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United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
4 December 2008
Speech for the Opening of Homage to Childhood
by Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of UNRWA
French Cultural Centre, Jerusalem, 6 pm, 4th December 2008
I am delighted to welcome you all to the opening of this art installation, ‘Homage to Childhood,’ by Rana Bishara. We owe particular thanks to the French Cultural Centre and Jean-paul for their generosity, once again, in giving us this beautiful space. My thanks also to Rana for this haunting and evocative installation which challenges, provokes and stimulates in equal measure.
It challenges our very perceptions of what childhood is in the occupied Palestinian territory, of what it means to be a child living with the daily cruelties of occupation. It rightly provokes debate about the action -- and inaction -- of the international community in the face of the complex task of protecting Palestinian children, of guaranteeing them the most basic rights, the right to life itself for example, which children the world over rightly take for granted. And finally the strange beauty of this work challenges us to re-examine our own commitment to Palestinian children by laying bare the sheer precariousness of their lives. Rana, you have done this in a manner more eloquent than any words.
With this installation, UNRWA pays homage to some two million children in the occupied Palestinian territory, children whose development lies at the heart of our mission to bring hope and prosperity to the next generation. With its implied invitation to protect and nurture, the physical act of stooping to cradle, of holding in our arms, of observing and caring, Rana’s work forces us to engage in a symbolic act of solidarity, compassion and love.
The symbolism does not end there. Each child is in a bubble, in one sense it is a womb-like, protective space. But in another sense each balloon represents the claustrophobic and locked in world that children in the occupied Palestinian territory are forced to inhabit. Closures in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza add to the terrifying sense of being trapped, physically, intellectually and emotionally, depriving children of that simplest of rights, the right to be a child. The barbed wire also reminds us of the violent and dangerous environment Palestinian children inhabit.
This exhibition is the first in a year-long series of events and projects to mark the sixtieth anniversary of UNRWA, which falls on the 8th of December next year. The photograph in each balloon has been selected from UNRWA’s archive of nearly half a million images documenting sixty years of service and achievement. We are hoping to digitize this rich resource as part of our UNRWA at sixty programme.
This anniversary is a time for sober reflection on why a “temporary agency” still exists at all and it is a time to ponder the realities of the refugees after sixty years of exile, dispossession and statelessness. But while the sixtieth anniversary of UNRWA is nothing to celebrate, it is an occasion to pay tribute to the people, the vast majority of them refugees, who have been part of this unique agency over six decades and to those who have benefited and made such good use of its services. UNRWA’s achievement is their achievement. It is to all of them that I dedicate this exhibition.