UNRWA's Education System

UNRWA's Education System
A Palestinian-Shaped Undertaking

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al-Jalazone Camp

In its first year, UNRWA opens 93 schools across the region with some 35,000 students. Some, as in this picture from a boys' school in Jalazone refugee camp in the West Bank, were mere tents set up on sand. West Bank. By 1960s, education had become the largest of its programs.

UNRWA Archive

Education has been a crucial element of Palestinian refugees’ lived experiences since the Nakba . Palestinians have often prioritized schooling as both a tool for enhancing their socioeconomic opportunities and a medium through which their national identity can be expressed in exile. As such, education sits at the nexus between the refugees’ political, cultural, social, and economic concerns.

For Palestinian refugees in camps across the Levant , education is provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Created by the UN General Assembly on 8 December 1949, UNRWA began operations on 1 May 1950 with a mandate to provide services to registered Palestine refugees in the “four fields” of Syria , Lebanon , the Gaza Strip , and Jordan (Jordan’s field was divided into two fields after the 1967 War : East Jordan, and the West Bank , including East Jerusalem ). UNRWA’s work encompasses a range of areas including health care, relief, emergency response, and infrastructure, but education has long constituted its primary focus and accounts for its biggest budget category. It is an extensive program, involving schools, vocational training centers, and teacher training institutes. The agency provides a full basic education to registered Palestine refugees across all five fields; in Lebanon it also runs secondary schools, because Palestinians are excluded from the country’s public schools.

Khan Younis camp, 1950, UNRWA Archive.


The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Schools

Despite UNRWA’s close entanglement with education today, the agency was originally created with a very different focus in mind. In fact, the first schools for Palestinian refugees were established not by the UN but by Palestinians themselves. Refugees’ concerns about their children’s lost opportunities in the aftermath of the Nakba quickly coalesced on education as a possible route out of the disaster, in both an individual and a collective sense. Many camp refugees had been fellahin (farmers) in pre-Nakba Palestine; having lost the land capital that had been their primary currency for generations, they now looked to education as an alternative form of social capital. They also saw it as a necessary tool for reversing their displacement and dispossession, with some concluding that higher education rates among the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) had given them an advantage against the Indigenous Palestinians in 1948.

Since the late 1940s, Palestinians worked to set up basic classes and even makeshift schools in the camps. Refugees who had been teachers in Palestine resumed their lessons in exile, finding ways to teach without books, pens, or furniture. They organized classes in tents, vacant shelters, or outside in the open air; some Palestinians in Gaza’s al-Maghazi refugee camp  even started lessons in an old kitchen. Some assistance came from local charities and international aid workers, most notably the American Friends Service Committee  in Gaza and the International Committee of the Red Cross elsewhere, but the refugees themselves were the driving force behind these initiatives. In early 1950, the only refugee school operating in Jordan was one set up by refugee teachers in al-Karama refugee camp .

Mar Elias camp, 1953, UNRWA Archive.


From Employment and Resettlement to Education

When the UN General Assembly set up UNRWA at the end of 1949, it was designed as a vehicle for refugee jobs schemes in the Arab host states—hence the agency name, which included “works” alongside “relief.” This objective aligned with the concerns of UNRWA’s primary donors and diplomatic backers, the United States and United Kingdom . Although both governments ostensibly supported the Palestinians’ right of return as stated in UN Resolution 194 , they privately favored the alternative “solution” of permanently resettling the refugees in the Arab host states (a plan euphemistically referred to as “reintegration”). Finding stable jobs for the refugees was an obvious first step toward this goal. Moreover, in the political context of the post–World War II period, the Western powers wanted the refugees to find gainful employment, lest they prove susceptible to communist recruitment. Accordingly, UNRWA’s early management sought to create jobs programs in line with the suggestions of the UN Economic Survey Mission , whose 1949 report formed the basis of its work.

This is not to say that education was absent from UNRWA’s early work. In addition to running the jobs programs and providing emergency relief, rations, and healthcare, the agency also took charge of the schools and classes that had been set up in the camps from 1948 to 1950. It significantly upscaled the provision by setting up new schools and introducing free education for all registered Palestinian refugee children across the four fields. Yet in the early 1950s, UNRWA’s focus was definitively on finding employment for Palestinian refugees rather than educating them.

