I feel like I’ve lost my life,’ say victims of UNRWA funding cuts

‘I feel like I’ve lost my life,’ say victims of UNRWA funding cuts
By Mahmoud Ramadan, WeAreNotNumbers.org

“I haven’t just lost a job. I feel like I’ve lost my life,” says 39-year-old Raeda Younis, who has worked for UNRWA, the U.N. agency charged with aiding Palestinian refugees, for 16 years.

Osama Naseer, 48, agrees.

“It is our right to live in dignity like anyone else,” fumes the 17-year employee. “It is time to tear down the wall of silence and tell Donald Trump we will not surrender to his racist policies even if we die of hunger.”  

Photo Credits: Mohammed Mansour

Photo Credits: Mohammed Mansour

Raeda and Osama are among nearly1,000 U.N. employees whose contracts were terminated or who will be transferred to part-time work by the end of the year. The cuts came after the U.S. government, UNRWA’s largest funder, eliminated its contribution of $125 million. And now, the agency says its schools and health centers might soon have to shut down.

In a territory with an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent, UNRWA jobs had been among the most stable and sufficiently paid. Many Gazans had been working for the agency for more than 20 years. Raeda first served for three years in on an emergency team that helped out during crises, like during wars. Then she transferred to a school and became a counselor. She never dreamed she’d lose her job so suddenly.

Raeda is the sole breadwinner for an eight-member family. All six of her children are in school and her eldest daughter recently graduated from high school, hoping to study English at university. Meanwhile, Raeda and her husband owes a local bank for money they borrowed to build their house.

"I'm not sure how I'm going to support my children while they are in school anymore or, most importantly, live with dignity," says Raeda. And then there is the impact on students, who no longer will receive the benefit of her counseling. In her position, she had focused her work on students with behavioral challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD, or who were suffering from the effects of family problems such as neglect and divorce.'

“The significance of my job isn’t only helping students socialize and express their creativity, but also a strengthening their ability to cope with domestic violence at home, “ she adds. Students in Gaza, she explains, are assaulted by emotional challenges due to high rates of poverty, unemployment and violence, leading to poor academic performance.

There’s an African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Many people other than parents influence the development of a child into adulthood, and this is particularly important when the family environment is under such stress. Teachers and counselors can play a vital role. Raeda has served as both the “glue” for her own family and a support to many others.

"As a mother and a refugee myself, I wonder about the impact when counseling is not available under the current circumstances,” she muses sadly. “How will students’ personality and behavior be affected? Most of the children suffer from depression and anxiety already.

Osama too is a school counselor who had been the sole breadwinner for a large family (eight children). Neither he nor Raeda are old enough to receive the special assistance paid to employees terminated after the age of 50. Osama was so distraught when he was informed he had lost job that he went on hunger strike at UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters for two weeks.

Some members of the employees’ union proposed to UNRWA officials that one day’s pay be deducted from each remaining worker’s salary to set up an emergency fund for people like Raeda and Osama. However, local agency officers said that such an action was out of their sphere of authority.’

Photo Credits: Mohammed Mansour

Photo Credits: Mohammed Mansour

"From zero to hero is a common saying we hear,” says Osama. “That means if you work hard, you can achieve a lot. But the Israeli blockade and now the layoffs have changed the equation here,” says Osama. “I have sunk below zero due to loans and other debt I owe the banks. My family's future is insecure and I do not know how to pay my children's university tuition. UNRWA turned me from a teacher with dignity into a beggar.”