As Walid began telling his story, the room around us grew decidedly quiet. When I met him a few days ago in the Palestinian refugee camp of Neirab camp, on the outskirts of battle-scarred Aleppo in Syria, this 11 year-old Palestine refugee recalled how an aircraft had crashed inside the camp a couple of years ago, damaging several homes, including his own. Walid and his younger brother were injured. His mother was killed instantly, as were other neighbors and relatives. The horrific scenes Walid witnessed that day will mark his life forever and are a reminder to the world of the impossibility to sweet-talk one's way around the cataclysmic impact of war on children.
Traveling through the devastated neighborhoods of Aleppo and listening to Walid and many others in Neirab or Ein el-Tal refugee camps, the reasons why the world cannot afford to overlook the plight, needs and rights of Palestine refugees were once again so clearly apparent. It is a matter of rights, dignity and humanity. It is also a matter of security, for the refugees themselves and for the region. Leaving unresolved one of the most critical and long-lasting refugee crises in the world, allows anger, frustration and resentment to grow unchecked and casts the worst light possible on the ability of the international community to end conflicts.
As the Syria conference is about to convene in Brussels, I urge our partners to actively integrate the situation and needs of Palestine refugees in Syria – and those who have fled to Lebanon and Jordan – into their funding plans.
In the midst of the Syrian tragedy, Palestine refugees have seen everything they once held dear vanish around them: homes, businesses, employment, self-sufficiency and safety. Of the 560,000 Palestine refugees living in the country before the war, an estimated 120,000 have fled and 65 per cent of those remaining have been displaced, many of them several times. What characterizes the plight of Palestine refugees in Syria is that they are another generation of Palestinians enduring the trauma of displacement, loss and extreme insecurity. Walid himself has grown up with conflict surrounding him for most of his young life.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has shown great determination in its response since the beginning of the conflict. It never stopped its activities nor withdrew staff from Aleppo in all these years and I wish to pay tribute to my colleagues who have taken greats risks and shown immeasurable courage to ensure that food, cash, medical and other forms of emergency support would reach the community.
Most amazing of all, despite the dangers and the damages to many of our schools, education services were never interrupted and UNRWA can humbly claim that it truly has left no one behind. Even Walid is currently studying hard as a fifth grader in one of UNRWA's schools, hoping to become a doctor. Despite these achievements, in meetings with our teachers, I was confronted with strong demands that UNRWA should do more for its students in Aleppo and Syria more widely – overcrowded classrooms were described as unmanageable; psychosocial support for students and teachers as insufficient; and increased scholarships and opportunities after graduation as vital.
These are humble requests in light of the needs and results on the ground. I am determined to see UNRWA respond to several of them and to mobilize the required support. I am equally determined that UNRWA should improve its capacity to safeguard the security of its staff. We have lost 20 colleagues since the beginning of the conflict and over 25 are currently missing or presumed detained. It is a terrible price, one that may never be taken for granted.
I promised Walid that we will match in energy and creativity the courage he has shown. I am more determined than ever to see UNRWA live up to its mandate and ensure the best possible services to Palestine refugees. As we spread his story around the globe, may many rooms fall silent and the world act to ensure that humanitarian aid does not remain his sole horizon but a peaceful future emerge in which his rights are respected and a solution to his plight is finally found.