During her first official visit to Syria from 24-28 April 2021, newly appointed UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General, Leni Stenseth, visited with Palestine refugees and UNRWA installations in Syria. She met with several Government officials, including Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and expatriates, Dr. Salwa al-Abdallah, Minister of Social Affairs and Labour, and Mr. Ali Mustafa, Director-General of the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR). She briefed them on UNRWA operations and the Agency’s efforts to modernize and become more efficient, and the ongoing financial challenges. Ms. Stenseth particularly emphasized the Agency’s deep appreciation for strong, continuous support to Palestine refugees by the Government of Syria. “The excellent cooperation has not only allowed UNRWA to provide 438,000 Palestine refugees across the country with essential services, but also to jointly respond to overwhelming challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
During her visits to the Sbeineh and Yarmouk camps in Rif Damascus, Ms. Stenseth witnessed the extreme hardship and increasing needs of Palestine refugees. In Sbeineh, she talked to staff who briefed her about how UNRWA quickly adjusted its services at the beginning of the pandemic, including the change to remote learning, telehealth and increased safety measures. Palestine refugee women at the food distribution point expressed the multiple challenges they face and how they depend on UNRWA assistance.
In Yarmouk, once home to approximately 160,000 Palestine refugees and now laying in ruins, Ms. Stenseth was troubled by the level of destruction. She talked to Palestine refugees who have returned to the camp, and who shared testimonies of pain and despair, but were also full of hope and resilience. To respond to their most urgent needs, UNRWA provides weekly primary health care services via a mobile health clinic, transportation for students to UNRWA schools outside the camp, and food and non-food items distribution. All UNRWA installations in Yarmouk camp were either severely damaged or destroyed during the now over ten-year-long conflict. “Rehabilitation of UNRWA installations is one of our top priorities,” Ms. Stenseth said. “More Palestine refugees are expected to return to Yarmouk, where living conditions are unbearable. Coping mechanism are depleted, and enormous efforts need to be put in place to make sure the camp becomes a habitable place for Palestine refugees. The international community needs to step up to make sure when the refugees return to the camp they can live in dignity.”
Updating UNRWA staff on the Agency’s financial situation, Ms. Stenseth noted: “2020 was an extremely difficult year for UNRWA and for all of you, with unprecedented and compounded financial, public health and socio-economic crises. It is only thanks to your dedication and hard work that UNRWA has been able to continue providing services to the Palestine refugee community in Syria without interruption. You gave an example to the world. I promise you that we are working relentlessly to overcome UNRWA financial challenges. We urgently need additional contributions to ensure sufficient, predictable, and sustained funding for UNRWA. Having met with you and the Palestine refugee community will help me and the Commissioner-General to be your voice when meeting with our donors,” she said.