September 27, 2018

Please help us to save our schools, say Palestinian students

Aseel and Ahmad represented more than half a million Palestinian refugee students in New York

Photo credit: Education Commission / Lana Wong

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Two teenagers made a passionate plea about the future of 526,000 children at the 711 schools run by the crisis-hit UN agency UNRWA. 

When government ministers, heads of United Nations agencies and the bosses of global businesses got together at an event in New York yesterday, the show was stolen by two Palestinian teenagers.

Ahmad Baker, 14, and 15-year-old Aseel Sabooh spoke passionately about the plight of 526,000 school students whose academic future is threatened by a financial crisis.

The UN agency UNRWA - which runs 711 schools in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria - was devastated when the United States slashed its funding from $250 million to $60 million in January. Other donor countries have rallied round but more money is needed to guarantee the schools stay open.

"We have hopes and dreams like all other children," Ahmad told the event hosted by the Global Business Coalition for Education.

"Education is our right and our horizon. Please, please help us to protect our education."

Aseel said: "We have not asked to be refugees. We want the world to accept us for our skills and determination. Nothing is more important to us than our education and, in my case, making sure the voices of girls are heard.

"Please help us save our schools."

That plea received a standing ovation from more than 100 high-level representatives from business, philanthropy, international institutions, government and civil society - including the heads of UNICEF and UNESCO.

After the event, the students and Pierre Krahenbul - Commissioner General of UNRWA - had a private meeting with Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education. 

Their News was invited in to meet Ahmad and Aseel, who are both members of UNRWA's agency-wide Student Parliament and who are in New York for the United Nations General Assembly week.

Aseel and Ahmad with Gordon Brown and UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl

Photo credit: Education Commission / Lana Wong

Ahmad - who is from Jordan and wants to be a surgeon - was asked how they were elected to represent the views of more than half a million students in different countries. 

He replied: “I said I would improve the environment in class and have equality between girls and boys."

Aseel, who is from Lebanon, said they felt inspired to become the voices for their fellow UNRWA students in different parts of the Middle East. She added: "We are so much alike. We share the same values, no matter where we come from."

Ahmad reinforced that view, saying: “The life of refugees is very hard. I want to tell the world about our issues. I love doing this. We are very proud to be representing them.”

Since the financial crisis unfolded, UNRWA has been campaigning for more donors to step in. Theirworld's supporters have been sending messages to international leaders, asking that they help to make up the shortfall.

At one point it looked as if UNRWA's schools might not reopen after the summer break.

Aseel Soboh joins other inspiring youth leaders at the launch of the UN Youth Strategy at UNGA

Photo credit: UNRWA

Krahenbuhl said: "When we opened the school year last month on time, it was a moment of celebration. Now we want to make sure that the schools remain open. I cannot imagine going back to our students and saying we failed."

Brown told Aseel and Ahmad: "We want to get the message across to as many governments and as many people as possible that this withdrawal of funding by America is unfair and it’s preventing a generation of young people from realising their potential. Other countries must now step in to help."

Ahmad asked the envoy why is he so interested in their plight.

Brown replied: “Justice. We need to ensure that every refugee has education. You cannot have Sustainable Development Goals for the world if you do not meet the goal that every single refugee has hope. 

"You must force the rest of the world to listen - and we will add our voice to yours.”

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