GAZA–The future is uncertain for 252 United Nations schools here that serve more than 240,000 students, as the agency that runs the schools copes with a serious shortage of funds.
For weeks, students, parents and teachers here have feared that Gaza’s schools might not open on schedule later this month. Some 450 additional schools in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank have faced the same plight.
The immediate crisis was averted when officials of UNRWA, the U.N. agency that operates the schools,said this week that they had the funds to open the schools on time, but only enough money to run them through the end of September. The rest of the school year remains in doubt.
For students like Shahd Al-Shabrawi, 14, that’s a big worry.
“A school is a place where I improve my mind and raise my academic level to achieve my dreams,” said Shahd, who wants to work in a role in which she can improve Palestine’s economy and civil society.
“Everyone’s dreams start with education,” she said earlier this month. “Not starting schools after the summer break means that ignorance will spread among children in Gaza.”
In July, UNRWA announced that it could not renew 1,000 contracts in hospitals and schools serving grades one through nine because of funding cuts. Around 430 mental health counselors in the schools were laid off immediately.
The cuts were largely the result of the U.S. government’s announcement in January that it would withhold more than half of its funding for UNRWA, providing only $60 million. That decision came only weeks after President Donald Trump complained in a tweet that Palestinians were ungrateful for the American aid and unwilling to join peace talks.
UNRWA leaders said in April that the Trump administration had actually withheld more than $300 million in funding for Palestinian aid, and in July the agency said it would have to take “mitigating measures,” including program cuts and layoffs.
Ismael Al-Tamah, 39, a counselor in the UNWRA health services and community mental health program, was among those in Gaza who lost jobs.
“I was told suddenly without being warned that I was dismissed after 14 years of work,” said Al-Tamah, who works with children who are suffering from trauma related to the 2014 war in Gaza and other violence. “I am just wondering about how students will survive and continue their studies without having psychological support.”
UNRWA spokesman Sami Mushasha said the agency had no option but to cut staff. “Dismissing the employees is the only consistent choice” to guarantee that the agency could continue offering basic support and other services to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, he said.
During the 2017-18 school year, the schools in Gaza employed around 8,700 teachers and 530 principals and other administrators, according to UNRWA.
The rationale given for the cuts angered some Palestinians.
“The UNRWA tries to justify the reasons behind this by saying that it is a financial crisis,” said Ali Maatr, 37, a dismissed instructor in the health services and community mental health program. “This crisis is a pure political crisis where the U.S. tries to end refugee support and spread ignorance among Palestinians.
“Education is the way to teach our children about their history, land, human rights and the Palestine-Israeli conflict,” said Maatr. “Cutting funds and closing schools is what the U.S. and Israel want.”
Selman Qranawi, 43, another instructor in the health services and community mental health program who was dismissed after 17 years of work, agreed with that sentiment.
“The issue is not about laying off 1,000 employees,” he said. “It is about creating a situation in which students are left without psychological support. It also creates instability in workers’ status as they may be dismissed as well. This is the beginning of something larger.”
Many Palestinians now fear more cuts will come. Amal Al-Batsh, deputy chairman of the employees’ union in UNRWA, said that if teachers and more staff members lose their jobs, strikes and other civil unrest may follow.
“If there is a strike, it will be a strike all around Palestine, not only in Gaza,” Al-Batsh said, adding that decreasing the staff increasing the number of students in classes will affect the quality of education.
The Gazans who lost their school jobs have dismal prospects of finding other employment in the region. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip is almost 44 percent.
“I do not know where to find a job in Gaza, an area that has no jobs,” Al-Tamah said.
Student Malk Al-Sharafi, 13, is worried about the consequences of budget cuts or a strike. “Missing days or months without education means that students will be overwhelmed by the amount of studying and makeup classes,” Malk said.
A Gaza City high school principal who asked to remain anonymous said the cuts would not affect students in the new academic year but would nonetheless take a toll on the Palestinian education system.
“It will affect teachers and colleagues, as they can be dismissed every time UNRWA claims it’s having a financial crisis,” he said.
For now, some 526,000 students are scheduled return to UNRWA’s 711 schools in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria on August 29. Meanwhile, the agency hopes to raise additional money in order to continue providing services to the Palestinian refugee community.
UNRWA, whose formal name is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, was created in 1949 to assist Palestinians displaced by the conflict surrounding the foundation of Israel.