The coronavirus has swept across the world, putting some of the world’s most vulnerable communities further at risk. Among those are Palestine* refugees, who have lived in crowded camps across the Middle East in exile and dispossession for the past seventy years. Created over seven decades ago to assist Palestine refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s (UNRWA) provision of human development services is more vital now than ever. While access to free healthcare, education, relief, and social services have been a mainstay of its operations from day one, UNRWA has adapted its presence on the ground in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the occupied Palestinian territory—including East Jerusalem—to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
From door-to-door delivery of food and medicines, to innovative health and psychosocial support hotlines, and wide-scale implementation of its remote learning program, UNRWA has modified its operations to maximize service delivery and pandemic mitigation. Under the current COVID-19 Appeal, UNRWA has allocated some $9.4 million for hospitalization, $18 million for implementation of its remote education programming, and $44 million for cash assistance to offset economic hardships. UNRWA has also begun to implement measures to protect Palestine refugees and frontline workers as of January.
This photo essay explores the ways Palestine refugees have coped with the coronavirus thanks to the help of UNRWA services.
In the West Bank, teachers like Ibrahim Zawahreh stepped up to ensure that students received learning materials, especially those who live in remote areas. A math teacher and deputy principal at the UNRWA al-Auja School near Jericho in the West Bank, Ibrahim launched an initiative to deliver worksheets to his students in April during COVID-19 school closures. “There are about one hundred students from the Bedouin community near Shallal, west of al-Auja. The area doesn’t have internet infrastructure and our students’ parents are not active on social media. I decided to pass out the worksheets myself to help my students complete their second semester successfully.” Ibrahim continued, “it was worth every minute, especially since most of the students are high achievers. I went to school every day to print out worksheets and drive to the area and distribute them.”
Across the region, all 709 UNRWA schools and ten vocational training centers and teacher training facilities closed due to the coronavirus in March. This affected more than 533,342 school children, 8,270 trainees, and 1,840 university students. To ensure learning continuity, the renowned UNRWA Education in Emergencies (EiE) approach was adapted to better respond to the impact of the pandemic in five key areas: self-learning, psychosocial support (PSS), safety and security, health and hygiene issues, technical vocational education training (TVET), and monitoring and evaluation (M&E).
In Lebanon, a seasoned cadre of UNRWA teachers implemented the UNRWA EiE remote curriculum as a core part of the education system with technology and online games. “We are really proud to be UNRWA staff because we support the right to a quality education for Palestine refugee children despite the unstable and challenging socioeconomic situation and during the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Salem Deeb, the Chief of UNRWA Education in Lebanon.
“During the summer catch-up period, we were able to provide iPads to students without smart devices at home so that no child is left behind.”
For 14-year-old Hadil Mabrouki, an eighth-grader at the UNRWA Qibia Girls’ School in Ein El Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon, educational games can be fun at the same time. “The games are shared with us on a weekly basis to review the main concepts in each lesson,” said Hadil.
“The games also helped us learn what our strengths and weaknesses are. The signal that pops up green means your answer is correct, while that in red means the answer is wrong. I’m very delighted that we are going back to the school soon. I’m keen to meet my classmates and teachers. I really miss them. It has been a long time. School is the only place where we can all meet. Everyone has fears because of the coronavirus, but if we all adhere to preventive measures, the risks will be lower. I hope that everyone will be safe.”
Maryam Ibrahim, 15, lives with her family in a partially destroyed house in the Ein el-Tal camp in Aleppo, Syria. “When schools closed because of COVID-19, I was very worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with distance learning. We don’t have electricity in our house and my family can’t afford expensive internet costs. I’m very grateful that UNRWA provided the things I needed to study remotely from home,” said Maryam.
“Studying is very important for me. I’m in ninth-grade now and I’d like to become an artist like my sister. She’s a student at the Faculty of Fine Arts. Her beautiful drawings on the walls of our home make it a nice place to be, despite the damage and destruction around us.”
Yasmeen “Umm Faisal” Khader Ahmed, 35, is a Palestine refugee and single mother who settled in the Amman New Camp in Amman, Jordan, during 2017. She has moved several times across the country, from one shelter to the next. As a single mother, she has not been able to find stable employment, and relies on the assistance she receives from UNRWA to cover her children’s needs. Umm Faisal’s family is one of the 58,000 served by the UNRWA Social Safety Net program’s cash assistance.
The family of five lives in a small rented shelter in the camp and is suffering from the coronavirus pandemic like all vulnerable communities across the world. However, in their case, the suffering is even worse. “The full lockdown imposed for several weeks was a huge disaster for us,” said Umm Faisal. New burdens were added to Umm Faisal’s responsibilities because of the pandemic. She has to feed her family with limited food supplies. “With the cash support we receive from UNRWA, we are able to pay rent and buy some groceries that we need, especially when full lockdown is imposed,” Umm Faisal explained.
The UNRWA relief and social services program works to alleviate poverty among Palestine refugee families and provides social safety-net (SSN) assistance, which includes basic food support and cash subsidies on a quarterly basis.
Suheil Rosros, 30, is a Palestine refugee and father of three, living in Rafah camp in the southern Gaza Strip. Despite the difficult living conditions, patience and determination emanate from him and every corner of his home. “My children are all that I live for, I’m dedicating my life to them. I want them to have a decent life and hope for a better future,” said Suheil.
