Earlier this year, it looked as if the closure of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) school system was imminent. It was the organization’s second severe financial crisis in recent years. Closure was only averted because of last-minute funding from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Britain, and Sweden.
The financial future of UNRWA, whose operations include the education of half a million Palestinian refugees across the Levant, looks bleak. Like other UN programs, UNRWA has no independent source of funds and has to compete with other NGOs and UN sister organizations for increasingly limited humanitarian funding from donor states, which are under no obligation to provide funds. With multiple crises currently taking place in the Middle East, these voluntary yearly donations to UNRWA are quickly decreasing.
All of the services provided by UNRWA, such as emergency aid, camp infrastructure and healthcare, are important forms of humanitarian aid, but shutting down schools would cause the most profound long-term impact for many communities. The UNRWA schools represent the only form of education available to many Palestinian refugees, providing them with an opportunity to build new lives and secure a safer, more stable future.
Many are now asking what will happen if and when funds again reach critically low levels. Will the UNRWA schools close? Over the course of my field research in Jordan, including interviews with UNRWA teachers in and near Amman, I observed several interesting features of the UNRWA school system that must be taken into consideration in any discussion about closing these schools. Nearly all the possible effects of UNRWA school closures would be negative for the Palestinians served by the organization, and could have particularly grave consequences for the stability of the Jordanian State.
UNRWA’s Role in Shaping the Palestinian Experience in Jordan
Since its inception in 1949, UNRWA has evolved into a quasi-state institution. It works in parallel with host governments in the Levant and often provides services that surpass state aid both in scope and quality. In Jordan, for example, the approximately 120,000 UNRWA pupils consistently outperform their government-educated peers on national exams.
With teachers originating from refugee communities and trained at UNRWA teachers’ colleges, the structure of these schools “create[s] a community and culture of learning,” according to a 2014 World Bank report. This tight-knit community, where Palestinian identity is celebrated and solidified, provides important psycho-social support for refugees, while also helping develop and perpetuate a unified Palestinian identity and historical narrative. Visitors to UNRWA schools in Jordan will see murals of al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, student-made decorations celebrating Palestinian culture, and posters espousing the United Nations’ Peace Principles.
Jordan’s UNRWA schools are central to ensuring that “Palestinian” is and continues to be a living, self-reproducing identity that is a source of pride for refugees. Teachers work to remind students of their historical origins and help them understand what it means to be a refugee. They are educated about their community’s history, what that history means for Palestinians across the Middle East and diaspora, and what rights are guaranteed for refugees by the UN and international law. For students, this creates a culture of awareness about their community’s past, and helps them understand their place in the world and feel their identities are respected and affirmed.
Although some accuse UNRWA of promoting an overly conformist version of Palestinian identity, many Palestinians feel that a core function of these schools should be to educate youth about the Right of Return and encourage them to take pride in their identity. Indeed, this “hidden curricula” helps explain the success of UNRWA schools in developing crucial knowledge-economy skills, such as critical thinking, research, and debate. This is because students engage more with topics to which they have a personal or cultural connection, and that are related to their everyday experiences.
For Palestinian students, Jordanian government textbooks fall short on this score. These books fail to reflect or connect with the Palestinian experience, especially when it comes to refugees. UNRWA has stepped in to fill this gap. According to the organization’s website, UNRWA “supplements [host authorities’ curricula and textbooks] with its own materials on human rights” with the goal of “empowering Palestinian refugee students to … be proud of their Palestinian identity.” My interviews also indicated that teachers are also more likely to use engagement-oriented, creative educational strategies when discussing Palestinian topics. These sorts of tactics have been shown to be more effective in improving learning outcomes than the rote learning methods favored by official curricula, especially when it comes to critical thinking.
UNRWA teachers have observed that many of their students are passionately interested in Palestinian issues and work harder on those assignments. One UNRWA teacher in North Amman told me that identity-related projects have been a catalyst for building critical research skills in her classroom. When this teacher asked her students to prepare presentations about their ancestral cities and towns in historical Palestine, many copied information directly from Wikipedia (a habit that frustrates teachers of all subjects in Jordan), which identified the towns by Israeli names. The teacher used this incident as an opportunity to teach her students how to properly conduct research and examine website sources and biases.
