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US cuts to relief funding hit refugees

CNN's Ben Wedeman speaks to the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Lebanon and visits some its schools and clinics, explaining why cutting support for the agency could have dire humanitarian and political consequences.

Posted: Feb 13, 2018 4:29 AM
Updated: Feb 13, 2018 4:29 AM

At Beirut's Galilee Secondary School, around 50 Palestinian teenagers are crammed into a single classroom in a haphazard arrangement of desks. The paint comes off walls scrawled with notes from generations of kids who studied here.

For decades, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been inculcated with the idea that their education is key. In a country where they are at best second-class citizens, learning is their best bet to escape poverty.

At recess, the teenagers disperse into social cliques, gather around smartphones and exchange banter across the basketball court. "So, what are you going to get me for Valentine's day?" one boy jests as he sits next to a girl who, embarrassed and laughing, takes refuge behind her long hair.

But when asked about recent US funding cuts to the United Nations agency that runs their school, the puckish teenagers take on an altogether different tone.

"It's a violation of our human rights, which America claims to teach us," 11th grader Sally Sabah tells CNN's Ben Wedeman.

"Isn't it enough that we don't have a home? We don't have anything right now in Lebanon just because we're Palestinians. They're going to take away the thing that we care about the most, which is our education."

For Palestinian refugees in Lebanon -- most of whom are descendants of those displaced from historic Palestine in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49 and denied return -- opportunities are few and far between, and possibly about to get worse.

Last month, the US administration informed the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) -- the agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees -- it was cutting its funding to the organization. The US will release $60 million to UNRWA and indefinitely withhold $65 million, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced last month. 

UNRWA's operations in Lebanon and Syria, where the agency provides free education and healthcare to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, bore the brunt of the cuts, losing access to all US funds to the agency.

UNRWA says that funding cuts by its largest single donor have sparked its "most serious financial crisis in its 70-year history." Its budget deficit now stands at $243 million. They warn that the deficit will have "a huge impact on the daily lives of millions of vulnerable Palestine refugees."

"We cannot use any of the US's contribution," UNRWA Lebanon director Claudio Cordone tells CNN. "This is regrettable. The US has been our top donor, and the most reliable donor for decades effectively. And we very much hope that they will reconsider this decision."

For the Palestinians, UNRWA is an "essential lifeline," says Cordone

Some 450,000 refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, where it runs 66 schools, 27 primary health centers and provides food assistance to 61,000 refugees living below the poverty line.

The US says it is cutting the agency's funding because it wants to see reforms and for other countries to contribute more.

In her statement announcing the administration's decision, Nauert said the US was looking to see "revisions in how they operate."

But UNWRA spokesman Christopher Gunness says "The US government has consistently commended UNRWA's high impact, transparency and accountability."

In the meantime, Belgium has stepped in with a $23 million dollar contribution to UNRWA to cover a portion of the funding withheld by the United States. The contribution covers about 35% of what the US withheld.

Analysts and officials have speculated that the administration's decision is part of the fallout over Trump's controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Human rights and the future 

Many of the children at the Galilee school grew up in the squalor of the nearby Shatila refugee camp, where Lebanese Christian militiamen, allowed into the camp by Israeli troops, slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in 1982.

Speaking in perfect English, they are well versed in the subject of human rights. Walking through the school halls painted in pale pink, it's easy to see how that came to pass.

"Discrimination and inequality are the root of violence against women and girls," reads an orange sheet pasted on the door of a classroom. "Stand up for someone's rights today," reads another framed sign.

Razan Jamal Osman, 16, points to a handbook on human rights and conflict resolution that UNRWA students are made to study. Among the main components of their human rights education is "the promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and minorities."

The irony of their situation, they say, is not lost on them. "They are teaching us about human rights but why don't they believe in that thing? Why don't they believe in the thing they are teaching us? How are we going to believe in it if they don't?" says 11th grader Sabah.

Back at UNRWA's Beirut headquarters, Cordone paints a grim picture. "One can easily imagine what would happen if, for example, we have to close our schools," he says.

"That means 37,000 kids on the street ... some of them may go to schools that may not provide the sort of education that we do. We follow a national curriculum but we integrate it with a human rights education."

He warns that extremists could find work for young minds idled by lack of schools.

Sarah Jureih, a 12th grader, is applying to college and will probably escape any possible consequence of the US funding cuts. Still, she's incensed by the news.

"We're just like other teenagers all over the world. We have hopes and dreams. I'm against Trump's decision because with this decision, we won't be able to be educated and to fulfill our dreams like everyone else," she says.

Lost hopes

At the school's dusty library, which doubles as a music room, 16-year-old Razan Sobh beams as she flips through photos of her paintings. She dreams of becoming an artist but worries that no one will take her seriously, so she considers more "reasonable" professions, such as nutrition.

She also dreams of going to Canada.

Her father is an UNRWA doctor, and her mother is an UNRWA pharmacist. Outside of the Palestinian UN agency, they cannot practice either of those professions in Lebanon.

Her brother, too, goes to a school run by the UN agency. Now, the US administration has dealt a blow to their already-fragile status quo.

"We have nothing here," she says. "At least in Canada we'd have a chance to make a better future for ourselves. That's something both my parents couldn't do, and it's what they wish for us."

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