Unfortunately for UNRWA’s senior management, this set of priorities put it at odds with the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, whose cooperation it needed in order to function effectively. Suspecting–not without cause–that the jobs programs were designed at least in part to aid their permanent resettlement outside Palestine, the refugees largely rejected them. Of the 878,000 refugees registered with UNRWA in the early 1950s, the largest number ever employed under its works program was 12,000. They demanded instead that UNRWA invest more resources in education. In fact, even before UNRWA began work in May 1950, Palestinians in the camps had been agitating for more schooling for their children. Such demands continued into the early 1950s and were a prominent theme in the refugees’ formal and informal communications with agency management, appearing in written appeals and petitions as well as in UNRWA staff’s meeting notes. 

The refugees would ultimately achieve a victory on this front, although it would be decades before agency management acknowledged it. With the jobs programs proving costly and inefficient as well as unpopular, UNRWA began to shift its focus to education as an alternative approach. By the end of the 1950s it had quietly dispensed with the jobs schemes (although it retain the word “Works” in its title). Schooling became the new priority, with the number of UNRWA schools increasing from 61 in 1950 to 386 in 1958. In 1960, education became UNRWA’s single largest program in terms of investment, funding, and personnel, and the last tent school was replaced by a permanent structure. Thereafter the education program continued to expand, with its portion of the agency’s regular expenditure increasing from one-third in the mid-1960s to more than half by the mid-1980s. In 1987, UNRWA Commissioner-General Giorgio Giacomelli acknowledged in an interview that the refugees’ advocacy had been a major factor in the agency’s decision to drop resettlement as an early goal.

The success of the UNRWA education program had significant knock-on effects. At its zenith, UNRWA schooling was considered so outstanding that even Palestinians who were not registered refugees, and other nationalities, allegedly sought (unsuccessfully) to enroll their children. The program’s high quality enabled some graduates to secure scholarships for higher education and then compete successfully on the Arab job market. In the second half of the twentieth century, many Palestinians moved to Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf states , where they built careers as engineers, teachers and businessmen. In this way it could be argued that the education program served as an alternative method of job creation for Palestinian refugees—but one that the refugees saw as far preferable to UNRWA’s own early scheme. The education program was not seen to undermine the right of return by permanently rooting Palestinian refugees within the Arab host states. Instead, it equipped them with the tools of transferable social capital, and in doing so helped their cause in the eyes of many.

Jericho, 1954, UNRWA Archive.


Curriculum Clashes

As UNRWA’s flagship program, education in the Palestinian refugee camps has faced continual criticisms over the years. Perhaps most notoriously, anti-Palestinian critics of the agency have often zeroed in on the content taught in its schools, alleging that it promotes anti-Israeli bias and even terrorism. Such contentions were first raised by the Israeli authorities after 1967, when schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were placed under the spotlight soon after the occupation began. Thereafter, the occupying Israeli authorities regularly inspected UNRWA schools and checked and censored textbooks. The scrutiny was so intensive that UNRWA teachers, overwhelmingly Palestine refugees themselves, complained in the 1970s that they were unable to do their jobs because they lacked the necessary resources, with textbooks being held back until the Israeli inspectors were satisfied.

While the Israeli authorities have often denounced the agency’s curriculum and textbooks, it is in fact erroneous to speak of either an “UNRWA curriculum” or “UNRWA textbooks.” From the beginning, UNRWA schools have followed the host state curricula, using the relevant governmental textbooks accordingly. Prior to Oslo Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority , UNRWA schools used the Jordanian curriculum in the West Bank and the Egyptian curriculum in the Gaza Strip. Since Oslo, they have applied the PA’s curriculum in both fields. There are adjustments—UNRWA works with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to remove any elements deemed incompatible with “UN values” and supplements with its own materials on human rights—but the agency has no curriculum of its own.