Education is made relevant to the local context, and students are invited to bring the lived experiences of their communities into the class room and discuss these issues through the lens of Global Citizenship values, including peace and human rights, intercultural education, gender equity, and education for sustainable development, which are all part the UNRWA curriculum. In particular, the UNRWA curriculum helps mediate the significant gap between the UN Peace Principles and anger refugees have about their expulsion from Palestine and the continuing Israeli occupation. Teachers use the Palestinian experience to give their students a concrete way to think about issues of conflict resolution and even environmental responsibility. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jordanian government’s curricula, where themes like citizenship are presented in an abstract way that does not connect to the students’ personal lives.
One interviewee, another North Amman teacher, said that during the Second Intifada many of her students expressed critical views about the UNRWA human rights curriculum, which defines tolerance as “sympathy towards practices you may not agree with.” The topic turned into a classroom debate about how principles of tolerance and coexistence can be applied in situations of political and humanitarian oppression. These kinds of conversations not only build students’ debating skills, but also encourage them to reexamine their history in light of humanitarian principles and search for possible pathways toward a peaceful future.
These critical skills, together with efforts to reaffirm and support Palestinian identity, mean that UNRWA schools are creating an empowering educational environment, all on a shoestring budget.
UNRWA’s Position in the Jordanian Sociopolitical Landscape
In Jordan, Palestinian refugees have greater rights than they do in many other resettlement locations, like Lebanon, with most holding Jordanian citizenship. Refugees are, however, barred from the military and most government posts. The type of citizenship enjoyed by Palestinians in Jordan is no more irrevocable than it is complete. This much has been shown by Jordan’s decision to revoke the citizenship of leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization starting in 1971 and Hamas in 1999, as well as that of thousands of other Palestinians who have been arbitrarily stripped of citizenship.
Limited citizenship rights for refugees were initially intended to preserve the balance of power between the Palestinians, who make up the majority of Jordan’s population, and the native, but far less numerous, [East Bank] Jordanians, whose loyalty to the government depends on their privileged legal status and exclusive eligibility for government and military positions. Over the last few decades these privileges have been protected by a state that has been based, not on the paramount importance of citizenship, but rather on a hybrid ‘tribal-modern’ structure. This structure, which balances constituencies off one another, has been necessary because tribal identity was, and in many places still is, the primary form of social identity in Jordan. While tribes may pledge their loyalty to the monarchy, they expect services and concessions in return and have shown a willingness to revolt when this ‘contract’ is threatened.
Jordanian policies toward Palestinians are aimed at retaining refugee loyalty while minimizing Palestinian identity (in order to discourage nationalist movements) through partial inclusion in the state. The government cannot, however, afford to push full integration, since this risks angering native East Bankers.
Maintaining this status quo depends, in some ways, on the UNRWA schools themselves. Jordan’s educational curriculum tries to forge a unified Jordanian identity and historical narrative based on a pan-Arab Islamic history, which relegates Palestinian history to little more than a footnote and ignores the Palestinian community’s presence in the country. However, while minimizing the existence of a separate Palestinian history, the Jordanian government continues to deny Palestinians certain rights and privileges based on this same history. This calculated ambiguity, which is crucial to maintaining the balance of power in Jordan, is preserved by the UNRWA schools and their perpetuation of a specifically Palestinian identity within a wider Jordanian context. Without UNRWA’s work in maintaining this distinction between Palestinians and native Jordanian, the government would be in the uncomfortable and ultimately untenable position of arguing that Palestinians are legally, socially, and historically the same as Jordanians, but do not deserve the same rights.
Educational and Social Consequences of UNRWA Closure
The closure of UNRWA schools would create untold educational losses for the Palestinian community in Jordan. Many of the positive effects of the UNRWA school system cannot be replicated in a government-run educational context. Because of the political situation in Jordan, conversations about modern Palestinian identity cannot and do not occur in state-controlled classrooms. Since the government believes the needs of native Jordanians and Palestinians do not differ in a substantial way, the Ministry of Education takes the position that the curriculum for all students should be identical. In practice, this means Palestinian voices and narratives are often silenced.
The Jordanian curriculum almost completely omits Palestinian history. While Palestinian figures, particularly literary and artistic ones, are featured in state textbooks, there is little discussion of the history of Palestinians in Jordan, or of the past and present political crises in Palestine. For the students currently in UNRWA schools, adopting this curriculum would erase the opportunity for them to think critically about their community’s struggle, which would have both educational and socio-emotional consequences.
Almost any scenario involving the closure of UNRWA schools would mean the loss of educational opportunities for thousands of children. Most UNRWA families cannot afford private school, and government educational institutions are already well over capacity and dealing with an additional 130,000 Syrian refugee students over the last few years (thousands more are still out of school).
