Duaa Ardat | 15-05-2018
"Without dignity, identity is erased." -- Louis Hillenbrand
Every human being is born with an identity—an ethnicity, a family, a place of birth that creates that first sense of “belongingness.” But when it’s not paired with dignity, identity can seem meaningless or even a curse.
As a perpetual refugee, I was born with an unusual identity. My identity is defined—contained, limited, distorted—by a blue ID card. As a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, this personal identification card classifies me as “stateless”—unable to vote, own property or work in professional jobs outside the refugee camps.
Like the rest of my people, I have had no choice but to accept this perpetually transient status. However, we will never give up our right to eventually return to the land in which our ancestors—in my case, my grandparents—were born, and where dignity was our birthright, not something for which we have to beg.
Until that dream comes true, however, we at least have the right to be treated with dignity in the place where we must live. A little background: Around 80 percent of Palestinians living in what became Israel in 1948 were forcibly displaced. Of these, approximately one-third fled to the West Bank, another third to the Gaza Strip, and the remainder to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or farther afield. It’s estimated that Lebanon initially received about 129,000—a number that has swelled since then to about 300,000. Although we are the oldest and single largest group of refugees in the world, Palestinians are the only population to be deprived of our nationality, unable to return to our former home and delegated to our own UN agency, UNRWA. While the mandate of UNHCR, the larger agency charged with caring for all other refuges, includes advocacy, UNRWA’s mission is specifically to assist Palestinian families through education, health care, food relief, etc.
Unfortunately, UNRWA is dependent on donor governments, especially that of the United States. And now, those vital services are in jeopardy due to U.S. President Donald Trump's catastrophic decision to withhold essential funding from the agency. That announcement came Jan. 16, with Trump saying he would not release $65 million of the $125 million pledged by the United States for 2018—thus greatly exacerbating a deficit that already had reached $446 million. Unless other government fill the gap, my own family will suffer, along with the students I teach in UNRWA schools. We are all pitching in to appeal for that support, using the theme “dignity is priceless.”
“It is important to stress concepts such as dignity and rights. I know that no Palestinian refugee wants to trade food for a solution,” Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl told Arab News. “No money can buy dignity and respect of their rights.” Yes…he gets it.
Personally, I am who I am now because UNRWA exists. I have spent all of my scholastic years in UNRWA schools. Upon graduation, I chose to continue my education in the Siblin Training Center, also an UNRWA institution, to earn a teaching diploma. For Palestinian refugees, teaching is the only sure opportunity for getting a job. In Lebanon means there are more than 20 professions in which Palestinian refugees are not allowed to practice outside of the camps. These include medicine, law, engineering and pharmacy.
Despite being one of my few choices, I feel blessed to work as a teacher for other refugees. Teaching brings hope to both them and me. Unfortunately, however, if insufficient funds are raised and the shortfall left by the United States remains, hundreds of employees—including me—will no longer have a job. As for the students, cutbacks would be disastrous. After news of Trump’s cuts spread, my students’ pessimistic spirits was almost tangible.
Mirna, a sixth grader, dreams of becoming a teacher herself. She once said to me, “If I lose my education, I lose my hope of a good life. My father can't afford the cost of another school. Instead, I would spend all my days on housework like my mom. This is not the life I dream of!" Then she fell silent for a while before adding: “All I want at this moment is to shout so the world would hear my voice."
Mirna and I both desire dignity more than anything else. Please consider donating to keep UNRWA afloat. The campaign will continue until a sustainable solution is found to the agency’s financial woes.
Campaign update: In the few months since the Trump announcement, UNRWA has collected donations of more than $200 million. Of this, $100 million was raised at a conference held in Rome March 15, as countries such as Qatar, Turkey, India, Norway and Canada made contributions. And this month, Saudi Arabia made a $50 million contribution, followed by the UAE. That’s good progress, but UNRWA is not yet out of the woods; today, it is focused on achieving long-term stability, protected from the whims and pet peeves of great powers.
Posted: May 15, 2018