrific violence is staggering, with estimates of over 35,000 killed, including thousands of children.

Boys in truck. UNRWA Archive photo, 1948.

Since its establishment in 1949, UNRWA has been the primary provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza and plays an irreplaceable role. Beyond providing essential services to Palestine refugees, UNRWA is the backbone of the humanitarian system in Gaza, uniquely equipped to manage logistical operations for all other entities on the ground. Staffed almost entirely by refugees recruited from the local population, UNRWA delivers vital services – education, healthcare, relief, and social services – to almost six million Palestine refugees not just in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

UNRWA USA supports UNRWA’s work through advocacy, fundraising, and awareness-building efforts in the United States. While separate entities, UNRWA and UNRWA USA are affiliated and share the same commitment to alleviating the suffering of Palestine refugees and promoting their rights and dignity.

However, both UNRWA and UNRWA USA’s missions have faced significant challenges. For years, both have been subject to attacks and disinformation campaigns by detractors aiming to undermine UNRWA and dismantle its lifesaving humanitarian work. In October, the agency began to face heightened targeting, obstructing its efforts and endangering its workers. Since October, nearly 200 UNRWA humanitarian aid workers have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of students and scholars are left stranded with no way forward. Gaza once had 11 universities. In the last seven months, all have been destroyed. We don’t even know if all our scholars are alive. These students are now running for their lives instead of chasing their dreams. It’s now graduation season here in the United States, and we’re seeing students proudly cross the stage and claim their hard-earned degrees. Not one student in Gaza will graduate in 2024.

The total de-development of Gaza over the last 16 years has been expedited in the last seven months. UNRWA is more than just a humanitarian organization, it is also a development agency. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, UNRWA kept kids in school through remote learning. The average person in Gaza does not have a home anymore, let alone internet access. There used to be four hours of electricity per day; now, there is next to none. Still, the agency is looking for ways to continue its education program in other ways and keep its services uninterrupted.

To exacerbate matters, in January, baseless allegations against the UN Agency prompted the United States government, historically its largest funder, to pause its financial support. UNRWA can only continue to operate with the funding it gets from UN member states year after year. And while nearly every country that followed suit has since stepped back up, the US government continues to step back. The impact of this political decision is devastating. Without sufficient funding, hundreds of UNRWA schools and health clinics are at risk of closure, threatening the education and healthcare of millions of refugees. Thousands of UNRWA staff members, most of whom are refugees themselves, face an uncertain future as their livelihoods are not guaranteed. At the very time that UNRWA, the primary provider of humanitarian assistance in Gaza and for Palestine refugees across the region, is most needed, it is being pushed to its breaking point. Now is the time to ramp up support, not cut it off.

UNRWA exists because the Nakba happened and because there is still no political solution. While I can’t predict the future for all the students and techies who will physically survive this war, one thing is certain: with proper support, UNRWA will ensure that Palestinians remain among the most educated communities in the Middle East. While the educational landscape may shift, UNRWA will steadfastly support Palestine refugees in building brighter futures for themselves and their children.

Earlier this year, the United States passed legislation suspending UNRWA funding until at least March 2025, and potentially beyond. Despite this setback, there is a groundswell of support from average Americans and organizations across the United States and worldwide for UNRWA’s mission. From grassroots initiatives, influential voices on social media, and creative content producers to global leaders, prominent cultural figures, and talented artists, there is a resounding call for solidarity with Palestine. This call includes demands for a permanent ceasefire and a reinstatement of US funding for UNRWA.

The suffering we’re seeing is prolonged by politically motivated misinformation. We must commit to active truth-telling to expand and transform the narratives about Palestine refugees and UNRWA. These stories can be found on our Voices of UNRWA blog at unrwausa.org. Indifference is not an option as this catastrophe unfolds – we must prevent further devastation and despair.

At UNRWA USA, we’re in this for the long haul. We’re dedicated to ending refugees’ immediate suffering and working toward a better future. We want to see Palestine refugees not just survive but thrive. With your ongoing support, we can empower communities, restore dignity, and unlock refugees’ potential.

Now, close your eyes and imagine the future: a Gaza without the blockade, where laughter echoes in schools once more, where everything is rebuilt, and dreams are not just dreams but actual reality. The world is watching, and the future of Gaza is in our hands. Will we be the generation that allows dreams to die or the one that gives them wings?

Thank you for reading and for standing with us. Together, we can show Palestine refugees that Americans care.

  • Laila Mokhiber is Director of Communications at UNRWA USA, where she leads the nonprofit’s strategic communications, advocacy, and community engagement efforts to support Palestine refugees. She is based in Washington, DC.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *