Shabaneh: The Role of UNRWA’s Education Programmes in the Reconstruction of Palestinian Nationalism

Posted: March 9, 2012 by Rex Brynen in new publications, new research, refugee attitudes, UNRWA
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In the latest issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies (March 2012), Ghassan Shabaneh has a thoughtful piece on Education and Identity: The Role of UNRWA’s Education Programmes in the Reconstruction of Palestinian Nationalism. In it he examines the role that the Agency has played—often inadvertently—in the post-1948 reconstruction and transmission of Palestinian national identity among refugees. As the abstract notes:

Studies of specialized agencies of the United Nations in general and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in particular focus overwhelmingly on the humanitarian activities and bureaucratic structure of these institutions. Relatively understudied and less understood in the literature on UNRWA is the impact the institution has had on the ongoing reconstruction of Palestinian national identity over the last six decades. UNRWA unintentionally—and despite its humanitarian mandate—played a political role in its five areas of operation: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, and Gaza. This study focuses on how UNRWA’s support of, and provision for, education in schools and camps in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and elsewhere helped in the continuation of reconstructing Palestinian nationalism and identity. In UNRWA schools, Palestinian students interacted with one another in ways that inadvertently preserved and cultivated an identity of nation and self among Palestinians amidst war and social dislocation. The main factor that had the unintended consequence of reconstructing Palestinian nationalism in the last six decades has been the use by UNRWA schools of extracurricular activities that reinvented many elements of Palestinian identity and nationalism (e.g. songs, plays, music, paintings, poetry). This article speaks to how UNRWA schools have been providing opportunities for Palestinian youth to articulate and enact Palestinian identity.

The article is especially useful in moving the discussion of this issue away from a politicized and rather misleading focus on textbooks and other aspects of UNRWA curriculum, and instead refocusing it on issues of spatiality, shared experience, and social interaction. Rather than being significant for some sort of top-down inculcation of political attitudes and identities, UNRWA schools (and, by implication, the camps too) have served to facilitate a bottom-up formation of political views and attachments by the refugees themselves.

The full article is behind the Oxford Journals paywall and requires an individual or institutional subscription to the Journal of Refugee Studies for access. I will, however, take the liberty of quoting the concluding section at length, since it summarizes Shabaneh’s argument very nicely:

UNRWA schools, vocational training centres, teachers’ colleges, and academic programmes have played a central role in reconstructing Palestinian nationalism by bringing refuges together from historic Palestine under the common umbrella of education and shaping student identity through interaction with other students and teachers. Students across class and geographical backgrounds studied, ate, travelled, and conversed together at UNRWA schools, creating a sense of shared national identity and paving the way for subsequent generations of refugees to assemble, remember, and share the past as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future. UNRWA schools and camps not only protected Palestinians, but also enabled them to resist assimilation and integration into host countries, fostering a greater sense of distinctiveness among Palestinians across the Middle East.

Despite the geographical fragmentation imposed on Palestinians after 1948, they have reconstructed their identity and nationalism as they saw fit. Throughout UNRWA’s networks, refugees have stamped the camps with a Palestinian identity to protect themselves from melting into the cultures of any of the host countries in the last six decades. Through narratives, refugees provided their children and grandchildren with a history that they will never forget. Palestinian children understand what happened six decades ago. Second- and third-generation refugees will likely impart the same messages to their children, keeping the story of the Palestinian exodus from their homeland alive until a just and comprehensive solution is reached.

Although UNRWA is not solely responsible for reconstructing Palestinian nationalism, the agency played a major role in the development of Palestinian identity. Through its historical involvement as a relief agency, UNRWA succeeded in delineating spaces, sites, and places where all refugees, regardless of background or class, shared their experiences. Given this support, refugees resisted assimilation and integration and instead reconstructed their own tradition and with that their own national identity.

  1. Sam says:

    Great Insight. There is no question that UNRWA has had a profound impact on Palestinian lives after their exodus from Palestine in 1948.The article indeed presents a new angle of focus regarding UN agencies and their role in nation building and inadvertent assistance shaping national identity.

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