Summer camp is a rite of passage for many American children -- long days spent playing outdoor games and sports, singing camp songs, and making new friends that will last a lifetime. In the Gaza Strip, children live very different lives during the school year, suffering from extreme poverty and conflict. But when summer comes around in Gaza, these kids also have something to look forward to -- the UNRWA Summer Games.
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, provides assistance, protection, and advocacy for five million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. The U.S. Government is the largest contributor to UNRWA, providing almost $250 million in 2011 to support UNRWA's programs in the fields of education, primary health care, social services, community support, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance, and emergency response, including in situations of armed conflict.
This summer marked the fifth annual Gaza Summer Games, a six-week-long series of summer camps supported by the U.S. Department of State and other donors that provides sports, art, music, and theater activities for 250,000 boys and girls in Gaza. At the Games, children get a chance to play and learn in a safe environment and enjoy a break from the struggles of their daily lives. Many children also get to visit the beach and to swim in the Mediterranean for the first time in their lives. UNRWA serves as an indispensable counterweight to extremism, fulfilling critical needs for humanitarian services and assistance that likely would otherwise be met by extremist groups in the region, including Hamas and Hizballah.
Throughout the 2011 Summer Games, the children of Gaza demonstrated their extraordinary talents, as well as their determination in the face of opposition from Hamas. Despite an attack by militants on the UN facility hosting the Games in July, the kids persevered to set four world records, including the largest number of people flying parachutes from the ground, the largest number of people dribbling soccer balls simultaneously, and the world's largest-ever hand-print painting. Many of the youth who participated in the hand-print painting were special-needs kids, who often face isolation and discrimination because of their disabilities. After helping her fellow Gazan youth accomplish the record for the handprint painting, 14-year-old Fatma Maqusi said, "I can't walk, but when I share the world record with the other kids, I feel like my drawings can walk -- like I can walk."
Jennifer Williams serves as Program Officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.