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What Palestinian refugees deserve


In 2018, the Trump administration made the troubling decision to terminate funding for humanitarian programs supporting Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon by ending America’s 70-year partnership with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This decision has left millions of refugees wondering if they will starve and how they will access basic health care. Children and their parents now worry whether or not there will be enough funds for their schools to open and their teachers to be paid.

Food, health care and education are essential for basic human dignity. The Trump administration’s decision to withhold humanitarian assistance to a specific civilian population in a misguided attempt to play politics is dangerous — in terms of both people’s lives and the destabilizing implications for an already volatile region. It’s also antithetical to the United States’ history as the single largest donor to UNRWA and a historical model in humanitarian aid abroad. The U.S. should replenish its contribution to UNRWA immediately.

UNRWA is the sole organization charged with providing critical health, educational and humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. In that way, it provides state-like services that most host countries fail to provide the refugees living within their borders. The agency’s more than 700 hundred schools educate more than 535,000 children, utilizing a curriculum that emphasizes the UN values of peace, tolerance and gender equity. The agency’s 143 health clinics provide care for 3.5 million refugees, and its food assistance programs reach more than a million destitute refugees in Gaza alone.

The U.S. withdrawal of support has led to ballooning class sizes, with as many as 50 students in a single classroom; cuts to community mental health services counseling and treatment for those suffering the trauma of displacement, conflict and violence; reduced ability of clinics to procure medicines in advance, meaning that doctors lack what they need to treat patients; and the shrinking of the job creation program, which helped vulnerable, low-income families find work, legitimate sources of income, and hope for the future.

This week, thousands of people are participating in a 250-mile “relay run for refugees” to raise awareness of the growing humanitarian crisis this irresponsible and cruel policy change has created. As the UN General Assembly convenes in New York, a group of Palestinian and American runners, including members of Right to Movement, are running a relay from the steps of the United Nations to the U.S. Capitol.

Upon our arrival in Washington, we will ask lawmakers to restore funding to UNRWA’s critical life-changing programs. Food, education and health care should not be used as political leverage against anyone.

The U.S. government is working hard to dismantle UNRWA without any alternative in place for caring for the refugees impacted. Starving the only agency tasked with providing the core services integral to these people’s lives will not make Palestinians disappear. As marathon runners, and through positive and non-violent resistance, we join together as we use our bodies to convey the message that Palestinians are equal to every other population in the world. We run, dance, sing — and we deserve a life with land to call our own.

UNWRA itself is the first to agree it was not established to exist in perpetuity. But for now, its continued existence is essential because it and only it is responsible for ensuring Palestine refugees can live meaningful, dignified lives until a just political solution is reached. That political solution is outside UNRWA’s mandate, and the delay in reaching it only means that UNRWA is responsible for increased generations of refugees in need. Current efforts to terminate the agency are nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention from the real problem — the need for an even-handed solution to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East.

We chose our 250-mile route from New York City to Washington to build solidarity between Palestinians and Americans who oppose the politicization of humanitarian aid. We deserve the UN resolutions written on our behalf to be implemented. We deserve congressional support for the restoration of humanitarian funding for the West Bank and Gaza, and for the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria — where almost 60% of Palestine refugees have been displaced more than once.

Join us. Run with us. Run toward equality, respect and the continued care of millions in need by supporting our right to free movement and the international institutions committed to a just and lasting peace.

Zeidan is co-founder of the Palestine Marathon and the Right to Movement Palestine. He is a Fulbright alumnus and currently lives in Jerusalem.