Education on an empty stomach

The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has been forced to reduce its services in Gaza because of budgetary cuts. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

Khitam Salim struggles to provide her children with packed lunches.

A mother of three, she has been a single parent since her husband died from leukemia four years ago.

Her children attend a primary school in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. Run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), the school does not provide its students with meals so they have to bring sandwiches or buy food from a canteen.

To buy food, the children would need more than $1 per day. Their mother cannot afford that amount.

“No one helps me,” Salim – who is unemployed and depends on social assistance – said. “The conditions in which we find ourselves are very hard. The children see some of their classmates buying things during the break. Not being able to buy anything themselves has a bad effect on them psychologically.”

Faris Qishta has five children, all of whom attend UNRWA schools.

He needs money to buy uniforms, as well as food for his children.

“I cannot do all this,” he said.

If it wasn’t for food aid packages he receives, “my family would have died of hunger,” he said. The aid, however, does not include meals at school.

Formerly a taxi driver, Qishta is now jobless.

“I am always looking for work, even for a few shekels, in order to meet my children’s simplest needs,” he said. “But I cannot find anything. My children have many dreams and when they come to tell me about them, I feel sad. I don’t know if their future will be better or if it will be like it is at the moment.”

UNRWA oversees a network of 288 schools in Gaza, catering to almost 300,000 students.

No breakfast

Thousands of these children go to school without breakfast and without having money for food during the day. As they lack proper nutrition, many children cannot concentrate properly on their lessons.

UNRWA used to run a free meal scheme in its schools.

Because of budgetary constraints, the general school-feeding program was halted in 2014. As a result, the agency now only gives free meals in particular cases.

Since 2014, UNRWA has been forced to cut spending amid a major funding crisis.

Although the crisis began before then, it became especially acute while Donald Trump was the US president. Currying favor with an extremist pro-Israel lobby, Trump introduced drastic cuts in aid to UNRWA.

The US has adopted a more favorable stance toward the agency since Trump’s successor Joe Biden moved into the White House.

US contributions to UNRWA have nonetheless declined when they are examined over a longer period.

In 2022, US aid to the agency stood at around $344 million. That was lower than the $365 million the US had given per annum before Trump announced the cuts in 2018.

Funding difficulties

Against that backdrop, UNRWA’s financial difficulties remain severe.

The agency offers services including health care and education to a total of nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Reliant on international donors, UNRWA has sought an overall budget of almost $1.75 billion this year. Just 44 percent of that sum had been raised by August.

Earlier this month, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, stated that UNRWA needs $170-190 million “to sustain core services until the end of this year.” An additional $75 million is necessary “to continue our life-saving food pipeline to more than half the population in Gaza.”

Under a complete Israeli blockade since 2007, Gaza has an unemployment rate of 46 percent, according to the latest available data.

Said Khalid, 10, is a fifth grade student at an UNRWA school in Gaza City’s Beach refugee camp.

His family was unable to buy him a new uniform and stationery when schools returned after the summer holidays. He also has no money to buy food in the canteen.

“I know that my father is not mean,” Said said. “If he had money, he would give me some, so that I could buy things alongside my classmates. But he does not have work.”

Iyad Zaqout heads a mental health department in UNRWA.

He has observed a growing reluctance among children to talk about the impact of poverty with counselors. “Some children may feel a sense of shame to disclose how their families are living in harsh conditions,” he said.

Sarah Jaber, 9, is a fourth-grade student in Jabalia refugee camp. Her father is a carpenter by trade yet has been unemployed for a number of years.

“I always ask the teacher if I can stay in the classroom when we have breaks,” she said. “I don’t want to see other students buying things in the canteens. It makes me feel sad.”

Ruwaida Amer is a journalist based in Gaza.