“Let Kids Be Kids”

10 August 2010

Op-ed by Chris Gunness
Spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency

This week thousands of kids in Gaza romped into the Guinness Book of Records for the third time. Some seven thousand children simultaneously flew kites on a beach in northern Gaza, more than doubling the previous record they themselves set a year ago. As if this weren’t enough, just one week before, no less than 7,203 children went to the destroyed airport in Gaza and bounced their way into the Guinness Book of World Records by simultaneously dribbling basket balls for five minutes. Two world records in just one week, three in a year is surely another world record in itself.

These two events engendered iconic images which were emblazoned across the blogasphere and media outlets, old and new, in Gaza, Israel in beyond. Behind them lay a beautiful and inescapable symbolism. Here were thousands of children, grouping together co-operatively and creatively with one single ambition in mind, smiling and laughing as they worked in wrapped concentration, in an act of celebration and achievement to be number one in the world. Here was the next generation in Gaza demonstrating to the outside world that given the chance, they could show their true potential, just like kids anywhere. Such symbolism will surely not have been lost on the millions of people around the world who so sadly have become accustomed to the imagery of destitution and hopelessness that usually emanates from the Gaza Strip.

The world record breakers were part of the Gaza Summer Games organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. In nearly one hundred and fifty locations across Gaza over a six week period, some quarter of a million children have been taking part in sporting, recreational and cultural activities. This is the fourth Summer Games season organized by UNRWA and for the fourth successive year, thousands of UNRWA teachers have given up their summer holidays to allow the children of Gaza simply to have fun like children anywhere in the world; to have a sense of normality despite the abnormality they face in their daily lives following the fighting a year ago and the bitter legacy it has left behind. 

The subtext was clear for all to see. UNRWA gives to the children in Gaza a chance to achieve their full human potential and when allowed to do so, their energies can be channeled into world class achievement. Though Gaza often grabs the headlines, it is often forgotten that everyday in hundreds of schools throughout Arab countries and territories surrounding Israel, UNRWA likewise helps some half a million children achieve their full potential. With over twenty thousand teachers working in some seven hundred schools, empowering the next generation across the Middle East, education remains the key priority for UNRWA, to which the Agency devotes more than half its financial resources.

But UNRWA does so against odds which are both financial and logistical. The Agency has a shortfall in its budget for this year alone of about one hundred million US dollars. Services across the region are under threat, with all the worrying implications for stability in the Middle East. In Gaza the restrictions on humanitarian goods mean that we have been unable to build any new schools, let alone repair old ones for years. Over ninety per cent of our schools there are “double shifted” which means that though there may be one physical building, the school actually serves two completely different sets of pupils and staff. Our classes in Gaza have swollen to as many as 45 children per class.

Unable to build schools for an expanding population, we have been turning away thousand of five and six years olds whose parents want them to receive an UNRWA education. Today, 39,000 children are being denied a United Nations education in Gaza and are instead being absorbed by the education system of the local authorities. The restrictions looks set to have profound consequences for the next generation right on the door step of Israel. And with so many dozens of school that need to be built and many more repaired, the prospects for change this look dim.

But all is not lost. UNRWA remains steadfastly committed to its human development goals, assisting hundreds of thousand of children in one the world’s most unstable regions achieve their full potential, giving them a sense of self respect, of self reliance and a belief in a peaceful and dignified future. However, UNRWA does not operate in a vacuum in Gaza. We are educating children eventually to enter a job market where there is over forty per cent unemployment. Over three thousand businesses have gone under in the last three years alone, years which have seen a once thriving export economy decimated. An educated, unemployed population in Gaza is in no one’s interests. The economy must be revived. Exports have to be allowed out of Gaza if the next generation is to be given the full rights to employment, enabling self-reliance as communities, ultimately leading to the creation of a prosperous and stable society.

The time has come for vision. The world needs to look to those iconic images from the UNRWA Summer Games as pointers to where the future could lie for the next generation in Gaza and beyond.

An edited version of this opinion piece appeared in the Jerusalem Post Sunday 8 August 2010.