unrwacampWith the civil war in Syria stalemated in its fourth year and more than 164,000 Syrians dead, the public has begun to be anesthetized to what is really at stake.  That changed briefly Thursday night (March 20) when photographs of refugees caught up in the conflict flashed for nearly an hour on giant video screens in New York’s Times Square and in the equally important intersection in Tokyo’s Shibuya District.

The powerful images, which had already gone viral on the Internet, were part of  “#Let Us through,” a campaign intended to keep the public focused on the ongoing tragedy.

With the UN Security Council powerless to affect change in Syria, and the major powers helplessly divided as to what course of action to follow, one of the slender lifelines to the victims of the slaughter is being provided by UNRWA–the United Nations Relief  Works Agency. UNWRA and the HOPING Foundation launched the campaign together, and managed to convince celebrities, including “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón, actress Emma Thompson, as well as Hugh Grant and Peter Gabriel, to sign on.  The campaign has so far reached an estimated 26 million people.

One of the oldest UN agencies, and also possibly one of the least known to the public at large, UNRWA was created in December 1949,  with a mandate to provide emergency relief to some 652,000 Palestinian Arab refugees who had been driven from their homes by the turbulence that followed the creation of Israel.  Today, UNRWA provides assistance to some 5 million Palestinians, mostly the descendants of parents or grandparents who were driven from their homes and jobs, either during the original partition of Palestine or by the conflicts that erupted in 1948 and 1967. Numbering in the thousands, they are marooned in nearly 60 refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

In the decades that followed, Palestinians became stateless political and economic pawns in a succession of regional power struggles.  Often UNWRA constituted their only lifeline, providing access to temporary jobs and badly needed supplies.  UNWRA has also paid a price for its involvement.  In working closely with Palestinians, who often disagreed violently among themselves, UNRWA found itself under frequent attack, allegedly for showing bias by working with any Palestinians at all as well as for providing assistance that might eventually fall into the hands of Arab extremists.  The inevitable result was a damaging drop off in funding that has left the agency frequently in the red. The Agency’s finances were further complicated by the fact that most of the core funding is on a voluntary basis and consequently variable.  According to UNRWA, the current deficit stands at more than $71 million and UNRWA operations in Gaza, which is heavily dependent on the agency, are running at around $20 million to $25million in the red.

Strangely enough, it may have taken the civil war in Syria to energize the agency and push it back into public attention. The UN estimates that at least 10 million people in Syria need assistance, and that roughly five million of them are children. On Tuesday, only two-days before the Times Square event and the one in Tokyo,  UNRWA managed to get past the two-week siege of Yarmouk, near Damascus, where Palestinian refugees had faced starvation.  In January, UNWRA had managed to deliver 8,000 food packages to Yarmouk.  The relief convoy this time managed to supply 465 packages for some 20,000 refugees.  If there had had been more funding, it might have been able to do more.

Ironically, the difference between UNRWA’s current mission and the one allotted to it in previous years is that the war in Syria is gradually morphing into a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran–with US fears of an Al Qaeda conspiracy and Russian self-interest as an overlay.  Israel, at least when it comes to Syria,  is no longer the only irritant in Arab eyes.  The shift in focus from the decades old Arab-Israeli conflict to one that deals with the fundamental power alignment in the Middle East may help to  unblock public apathy that has paralyzed the situation until now. That could go a long way to re-energizing both UNRWA and the Palestinians.