Trump's funding cuts to UNRWA hold back generations of future leaders

by Zahi Khouri | National Beverages Company
Monday, 13 August 2018 14:30 GMT

Palestinian children hold bread during a protest against aid cuts, outside the United Nations' offices in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

UNRWA is an anchor for Palestinian refugees. Without it, peace will remain unattainable.

I was born in Jaffa, Palestine to a hard-working and successful Palestinian Christian family. In 1948, when I was just 10 years old, my family and I were forced to flee our home upon Israel’s creation, leaving behind our friends, the family business, and our comfortable way of life. We boarded a boat that had previously been used to export my dad’s oranges, and sailed to Lebanon.

We quickly began to establish a new life there, lucky to be able to settle into a modest house loaned to us by friends of my father. For everything besides this modest shelter, we were forced to turn to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was established shortly after the massive displacement of Palestinians, to provide for the basic needs of me and my fellow Palestinians. 

While establishing a new life in Lebanon with few means, UNRWA provided my siblings and me with clothing and put food on our plates. With these basic needs met, Palestinians – like others throughout the world – can make a better life for themselves and lift themselves and their families out of poverty and destitution. 

Years later, after moving to the United States, I decided to help Palestinians through the best way I knew– job creation. 

In 1995, I established the first Coca-Cola franchise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which today employs 700 Palestinians, creating jobs and opportunities in the region where unemployment is a staggering 44 percent. 

Yet my success story would not have been possible had UNRWA not provided me with safe access to education, food, clothing and a sense of dignity. It gave me and millions of otherPalestinians the stepping stones upon which we not only built our own futures and families, but the future of Palestine. 

The role UNRWA played in shaping my future was never lost upon me; even as a graduate student, I still wore the winter coat provided to me by the agency when I was 12. I will always be indebted to UNRWA because it provided me the means to make something out of myself and give our family a sense of self-respect. It taught my generation that we were more than just refugees and that with access to the necessary resources, we had the ability to enact positive change within ourselves and our communities. Thanks to them, I was able to focus on completing my education instead of worrying about where my next meal would come from.

Earlier this year, the United States, historically the single largest donor to the agency, announced funding cuts to UNRWA, offering just $60 million of a promised $365 million. If this freeze in funding is made permanent, it will gut the agency’s operations and put an entire generation of Palestinian children – many of whom could be the business leaders of tomorrow – at risk. 

I should know. I grew up a refugee in Lebanon and now, thanks in no small part to the sense of civic responsibility UNRWA imparted, I am a successfulPalestinian businessman who is proudly able to give back to society and to my people.

As one businessman to another, I urge President Trump and his team to consider the long-term impact of children who will be deprived of meals, medical care, jobs, and perhaps most importantly, an education, as a result of these funding cuts. 

UNRWA is an anchor for Palestinian refugees, and critical to the social and economic wellbeing of their families and communities. Without it, peace will remain unattainable.

Zahi Khouri is a Palestinian American businessman, Founder and Chairman of National Beverage Co. and winner of the 2015 Oslo Business for Peace Award.