By Elizabeth Cooper

On January 21st, 2010, the Conservative government announced that Canada would be withdrawing its financial support from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). UNRWA has been assisting Palestinian Refugees gain access to food, education, health care and social services since 1950, when they numbered roughly 1 million. Today, the number of Palestinians in refugee camps has swelled to approximately 5 million and their circumstances have seen little change.

As a volunteer during CEPAL’s 2009 Summer Program, I saw firsthand the impact of UNRWA’s presence in the camps. Each camp has an UNRWA school, giving hundreds of children access to education. My fellow CEPAL volunteers, Julie and Erin, worked at UNRWA schools in both Shatila and Wavel camps. The infrastructure provided by the school makes summer programs like CEPAL’s possible.

While living in Bourj el-Barajneh, UNRWA’s presence wasn’t flashing in neon lights at the main entrance to the camp. It was omnipresent, however. Blue signs outside of small offices, the schools, rubbish collectors with UNRWA vests, the occasional question from a resident, “do you work for UNRWA?” Healthcare, including hospitals, doctors and medicine, is provided for by UNRWA. Social services, including disability and emergency relief, are designed to assist individuals in becoming more self-reliant. UNRWA also runs microfinance programs and programs for women, all designed to promote positive socio-economic growth within the Palestinian community. UNRWA has provided many physical benefits to the Palestinians, but they have also provided quantifiable evidence of Palestinian population numbers, unemployment rates, health statistics and documented living conditions. All of this information colludes to form a body of knowledge that represents the Palestinian people in the global arena. Reports written, photographs taken, statistics calculated; all help to define the plight of Palestinian refugees and publicize it internationally.

UNRWA is funded exclusively by UN member nations. In 2009, only 86% of targeted funding was reached, which has resulted in a reduction in quality and quantity of services. With the Palestinian population growing, the situation will continue to worsen. Canada’s withdrawal of funding, after multiple decades, means UNRWA has just lost its 7th largest donor. The loss of these funds could have real impact on the ground in camps like Bourj, where I lived, and friends I made continue to live. The funds, reallocated to other, as yet unspecified Palestinian projects, are crucial to the delivery of important UNRWA programs. CEPAL’s primary mandate is empowerment through education; these cuts could severely inhibit UNRWA’s ability to provide access to education in the camps.

We at CEPAL encourage anyone reading this statement to write a letter to their member of parliament, asking for an explanation for the withdrawal of funding, and a breakdown of the reallocation of funds.

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