Syrian Government officials, senior diplomats, United Nations representatives and members of the business and professional community were just some of the many people who turned out for the Open Day at UNRWA's Damascus Training Centre on Thursday, 24 May. They took a first-hand look at work done by UNRWA students and staff, and were briefed on UNRWA's initiatives to improve services to the Palestine refugees in Syria despite its current economic crisis.
Following an address by visiting Commissioner-General Peter Hansen, in the company of Angela Williams, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Syria, the Agency gave detailed descriptions of two of its major projects, one for Neirab Camp near the northern city of Aleppo, and one covering the Khan Eshieh and Khan Dannoun camps near Damascus.
Commissioner-General Hansen spoke of the acute financial difficulties facing the Agency – which on a budget of US$ 311 million approved by the UN General Assembly, is facing a shortfall of over US$ 60 million. "The cash flow forecast indicates that, unless we receive additional funds over the next few months, the Agency will simply run out of cash by the end of October."
He also noted the added problems of providing Palestine refugees with the needed services amid protracted unrest in the Middle East, saying the violence had shattered an earlier hope that a solution to the plight of the refugees was close at hand.
"The events of the past eight months, and especially of recent weeks, constitute a major setback to those hopes. They have also had a profound effect on the day-to-day work of UNRWA as well as on its plans for the immediate and medium-term future."
"The immediate impact of the Intifada has, of course been on the well-being of the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza," he said. Still, "UNRWA's aim must be to increase the responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency of its programmes for all of the Palestine refugees in our care."
Most urgently, the Agency in Syria is in the process of providing water supply and sewage disposal networks in Khan Dannoun and Khan Eshieh camps in the Damascus countryside. With financing from Switzerland and Canada, a feasibility study identified options compatible with the Syrian Government's long-term plans for the area. Negotiations are well under way between the Commission of the European Union, the Government and UNRWA for funding of the implementation phase.
UNRWA is also greatly concerned about the deplorable housing conditions in Neirab camp, where many families still live in World War ll army barracks. Based on a Swiss-funded feasibility study, UNRWA and the Syrian Government have agreed on a plan to construct new housing in Neirab and in the nearby Ein el Tal (Handarat) camp, including water and sewage networks for Ein el Tal. Visitors were briefed in detail on the plans, illustrated with models and the funding needs for implementation.
On behalf of the Syrian Government, 'Ali Mustafa, Director-General of the General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR) expressed appreciation to the international community for their donations and stressed the support of the Syrian Government for the Agency's two major projects.
"We are in urgent need for carrying out a sewage system in Khan Eshieh camp and two water networks in Khan Dannoun and Khan Eshieh, " he said. "Also Neirab Rehabilitation … project is a vital one."
A third, but no less important, priority is the development of UNRWA's vocational and technical education programme, which offers practical training to Palestine refugee youth to equip them with skills and expertise relevant to Middle East labour markets. The Damascus Training Centre presently offers two-year courses in a variety of specializations, including auto-mechanics, refrigeration and air-conditioning, electronics, architectural engineering and para-medical services to almost 800 refugee students. Commissioner-General Hansen spoke of the important recent introduction of computerization for all trainees.
He also invited donor support for new courses in banking and financial management and technology, both sectors for which the Syrian economy has manpower needs.
The day's activities included displays of autoparts, meticulously assembled wooden furniture, detailed drawings of extravagant new homes – complete with furniture – all part of a rich collection of student work. Palestine refugee students demonstrated their different courses to visitors, including the Japanese and American Ambassadors.
UNRWA elementary and preparatory school students also displayed their handiwork, such as embroidery, to feature their Palestine heritage. Items were on sale with proceeds going to the integreation of physically challenged children into mainstream schools.
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, provides education, health and social services to 3.8 million Palestine refugees, of whom, some 388,000 live in the Syrian Arab Republic.