Harvard-bound Ismail Ajjawi an inspiration to fellow UNRWA students

30 August 2019
Ismail Ajjawi, photographed in his home near El Buss refugee camp, Lebanon. He achieved a top eight score in the Official Lebanese Baccalaureate (IB) examination across Lebanon and ranked number one for the whole south region. © 2019 UNRWA Photo by Abeer Nouf.

Seventeen-year-old Palestine refugee, Ismail Ajjawi, who was admitted to the Harvard University incoming freshman class of 2023 and issued a visa to the United States, was denied entry to the country when he arrived at Boston Logan International Airport on August 23.

Ajjawi graduated this spring from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Deir Yassin High School in El Buss refugee camp, south of Tyre, Lebanon. He achieved the highest score in the life science stream of the Official Lebanese Baccalaureate exams in the south region and eighth highest in all of Lebanon. El Buss camp is one of twelve Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon where UNRWA provides services. Ajjawi described that his school was surrounded by the camp, and as such it, “Suffers from many difficulties, the most important being the housing density that leads to the construction of houses very close to each other. In this atmosphere, it is really difficult for students to concentrate on their studies. There are a limited number of scholarships [after high school] and each year the amount is reduced. A large proportion of students are unable to study. I advise all my classmates to study hard and maintain their studies, so that they can achieve their dreams as I have been able to achieve mine.”

“Ismail Ajjawi is obviously an extremely talented and determined student and young man,” said Dr. Caroline Pontefract, the UNRWA Director of Education, “who, despite all odds, has gained a place in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Ismail wants to study physical and chemical biology towards a career in medicine which he had always dreamed of.  As such, he is a beacon of hope for  hundreds of thousands of UNRWA students and representative of what UNRWA strives to achieve through its education programme: to realize the potential of every student and ensure that they acquire the values and principles that underpin the programme and UNRWA as a UN Agency.”

UNRWA educates 530,000 Palestine refugee children at 709 elementary and preparatory schools across its five fields of operations. The Agency also employs over 22,000 educational staff, the majority of whom are Palestine refugees, as teachers. UNRWA students consistently outperform their peers in public schools on national and international standardized tests. The Agency’s school systems across the Middle East were deemed by the World Bank to be a ‘global public good’. 

UNRWA supports Ismail and all Palestine refugees who strive, against all odds, to achieve their full potential through higher education.

Seventeen-year-old Palestine refugee, Ismail Ajjawi, who was admitted to the Harvard University incoming freshman class of 2023 and issued a visa to the United States,
Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

For more information, please contact:

Sami Mshasha
Director of Communications, Arabic Language Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)258 90724
Tamara Alrifai
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+962 (0)79 090 0140