The work of the UN body responsible for assisting Palestine refugees, UNRWA, which has allowed millions of children to receive an education that promotes UN values of human rights and tolerance, as well as democracy and conflict resolution, should be viewed “not only as our common responsibility, but as our common success”, said Secretary-General António Guterres on Tuesday.

The UN chief was speaking at the opening of the 2019 pledging conference for UNRWA, officially the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, alongside the President of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, and the agency’s Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl.

Mr. Guterres vaunted the accomplishments of the agency over its almost 70-year existence. As well as running more than 700 schools, providing free education for over half a million Palestine refugee children, UNRWA maintains high-quality and cost-effective health care services; runs emergency and social services; and provides food aid, which includes meeting the needs of one million Palestine refugees in Gaza.

‘Cost-effective’ aid for Palestine refugees faces ‘serious funding shortfall’

The presence of conference delegates in New York, sent a powerful message that they are convinced of UNRWA’s value, and that they are willing to act, by pledging generous donations to allow the agency to carry on its vital work, said Ms. Espinosa.

The General Assembly President warned that the agency was $211 million short of the $1.2 billion needed to deliver its aid programmes. She went on to ask delegates to consider the consequences of a failure to meet the funding requirements, for “half a million boys and girls, for 5.4 million refugees, for the wider region and for the world.”

Mr. Krähenbühl explained that, in the absence of new contributions, the funding gap will rise throughout the year, adding that it is “absolutely crucial” to open schools on time in August and September, and to avoid a break-down of the agency’s food pipeline for a million people in Gaza.

The head of UNRWA reminded delegates that the agency’s work takes place against a backdrop of “psychosocial trauma resulting from years of conflict, blockade and violence”, where the lives of Palestine refugees are defined in every aspect by occupation, “from home demolitions and forced evictions, to lack of freedom of movement and violence.”

Echoing these remarks, the Secretary-General underscored the efficiency of UNRWA operations, stressing the “extraordinary reform and cost-control measures to reduce inefficient spending.” Thanks to these measures, he said, UNRWA has saved $500 million. The international community, Mr. Guterres continued, must “rise to the challenge”, so that UNRWA can continue its “important and impressive work.”

UNRWA schools provide ‘hope for a better future’

Following the remarks from the senior UN officials, Hanan Abu Asbeh and Hatem Hamdouna, teenage students from the West Bank and Gaza, elected to represent 536,000 UNRWA students from Gaza and the West Bank, spoke of their daily experiences, and the importance of UNRWA schools in their lives.

UN Photo/Manuel Elias
Hanan Abu Asbeh (foreground), a 15-year-old girl from the West Bank and 14-year-old Hatem Hamdouna from Gaza address delegates at the UN in New York about life as students in schools run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East.

Scenes of war and destruction are still in my head, and haunt me in my sleep Hatem Hamdouna, Palestine refugee student

Hanan, who said that she had “led a life of suffering”, hearing the sounds of explosions and bullets in the streets, expressed her hope that schools will open on time this year. She said that for some children, the end of the school year meant long holidays, free from the classroom. For Palestinian refugee children however, it is “not fun”, she said, because education is the most important thing they have.

Although he is only fifteen, Hatem has already lived through three wars, and he told the delegates that, although “scenes of war and destruction are still in my head, and haunt me in my sleep”, an UNRWA education has been his only hope for a better future, and allowed him to learn about his rights, even in the darkest times.

This article orignally appeared on UN NEWS