Suheil’s family is one of 21,427 families in Gaza who are categorized as being abject poor. They live on less than $1.74 per person a day and receive regular UNRWA food assistance as part of the Agency’s Social Safety Net (SSN) program.
“I’ve been waiting impatiently to receive my food assistance because it’s a lifeline for my family. It helps us put food on the table for my children,” Suheil added. UNRWA has adapted its food delivery mechanisms to keep food refugees safe through homes deliveries that protect the health and dignity of both refugees and distribution staff.
Georgette is a UNRWA senior staff nurse and is part of a dedicated UNRWA health center team that helps Palestine refugees in Homs, Syria stay safe and healthy during these challenging times.
“We have always worked well together as a team, but during COVID-19, we realized even more how much we rely on each other. All of us have contributed to the COVID-19 response. For instance, it was my responsibility to deliver medicine to Palestine refugees who live in the countryside—up to 50 km away from Homs—and everyone’s support made it possible.”
For people like Abdulrahman Abu Srour, 56, one of the first things that came to mind when he heard the news of the coronavirus outbreak in March was his health. Like many of the older residents of Aida camp near Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Abu Srour has a number of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
“We were seeing on the news that the virus was severely impacting people with chronic illnesses like myself, so this was very worrying,” Abu Srour said. But when he saw a post on Facebook from Ibrahim, the UNRWA Community and Camp Services Officer (CCSO) in Aida, offering to pick up people’s prescriptions from the UNRWA health center in Bethlehem and bring them back to the camp, Abu Srour said his spirits were lifted.
“It was such a relief that Ibrahim was going out of his way to do this for people like myself, so that we don’t have to go out to the city and potentially expose ourselves to the virus,” Abu Srour said, adding that the UNRWA’s decision to give beneficiaries two-month prescriptions as opposed to one has also “been a huge help.”
With the aid of UNRWA and its staff, as well as local community health workers who provide weekly at-home checkups, Abu Srour has been able to put his mind at ease despite the fears surrounding the coronavirus. “Even though everyone is stuck at home and trying to distance themselves from one another, this community is still taking care of people like me and I’m very grateful,” Abu Srour said.
Toll-free telemedicine hotlines are becoming a lifeline for Palestine refugees and others in Gaza amid the pandemic, with a daily average of 3,100 calls. Since the complete lockdown in the Gaza Strip on August 24, all direct health services at primary health clinics were suspended. This resulted in healthcare being migrated to hotlines.
“Telemedicine is crucial to reduce the possibility of infection and transmission of COVID-19 in our community,” said Dr. Wesam Al Aydi, a medical officer at the UNRWA Khan Younis Health Center. Operational since April, the service allows a medical officer to provide important medical advice, including arrangements for a home visit for particularly urgent cases.
“We receive regular and intensive training on how to operate the toll-free lines. At the beginning of the local outbreak, I was exhausted, working long shifts in full personal protective equipment,” Dr. Wesam added. “The most difficult part of this experience for me was the fear of becoming infected so that I might transmit the infection to my husband and my two little children, as I’m the only person who left the house during this lockdown. I designated a special room in my home to use when I arrive, trying not to contaminate my home and to get my clothes and personal protective equipment off and run straight to have a shower before meeting my children.”
“At the beginning, my children were shocked as they used to hug and kiss me when I arrive, but unfortunately now they [can’t] do so. With time, they understood that I am doing so to protect them from any infection,” Dr. Wesam explained.
Psychosocial support (PSS) interventions in the Gaza Strip are provided via hotlines staffed five days a week, from 7:30 am to 3:00 pm, by Area Social Work Supervisors (ASWS) and their teams of social workers.
“We conduct interviews and home visits to high risk and critical cases, taking into consideration precautionary and safety procedures for beneficiaries and staff members in order to provide urgent interventions within 24 hours,” said Sabreen Abu Hassun, the ASWS from UNRWA offices in Rafah, Gaza.
“Working through the hotlines is a challenge for clients and staff. We build a confidential and professional relationship by applying active listening skills and showing empathy to encourage clients to interact.”
Mohammad Abu Kishek has been an environmental health laborer in Balata camp in the occupied West Bank for fifteen years. “The camp has sixteen main clean-up locations. We see a lot of disposable gloves and facemasks on the ground and have increased our clean-up efforts in response. We usually clean and disinfect the same locations multiple times a day. Our schedules have changed since the pandemic began. We work from 6 am to 3 pm. We also remain on call twenty-four-hours a day, seven days a week. We all had only one day off for Eid! The community needs us and we are here to serve them now, just as we always have. When I come home from work, my little daughter shouts, ‘Corona! Corona!’ and laughs as she runs away,” explained Mohammad.
“I’m aware that I’m putting myself and my family at risk by being a frontline responder. I make sure to take precautions to protect my family. I shower and change my clothing before I meet with my family after work.”
UNRWA provides waste disposal and sanitation services to Palestine refugee camps across the Middle East. This includes disinfectant treatments to road and installations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At the time of writing, UNRWA lacks sufficient funding to continue to provide critical services to the 5.7 million Palestine refugees it serves. The Agency is working hard to ensure that staff salaries and life-line services to needy and economically exposed refugees are met and calls upon the international community for continued funding for the vital work it carries out across the Middle East.
* Palestine refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is a relief and human development agency. Follow them on Twitter: @UNRWA.
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