Resilience Amid COVID-19: How UNRWA is Adapting Its Mental Health Programs for Palestinian Refugees


Established in 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees is the only UN body responsible for delivering assistance, education and protection to the 5.6 million Palestinian refugees living in the Middle East today. UNRWA is mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide essential services to promote the well-being and human development of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, until there is a just and durable solution to the conflict.

This COVID-19 global pandemic has only exacerbated the insecurity that many vulnerable refugees already experience every day. UNRWA is continuing its vital provision of healthcare, education, food distribution and sanitation services, while also adapting these services to the necessary social distancing guidelines. Supporting refugees now means teleworking, moving online, and carefully monitoring the delivery of essential goods.

One increasingly important area of the Agency’s work has been the provision of psychosocial support for Palestinian refugees who continue to live amid economic and political instability. Eirik Kollsrud, UNRWA’s Liaison Officer in Washington, D.C., answered commonly asked questions about the work of psychosocial programs in Gaza, its increasing importance amid COVID-19 and the steps needed for UNRWA to continue its life-saving work.

Tell us about UNRWA’s psychosocial support programs and why they are important in the region?

Eirik: High levels of psychosocial stress are seen among both students and adults in Gaza, where refugees live under extended blockade and grapple with the lingering trauma of political conflict and economic uncertainty. A study conducted in May 2017 revealed that almost half of adults experienced poor well-being, and almost 30 percent of children experienced serious behavioral difficulties and barriers to mental wellness. As one can imagine, a global pandemic such as COVID-19 only exacerbates these feelings.

UNRWA’s psychosocial support in Gaza employs trained social workers as well as specialized mental health counselors in both schools and health centers, many of whom are Palestine refugees themselves. This gives individuals experiencing psychosocial problems access to both individual and targeted group counseling provided by members of their own community of Palestine refugees.

How is UNRWA addressing the needs of refugee children, many of whom have lived through multiple armed conflicts?

Eirik: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for students experiencing psychosocial stress. Their individual views and wishes are considered when addressing their unique challenges. UNRWA identifies and supports students who are experiencing psychosocial problems and protection threats through individual and targeted group counseling in schools, in line with the Agency’s inclusive education approach to the provision of psychosocial support.

How has psychosocial programming adapted amid COVID-19?

Eirik: Since the outbreak, we started to work closely with our counselors to discuss and address the difficulties Palestinian refugees are facing. Because refugees are unable to meet in person, our counselors have had to provide services through calls and text messages. Many of the communities we serve are already in precarious positions due to political instability, generational poverty and the impact of occupation, making our services even more critical, with the most vulnerable communities being hit hardest by COVID-19.

In these times, we have continued to provide informative resources for students to guide them as they adapt their lives to this new normal. For both students and parents, we have dedicated hotlines to provide information on available services. We collaborate closely with teachers and have regular contact with parents to discuss their children’s wellbeing and are ready to support students who may need extra help in this crisis.

How are U.S. funding cuts affecting this work?

Eirik: Following the suspension of U.S. funding to UNRWA by the current Administration, we were forced to discontinue our Community Mental Health Program as a standalone intervention, and had to terminate full time employment for counselors for the second half of 2018. This was a program that had been built up over the years with U.S. funding. Crucial mental health and psychosocial activities continued to be embedded within existing UNRWA education and health services, but financial uncertainty crippled our capacity. In 2019, counselors were rehired full time and UNRWA has since provided mental health and psychosocial support to vulnerable adults and children through its education and health programmes, but without sufficient, reliable funding, the future of our programs often hang in limbo, especially in crises.

What can UNA-USA members do to support Palestinian refugees at this time?

Eirik: Voicing support for UNRWA remains crucial in the U.S. and beyond. UNRWA USA a U.S.-based partner of the Agency, regularly offers ways for Americans to help protect and advocate for Palestinian refugees, including its annual Gaza 5K, which raises funds for mental health services in Gaza. To learn more about ways you can support UNRWA, visit