Amid a “dire” situation in the Yarmouk refugee camp where thousands of civilians have been and hiding from snipers and often eating weeds to survive, the United Nations agency that administers aid to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East has confirmed that 120 students were allowed to do what anywhere else would generate few headlines – take school exams.
Images from the camp show teenage girls and boys carrying bags, heading towards separate white UN buses. Once they re-emerge on the other side of Yarmouk, many are embraced by relatives who have not seen them for months.
The ninth-graders are sitting for the final exams which are carried out at the same time nationally. The two-week test will determine if they go on to secondary schools, which could lead them to become a doctor or lawyer, or to a technical school where they could learn to work in agriculture or an industry such as computer science.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) coordinated for weeks with the Syrian Government to allow the children to temporarily leave the camp. Each is accommodated at UNRWA’s Palestine School and at a facility run by the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR).
The UN agency “has already provided each student with basic amenities, including hygiene kits, and a small cash stipend,” said spokesperson Chris Gunness.
However, it is not clear what opportunities will be available to the students after they finish the exams.
Over half of the schools run by UNRWA in Syria closed in 2013, affecting some 45,000 children. At the time, the UN agency said of its 118 schools in Syria, only 49 would open for the 2013-2014 school year.
The UN and its humanitarian partners appealed for $1 billion in January to save these refugees and millions of other children from becoming a “lost generation” in Syria, doomed by the civil war in their country to a life of despair, diminished opportunities and broken futures.
Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, who visited Syria in 2013, said after that without a political solution, those children would continue to bear the brunt of the conflict, leaving a generation of angry, illiterate adults.
After the exams, they will return to Yarmouk where 18,000 civilians remain trapped, according to UNRWA figures, and where, since 13 May, when Government military personnel were shot within the food distribution area, no food parcels have been allowed to get through.
The people still living there are getting only a quarter of the minimum food needed to survive since January.
“We are urgently seeking permission from the authorities to resume its food distribution operations in Yarmouk as soon as possible,” Mr. Gunness said.
“We maintain our urgent appeals for continuous, substantial and safe humanitarian access to Yarmouk.”