19.08.2014 - UNESCO Office in Ramallah

UNESCO steps up early response to the Gaza crisis

©UNESCO -Beach Elementary Co-Education C, UNWRA School, Gaza City, Photo by Bilal Hamaydeh, August 2014

As UNESCO is stepping up its response to meet urgent needs within its fields of competences, Lodovico Folin Calabi, Acting Head of the UNESCO Ramallah Office, visited Gaza on 12 and 13 August. The visit coincided with the temporary ceasefire between the parties and was an opportunity for UNESCO to take stock of the situation on the ground and engage in determining priorities of response in direct consultations with its stakeholders in Gaza.

Together with local and international partners, UNESCO started identifying the most pressing needs for the rapid recovery of the education system. The immediate challenge is to get children back to school in time for the beginning of the new Palestinian school year, which is scheduled to start later this month, provided a stable security situation. The assessment will determine physical damage to schools and higher education institutions and needs for psycho-social support of both learners and teachers. It also addresses immediate challenges of access to education and of availability of teachers and educational material, arising from the large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), as well as from damaged education infrastructure. The assessment is part of the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) led Initial Rapid Assessment (IRA), which will determine priorities for humanitarian response in key areas such as protection, shelter, water and sanitation, health, as well as education. Once completed, the IRA will serve to update the Gaza Crisis Appeal, issued by the UN earlier this month. It is planned that this Appeal, calling for international assistance in support of immediate needs in Gaza, will be launched early September at a Donor Conference.

Lodovico Folin Calabi during his visit to the “Beach Elementary Co-Education C” UNWRA school in Gaza City and the “Subhi Abu Karsh Basic School” in Shuja'iyya, witnessed first-hand the overwhelming challenges ahead for education to return to normalcy and for schools to provide learning environments that are protective for both teachers and students. The “Subhi Abu Karsh Basic School” school are among the 230 schools and at least ten higher education infrastructures in Gaza that have sustained damage as a result of shelling (cf. photo gallery). There are 25 schools entirely destroyed or severely damaged. As a member of the Education Cluster, UNESCO is working with UNWRA and the other UN agencies in coordination with the Ministry of Education and of Higher Education in preparing the beginning of the new school year. If a permanent ceasefire is reached, it is expected that two to three weeks will be needed before schools can open their doors to some 475.000 children and the first two weeks of the school year will be devoted to conduct needed extra-curricular recreational activities and psycho-social support to students.

In the “Beach Elementary Co-Education C” UNWRA school in Gaza City, which still serves as shelter for almost 2000 internally displaced people (IDPs), and in a number of other UNWRA schools, UNESCO staff in Gaza provided psycho-social support to children through play and other recreational and educational activities throughout the crisis, with a special focus on people and children with special needs. Teachers and children highlighted the need for the continuation of such activities. The protection of education from attack will remain a priority in UNESCO’s response, focusing on the promotion of schools as safe zones and providing inclusive quality education in affected secondary schools in Gaza.

UNESCO’s visit in Gaza had as a primary objective to see, first hand, the situation on the ground and gain a better understanding of the urgent needs of the population in areas where UNESCO holds its expertise. “The extent of the conflict is staggering, with wounds that will take years to heal. Behind every destroyed house or damaged infrastructure, there are families and communities who lost their relatives and are now left without a home. Together with our local staff in Gaza, who have shown incredible commitment in an extremely adverse context and have always been an invaluable part of the team, we were able to participate in the first phase of the Initial Rapid Assessment, particularly in the areas of higher education infrastructures and we could visit some of the cultural sites that have been hit”, said Lodovico Folin Calabi, Acting Head of the UNESCO Office in Ramallah.

Given the prevailing circumstances on the ground, UNESCO has not been in a position to undertake an in-depth assessment of cultural heritage sites in Gaza. However, damage has occurred to some heritage sites included on the Tentative List of Palestine for possible inscription on the World Heritage List and a number of mosques have been destroyed or heavily damaged. In coordination with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, UNESCO is in the process of collecting and making available comprehensive information on damage and needs in relation to Gaza’s cultural heritage sites. Media professionals also paid a heavy price in the current conflict, with a number of journalists being killed while carrying out their professional duties and struggling for the people’s right to information.

“The task ahead is immense. Together with our sister agencies of the UN system, with our international and national partners, we will continue working side by side with the national authorities and the Palestinian people in assisting Gaza to recover from the devastating impacts of the conflict”, also said Lodovico Folin Calabi. “But recovery is not enough. We must all collectively commit ourselves to help the formidable people of Gaza to re-build their lives, and to re-establish a vibrant and diverse society and a productive economy, building on UNESCO’s experience to provide and strengthen education in times of crisis.”  

(See Photo Gallery: UNESCO's mission in Gaza August 2014)

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