UNRWA’s Iconic Syria image to go up in New York’s Times Square and in Tokyo’s Shibuya District

19 March 2014
In January 2014, when UNRWA was able to complete its first humanitarian distribution in Yarmouk after almost six months of siege, it was met by thousands of desperate residents on the destroyed main street. © 2014 UNRWA Photo


The image of crowds of Palestinians lining up for UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) food parcels, which has emerged as an icon of the Syria conflict, is to be displayed simultaneously on the massive electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square and its Asian equivalent in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.  This follows an UNRWA-led, celebrity-backed social media campaign which reached almost double its target of 23 million, the pre-war population of Syria. As the campaign reached its climax, news emerged that after a break of more than two weeks, UNRWA was able to get into Yarmouk and distribute hundreds of food parcels to besieged civilians. 

The #LetUsThrough initiative generated over 38.5 million social media impressions and reached over 26 million people, demanding humanitarian access to what the UN estimates are 10 million people in Syria who need assistance, including 5 million children. The campaign has been featured on the Thunderclap website as one of the most successful in its history. Thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor, the campaign image will appear on the billboard at 7.30 p.m. and 8.30 p.m. on Thursday evening, when citizens’ groups intend to hold a silent vigil in Times Square for the Palestinians of Yarmouk and all civilians in Syria. Within minutes of being published by UNRWA last month, the image went viral on the internet and was reproduced in the print editions of over a thousand newspapers world wide.

“There’s a pointed symbolism about this icon appearing on two world famous billboards simultaneously at either ends of the globe”, said Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesperson. “The image has come to sum up the feelings of all us, expressing the groundswell of international revulsion at the tragic suffering that this pitiless conflict has perpetrated against Palestinians and all civilians in Syria.” Gunness continued, “How fitting that on the day of this campaign, we were able to get into Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus and distribute 465 food parcels. But this is not nearly enough for some 20,000 people there, which is why we are demanding secure, substantial and sustained access.”

A similar Thunderclap campaign in January is credited with leading to the creation of a humanitarian corridor, through which UNRWA has delivered over 8,000 food parcels to Yarmouk.

The UNRWA campaign was backed by the UK-based HOPING Foundation, which secured support for a joint UNRWA-HOPING statement backed by 30 celebrities and figures from the world of arts and entertainment. These included Alfonso Cuarón, who won the Best Director Oscar for Gravity, but also Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Annie Lennox, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach. Stephen Fry and Mia Farrow also actively tweeted in support of the campaign. In addition, UNRWA ambassador Mohammed Assaf added his support to the campaign.

HOPING co-founder Bella Freud said the aim was “to raise immediate attention to the shocking situation of Palestinians and other civilians besieged and being starved to death in Syria. Palestinians have been made refugees so many times, and their plight matters deeply to all of us.” The joint statement demanded that “people and relief must be let through” to besieged areas. “We want our voices to carry, on behalf of those now suffering in Syria, in order to prevent any more tragedy”.