The content taught in UNRWA schools has also received criticism from Palestinians. Historically, the use of host state curricula and textbooks meant that Palestinian refugee children received no education in their own national history and geography. Instead, Palestinian history was largely subsumed under broader themes such as the role of the Arab states in 1948; in Lebanon, Palestine hardly appeared in the public education system at all. From the beginning, Palestinian teachers had sought to educate their pupils as far as possible in national history and geography, often doing so informally as they lacked the relevant materials in exile. In 1949, a group of Palestinian educators had even appealed unsuccessfully to UNESCO to develop a national Palestinian education system.

As the camp education system became increasingly formalized under UNRWA’s management, the absence of Palestinian-specific content came to the fore as a primary grievance for many refugees. Fawaz Turki , who left Haifa as a child during the Nakba and grew up in Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp  outside Beirut , would later recall:

The schools that UNRWA sponsored were designed–unwittingly or not­–to raise Palestinian children on, and educate them in, accepting their plight of life as a preordained thing…. No attempt was made to explain the situation and the forces behind it that ruled their lives, or how they were to respond to them… No courses were offered to show where they came from, the history of Palestine.

In response to the situation, Palestinian teachers increasingly organized and agitated for the inclusion of national history and geography in UNRWA schools. This demand frequently featured in industrial action by UNRWA teachers from the 1950s onwards; at times, students also demonstrated against the curriculum in UNRWA schools.

For a long time UNRWA resisted pressures to introduce a specifically Palestinian curriculum. Management argued that it was necessary to use the host state systems so that refugee children could later participate in higher education in the countries where they lived and compete on the job markets there. But once again, the refugees had something of a victory on this front. In the late 1960s, UNRWA management appointed educational consultants in Lebanon to look at enhancing the existing curricula with more Palestinian-specific teaching. In correspondence with the UNESCO director-general, UNRWA leadership cited pressure from Palestinian teachers as a key factor behind the decision. The consultants went on to develop a Palestinian history syllabus for the elementary and preparatory levels, along with several new textbooks and a teachers’ guide. These additional elements were introduced into UNRWA schools in Lebanon in the early 1970s, with the intention that they would eventually be rolled out across all fields.

Unfortunately for the Palestinians, this never happened. After the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was routed from Lebanon by Israel in 1982, the nationalist movement lost considerable leverage. Rather than “Palestinianization” being extended across the Levant, by the end of the 1980s these new subjects had also disappeared from UNRWA schools in Lebanon. The materials can still be found in UNRWA’s archive in Amman today, unused for decades.

Nevertheless, Palestinian refugees’ dedication to education has continued across time as well as space. It remains constant in the third decade of the twenty-first century, most recently manifested in the refugees’ organized protests against cuts in the agency’s schooling provision. As education remains UNRWA’s single biggest program, it is worth remembering that it came about in the first place due to activism and pressure from the refugees themselves.

Qabr Essit camp, 1969, UNRWA Archive.
Selected Bibliography: 

Abu Lughod, Ibrahim. “Educating a Community in Exile: The Palestinian Experience.” Journal of Palestine Studies 2, no. 3 (1973): 94–111.

Bocco, Riccardo. “UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees: A History within History.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 28, no. 2-3 (2009): 229–52.

Irfan, Anne. “Educating Palestinian Refugees: The Origins of UNRWA’s Unique Schooling System.” Journal of Refugee Studies 34, no. 1 (2021): 1037–59.

Irfan, Anne. Refuge and Resistance: Palestinians and the International Refugee System. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023.

Kelcey, Jo. “Curriculum Choices for Refugees: What UNRWA’s History Can Tell Us about the Potential of UN Education Programs to Address Refugees’ ‘Unknowable Futures’.” Journal of Refugee Studies (2023): https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fead034

Sayigh, Rosemary. “Where Are the History Books for Palestinian Children?” Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies 16, no. 2 (2017): 145–75.

Shabaneh, Ghassan. “Education and Identity: The Role of UNRWA’s Education Programmes in the Reconstruction of Palestinian Nationalism.” Journal of Refugee Studies 25, no. 4 (2012): 491–513.

Fawaz Turki, The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972),