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Gaza teachers ask why their jobs remain uncertain 
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Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman

Gaza teachers ask why their jobs remain uncertain despite UN's fundraising success

UNRWA was created for the purpose of providing assistance to Palestinian refugees [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 January, 2019

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The UNRWA just about overcame its US-induced funding shortfall, but the organisation has still failed to restore the pay and positions it had cut earlier, causing protests in Gaza.
Despite last month's announcement that the UN's agency charged with aiding Palestinian refugees [UNRWA] has just about overcome its US-induced funding shortfall, the organisation has still not restored the pay and positions it had cut earlier causing employees in Gaza to continue their protests.

"What is preventing UNRWA from granting us contracts, since they themselves say the crisis has ended?" asked Malak*, a teacher who passed the agency exam last year and had been promised a contract. 

The decision by US President Donald Trump in August to end all financial support for UNRWA, suspending $360 million in funding, caused a financial crisis in the agency. This meant a cut in 125 jobs with emergency services, converting 570 staff positions to part-time and transferring 270 employees to other programmes.

UNRWA also stopped offering employees permanent contracts, depriving a large number of Gazans (about 13,000, which in turn support many more people) with one of the few sources of security in the Strip.

Meanwhile, UNRWA issued an international appeal for donations to make up the dramatic gap left by the US pullout. And it was surprisingly successful.

In November, agency chief Pierre Kraehenbuehl told the press that the shortfall had been cut to $64 million. And on December 29, he thanked Saudi Arabia for completing a $50 million donation – virtually wiping out the crisis. Also pledging to donate $50 million each are Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. 

UNRWA jobs remain uncertain

Yet the agency has made no move to reinstate its cutbacks. In addition, advertisements for even senior-level positions offer contracts of only three years, with 12-month probation periods and the proviso that hours could be cut to part-time. All positions are "subject to availability of funds."

Angry and suspicious of the agency's long-term intentions, UNRWA teachers considered reinstating their protests against the agency. Those protests were first organised in November 2017, after teachers who had passed the employment exam in May of that year were denied the expected contracts they had been promised, forced to work instead on a day-by-day basis.

They boycotted a meeting UNRWA held to explain its policies and procedures, including the requirement that all teachers who do not receive a contract must retake the employment exam in two years. The exam was cancelled altogether in the spring of 2018 and no decision has yet been announced for this year's exam.

The teachers continued protesting through the summer of 2018, until Trump made good on his threat to cut all support of UNRWA. The teachers then stopped their demonstrations to give UNRWA time to fill the money gap.

But now, they say, there is no longer justification for the continued cutbacks. The teachers agreed to hold off on returning to the streets at the request of their union, after the agency agreed to review its policies during the next few weeks.

"UNRWA claimed the financial crisis was the major reason why the agency couldn't grant our teachers permanent jobs after passing the exam in 2017, but its neglect even after the crisis ended at the end of 2018 makes it clear this is a political issue, not a financial one," says Naeim Alkhateeb, a representative for the teachers.

"During the recent talks between the employees' union and the administration, UNRWA proposed granting teachers contracts only for four or five years, but we rejected that. We suspect that the agency is planning to end its role in supporting Palestinian refugees [as part of the big "deal of the century" Trump is planning], thus eliminating our right of return to our homeland."

The employees declare to conduct a comprehensive strike at all UNRWA institutions in Gaza [Getty]

With security uncertain, families are at risk

Malak's situation is typical. She isn't married but must help her father with the family's living costs, since he is employed by the Palestinian Authority [PA]. As a consequence of its dispute with Hamas, which governs in Gaza, the PA cut the salaries of its staff in the Strip by 30-50 percent, and Sara's father now receives only 700 shekels ($189) a month.

"I have four siblings studying at university, and one of them is studying abroad. We have to rent an apartment, since our house was destroyed in the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza," Malak says, adding that UNRWA used to provide teachers with a rental allowance, but that benefit was cut as well.

"What will happen to my siblings if I lose my job?"

UNRWA long has served as the largest and most secure employer in Gaza, due to the 12-year Israeli blockade. Now, however, even UNRWA jobs seem uncertain.

"I rushed to graduate in three and half semesters, just so I could take the UNRWA employment exam in May of my final year," says Ali, another teacher who took the exam in May 2017.

"After graduation, I studied for the employment exam for three months because I knew the agency was my only hope for securing a permanent career in light of the dire economic conditions in Gaza. I earned one of the highest ranks (among the English teachers). Now, though, my status is still unresolved."

After two years of day-to-day employment, he adds, he is "living in constant fear of losing my job and being unable to secure my future. I am pursuing a master's degree in applied linguistics and it costs $3,000 each semester. I don't know if I can pay it, much less think about getting married. I am 25 years old; I should be more stable by now."

Mohammed, a 28-year-old English teacher, has been working under a daily contract for even longer – four years.

"I am living with my wife and one-year-old daughter in one room of my parents' house," he says.

"I can't afford to buy or even rent, because I also have to help my dad repay his debts and cover my wife's tuition."

That's why, says Mohammed, Ali, Malak and the others, they are prepared to protest again if necessary. To them, it's a matter of survival.

*Only first names are used throughout this article, since UNRWA prohibits employees from speaking to the media

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a Gaza-based writer with WeAreNotNumbers.org, a storytelling project that pairs professional writers around the world with developing English learners in the Strip to tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news.

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