Preserving the Palestine Heritage: paper and film documents held by UNRWA need preservation

Preserving the Palestine Heritage: paper and film documents held by UNRWA need preservation

Among its archives, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, has thousands of slides, black and white photos with negatives, thousands of feet of 16 mm film dating back to 1948 plus video tapes from more recent times.


Hundreds of thousands, 296,680, of family files containing more than 16 million documents, including travel documents; land deeds; birth, death and marriage certificates; guardianship papers; utility and tax bills; curfew permits from the British Mandate period and other documents dating back to the period of Ottoman rule before World War I are also held by UNRWA. They are being preserved now through a project that is seeing the digitizing and indexing of these files.

UNRWA is responsible for the official registration of more than 4 million Palestine refugees who are eligible to receive assistance from the Agency. In addition to the safekeeping of official documentation and correspondence of refugees, housed in its Family Files, the Agency is responsible for the ongoing maintenance of registration information such as recording births and marriages, issuing updated registration and ration cards. Through the Palestine Refugee Records Project, the Agency is developing a unified computerized registration system. Not only will the project improve the Agency's efficiency, a unified computerized registration system will also form the backbone of a future Palestinian state's national archives.

Some of these files have been moved up to five times and have been held in less than ideal conditions. The files offer unique historical and genealogical source material but they suffer from increasing deterioration due to age, chemical reactions, micro-organisms and wear and tear from staff who must use the files in updating refugee registration records.

The old system uses obsolete software, is housed in three separate, non-interlinking systems, experiences multiple operational difficulties including update delays, requires up to three months to update a registration card and has security and data integrity risks.

Preserving documents

At a cost of $6.6 million which has already been pledged, UNRWA's Palestine Refugee Records Project is developing and installing a centralized, integrated information system that incorporates all of the records currently stored in three separate systems and permits interface with other Agency program data profiling refugee clients and preserve the millions of family file documents and protect them from further deterioration by electronic scanning and indexing.

A pilot scanning operation began in August 2004 at UNRWA's Jordan Field Office where some 40 per cent of all refugee records are stored. This scanning operation will continue in the Agency's other field offices in Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and Gaza Strip. Work has begun in at the UNRWA Field Office in Damascus, Syria.

Included in the preservation process is a socio-economic data base of Special Hardship Case families in UNRWA's five fields of operation first set up in 1991. This data base contains information on 55,000 families (217,400 individual registered refugees).

New Shelters for Rafah Homeless

In early July UNRWA handed over 109 new homes to 116 families from Rafah refugee camp whose shelters were destroyed over the past four years. By the end of December 2004, a total of 2,991 shelters, home to over 28,483 people had been demolished or damaged beyond repair in the Gaza Strip since the start of the second intifada. Of the total, 2,51 shelters accommodated 4,337 refugee families, of whom 3,633 families have been identified as being eligible for assistance under the Agency's re-housing program.

In total, in the Gaza Strip 775 shelters for 831 families have so far been rebuilt and another 148 shelters for 165 families are under construction. Plans for an additional 1,210 funded shelters for 1,285 families are currently underway in Rafah. However, UNRWA still needs approximately $28 million to cover the backlog requirement for a further 1,263 new shelters to house 1,352 homeless refugee families throughout the Gaza Strip.

Preserving photos and films

To complete this archive of the Palestinian people, UNRWA needs to finish preserving its films and black and white photos. In its early days, UNRWA realized it needed to document the Palestine refugee story so from the time it began operations in 1950, it had an active public information office which began the visual documentation and even trained young photographers and cameramen when UNRWA still had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon.

While the family files have had a long journey, so have the photos and films. They were kept by UNRWA first in Beirut up to the mid-1970s, some were given to the PLO in Beirut and then those that were not destroyed during the Lebanese civil war or Israeli bombing were moved to UNRWA in Vienna, Austria where UNRWA moved briefly in 1976, moved back to Beirut and then again to Vienna in 1978 where it remained until the early 1990s. Some of the films went from Vienna to a film library in London, England for restoration, preservation and safekeeping in the 1980s.

In 1995, the photo library was moved with UNRWA headquarters to Gaza where it remains today and much of the film library was stored in UNRWA's other headquarters branch in Amman, Jordan where it remains. Aside from the deterioration of these materials, they are in danger of being lost and the negatives and slides pilfered. Once they are fully catalogued and digitized, this risk is minimized.

The movement from place to place of these important documents and photos has not helped with their preservation. Some of the older films and negatives are damaged when exposed to air and being handled over and over again.

The Public Information Office at the Gaza headquarters has begun the preservation of photos by cataloging photos and slides and digitalizing most of them.

However there has been no concerted effort possible to completely preserve all of the visual archives which cover all UNRWA fields of operation. The Agency is currently exploring the possibility of doing the same with the still and film footage as it has with the family files and documents. The main barrier remaining, as usual, is money, but there is a desire within the Agency to fully preserve all of its archives so that one day it can be handed over to Palestinians and form the basis of a national archive. The Agency is currently looking into what needs to be done and preparing a project proposal based on its experience with the family files.

Ron Wilkinson is a past media consultant with BADIL

More information on the UNRWA photo and film library can be obtained from the Public Information Office, UNRWA Headquarters, Gaza and on the UNRWA web site,

UN Secretary-General appoints Karen AbuZayd as UNRWA Commissioner-General

After consulting the members of the Advisory Commission for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Secretary-General Kofi Annan has decided to appoint the Deputy Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Karen AbuZayd, as the new Commissioner-General of the Agency. Ms. AbuZayd, a national of the United States, succeeds Peter Hansen of Denmark.

In August 2000, Ms. AbuZayd was appointed to the post of Deputy Commissioner-General of UNRWA. On 1 April 2005, she became the Acting Commissioner-General. From her base in Gaza, she helped to oversee the education, health, social services and microenterprise programmes for 4.1 million Palestinian refugees. Since September 2000, her work has concentrated on providing emergency assistance to, and generating employment for, the victims of the current crisis in the West Bank and Gaza.

Before joining UNRWA, Ms. AbuZayd worked for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for 19 years. She began her humanitarian career in the Sudan in 1981, dealing with Ugandan, Chadian and Ethiopian refugees fleeing from war and famine in their own countries. From the Sudan, she moved to Namibia in 1989 to help coordinate the return of Apartheid-era refugees, a successful repatriation operation which led to elections and independence. A year later, the Liberian civil war erupted, and she moved to Sierra Leone to head the UNHCR office in Freetown, initiating a new emergency response, that of settling 100,000 Liberians in 600 villages along the Liberian/Sierra Leone border.

From 1991 to 1993 in UNHCR’s Geneva headquarters, Ms. AbuZayd directed the South African repatriation operation and the Kenyan-Somali cross-border operation. She left Geneva to go to Sarajevo as Chief of Mission for two years during the Bosnian war. Four million displaced and war-affected people were kept alive by UNHCR’s airlift and convoy activities, while thousands more were protected from ethnic cleansing by a UNHCR presence. Her last four years in the UNHCR were spent as Chef de Cabinet to High Commissioner Sadako Ogata and as Regional Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, where she focused on funding, public information and legal issues relating to asylum-seekers.

Before joining the UNHCR, Ms. AbuZayd lectured in political science and Islamic studies at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and at Juba University in southern Sudan. She earned her B.Sc. at DePauw University in Indiana and her M.A. in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Canada.