Palestinian refugee schools in Jordan reopen despite US funding cuts

After funding was withdrawn by the US, it was uncertain whether UNRWA schools across the Middle East would be able to reopen

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Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees returned to school in Jordan on Sunday as the embattled United Nations Relief and Works Agency highlighted the support of the UAE and other Arab states in keeping the schools open.

At a school in east Amman, children carried balloons, showed off their new backpacks and sang to mark the opening of the new school year. But Al Nuzha School for Girls is one of 169 schools that almost did not reopen this year due to UNRWA‘s ongoing funding challenges.

The United States cut US$300 million of its $360m annual pledge to the agency in 2018 in what UNRWA called an “existential crisis”, and cut the remaining $60m in 2019 leaving a large budget gap.

Although pledges from various states at a New York conference in June reduced this year’s deficit from $211m to $151m, as of Sunday, the agency still faces a $120m budget shortfall.

Schoolchildren line up for roll call at the start of the school year at the UNRWA-run Al Nuzha School for Girls in Amman, Jordan. Taylor Luck for The National

A leaked internal UNRWA ethics report that alleges nepotism and corruption among the agency’s upper management also led Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium to suspend their funding for 2019 while the UN probes the claims.

It is struggling to look ahead to 2020 and keep its education services running until the end of this academic year. The schools in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza were only able to open because the agency restructured its other programmes.

UNRWA is set to open its schools in Syria and Lebanon next week.

“The fact that children go back to school on time every year is the most basic thing, but for Palestinian refugees, this may be the most important day of the year,” said UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl at a press conference at the school, promising that the agency would do everything to “protect our flagship education programme”.

Mr Krähenbühl also highlighted the support of Arab states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for enabling the beleaguered agency to keep its schools and health clinics opened.

Seventh graders direct third-graders through a traffic simulation to teach road safety at the UNRWA-run Al Nuzha School for Girls in Amman, Jordan. Taylor Luck for The National

The UAE provided $50m to UNRWA in 2019 and $50m in 2018, funds that were critical for the functioning of schools such as Al Nuzha.

"The UAE has been a very important and dynamic partner for us. This year, the UAE was the first Arab state to announce it was maintaining its level of generous support," Mr Krähenbühl told The National.

Saudi Arabia provided funds for the renovation of schools and for the cleaning of Palestinian refugee camps during Ramadan and Eid holiday.

UNRWA runs schools for a half-million Palestinian children and health services for 3.1 million refugees in the Middle East. Maintaining the schools is seen as an issue of national importance and security for Jordan, which is unable to absorb the 120,000 pupils they educate should classes be disrupted.

The country is mired by economic crisis and struggling to renovate and maintain its overcrowded government schools, many of which have been forced to shorten their hours.

Rula, 12, a pupil at Al Nuzha and a member of the school’s parliament, said that her and her peers “look forward to school for the entire summer”.

“This is not only where we learn, but we have a chance to develop ourselves and our voice to give back to our community,” she said.

Her classmate, Umaima, said that school is “where we make friends for life”.