Attacking the UNRWA education system risks the lives of students – Opinion

28 October 2020

By: Gwyn Lewis


Education is the key that unlocks young people’s potential everywhere; for refugee children, it is a source of safety and stability and paves the way to a future with more opportunity. Schools that serve Palestine refugee children must provide opportunities amid adversity and in some cases process layers of trauma. Recent unfounded criticisms – appearing in this same opinion pages – of the books used in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) do nothing to protect Israel’s citizens, but rather seek to question one of the few resources available to more than 532,000 Palestine refugee students – and during a global pandemic, which hits refugee communities hardest of all.

Students in UNRWA schools have some of the best academic and community service records of all students throughout the Middle East. According to the World Bank, UNRWA students outperform their national counterparts by one year of learning.

This is why UNRWA students often score the highest marks in national exams and land in some of the world’s best universities, including Harvard and other top institutions. They are taught the values that will shape them into good global citizens and good neighbors.

Take, for example, Gaza’s 11-year-old sensation Abdel-Rahman Al Shantti, whose message of peace has reached a global audience. He is a UNRWA school student. The values that have shaped him and his voice are universal human rights, tolerance and inclusion, and gender equity – not the kind of lessons schools would teach if they were part of a plot to instill hate. And this past August, Nagham Al-Yazji, 15, won the  2020 Inspirational Messages of Peace Contest organized by the United States National Park Service and International World Peace Rose Garden – an award that celebrates messages of peace written by youth from around the world – for a poem she wrote with the help of her UNRWA teachers.

Not only does UNRWA have an extensive framework, pedagogy and practical teaching approach emphasizing human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance, but UNRWA also helps facilitate democratically elected student parliaments – and since 2017, an agency-wide parliament too.

These parliaments have been a key vehicle for the promotion of respect for rights and democratic practices. Their student leadership speaks in front of UN and other international audiences and educates other students about pressing global issues, including health risks like COVID-19 transmission. They organize human rights-themed activities, field trips and guest-speaker events that expose refugee children to ideas and innovations from across the globe.

Every year these student parliamentarians are invited to visit the United States and to be guests of the UN – and neither Israel’s greatest ally nor one of the pillars of international peace and cooperation would welcome these children if they had become vessels for hateful ideology.

As director of UNRWA affairs in the West Bank, my top priority is to continue to strengthen and improve our schools and make sure that the next generation of Palestinian refugees are given the opportunity of a strong education so that they can build a bright future for themselves and their communities.

Due to the pandemic, UNRWA education experts in the West Bank have put in place a blended approach: a mix of in-person and remote learning so that even children from families without the means to access the Internet or a computer can continue to remain in school. Part of the learning that we have been promoting is about how to stay safe from COVID-19. I walk in and out of these classrooms every week, and what I see is a school room that resembled my very own. Every child I meet is happy to be back at school, to see their friends, to show me their latest drawing or how they have managed the school parliament elections with social distancing in place. Last week I met a little girl who had come in second place in the region for her reading skills. Each and every girl and boy I meet has a dream to be a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut or a teacher.

A recent opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post tried to contradict the facts I’ve seen with my own eyes. The schoolbooks and overall curriculum used in UNRWA schools emphasize tolerance, human rights, non-discrimination and gender quality. Where we find material that does not match UN values, we simply do not teach it or include it in our classes. This approach has been validated by the US Government Accountability Office, including as recently as last year. Salacious myths and exaggerations only show intent to defame the agency, and our over half a million students, at all costs.

UNRWA’s civilian, secular education, rooted in UN principles and modern education pedagogy, is not the vehicle of hate but rather its antidote. Instead of repeating past failures and retreating to opposite sides of religious and cultural divides, let us make sure that today’s young people have the resources they need to succeed where earlier generations have failed, build bridges across our communities, and heal painful wounds.

This means we need to invest in the Agency’s mission to ensure that Palestinian refugee students continue to develop to their full potential and become confident, innovative and open-minded, commit to upholding human rights, have pride in their Palestinian identity and contribute positively to their community and the world. With students on this path, prosperity and peace are possible.


The writer is UNRWA Director of Operations in the West Bank.