This resulting educational gap would profoundly affect the academic futures of countess Palestinian students. Losing out on months or years of schooling can have irrevocable consequences. In addition to a myriad of long-term economic and social consequences, children in Jordan who have missed more than three years of school are ineligible to re-enroll in formal education. These lost educational opportunities could alienate youth who have no economic prospects and feel abandoned by the Jordanian government and the international community.
The unemployment rate in Jordan is high, and education is an important factor in securing jobs. Work in Jordan is scarce even for those with high levels of education, but for those with less education the chances of finding steady employment are measurably worse. 80% of males with a higher-than-university education are employed, but the rate drops to 61% for those with below-secondary education. For women, who are already a vulnerable group, the effects are even more pronounced. 46% of those with a university education or higher are employed, but only 5% of those with below-secondary education have jobs.
Without the mediating influence of UNRWA schools, which attempt to find a balance between Palestinian nationalist ideals and universal principles like human rights, some young people may turn to more radical influences in an attempt to make sense of their situation. A lack of economic opportunities, coupled with frustration at state failure to provide basic services such as education, is a recipe for youth radicalization. This could take the form either of violent anti-government action or coordinated political protests.
Many case studies cite unemployment and a lack of advancement opportunities as major contributors to violent youth radicalization. A study by the Brookings Institute identifies “the absence of opportunities relative to expectations” as a major radicalization factor; youth who have reason to expect education and employment opportunities, but find themselves deprived of them, are statistically the most likely to take violent action of some form. This potent combination is compounded by the fact that these youth would be deprived of teachers who often act as mentors, who both understand their situation and value the humanitarian principles espoused by the UN.
Even if frustration were limited to non-violent protests, this could have serious consequences for the Jordanian state as it continues to play its Palestinian and East-Bank constituencies off one another. When school closures seemed imminent during the latest funding crisis, tensions immediately rose to a boiling point: a report released by UNRWA stated that “refugee communities, including UNRWA staff, are protesting these actions, and tensions are increasingly visible in the 58 camps.”
Currently, it appears that most Palestinians do not consider their identities to be in opposition to the Jordanian state. When interviewed, youth in UNRWA schools described themselves as “thankful for King Abdullah” and “happy we live in a safe country.” UNRWA teachers report that many students identify as both Jordanian and Palestinian – a dual identity that should not be taken as a shift away from Palestinian and toward Jordanian. This suggests that youth integration has progressed as far as possible within the current system.
However, in the environment of alienation and community breakdown that would follow the disappearance of UNRWA schools, it is likely youth would quickly grow impatient with a Jordanian government that is unable to fill the gaps and would take matters into their own hands. Even if Palestinian students are moved entirely and immediately into government schools, they may soon begin to demand the same opportunities as their native Jordanian peers. Any change in the refugees’ de facto legal position would, in turn, be opposed by the native Jordanian population. This opposition would be especially strong in the tribal south, which is a crucial bastion of the monarchy’s power.
Continued Funding for UNRWA Schools Is Critical
In the Jordan, UNRWA is clearly the most effective provider of free quality education to Palestinian students. Its crucial role in shaping Palestinian identity and communal dynamics makes its work doubly important. Palestinian communities have repeatedly proved their resilience, but the extreme pressure caused by the collapse of UNRWA schools would likely lead to socio-economic alienation, loss of advancement opportunities, and possibly youth radicalization. Upsetting the delicate balance of power, forged by the simultaneous obfuscation of Palestinian history and denial of full Palestinian integration, would have dangerous consequences for Jordanian stability.
In other countries where Palestinians have less state support and rely more heavily on UNRWA services, the consequences of closure would be even more severe. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, UNRWA schools serve nearly 25% of the primary school student population. In Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees are banned from over twenty professions and experience the highest rates of abject poverty of UNRWA’s five operational areas, the organization runs over sixty schools. In the current climate, neither the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, nor the Lebanese government would be capable of rapidly expanding their educational infrastructures to fill the void left by UNRWA’s closure. In crisis areas such as Syria, where UNRWA provides emergency services for displaced persons and communities under siege, funding cuts would have serious, immediate humanitarian consequences in addition to long-term educational ones.
Bearing these potential consequences in mind, it is clear the current pattern of underfunding and financial crises cannot be allowed to continue. If donor states are interested in creating long-term stability in the Middle East, they must commit to consistently funding UNRWA in the years to come.