The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) recently opened a photo and video exhibition on the history of Palestinian refugees since 1948 in East Jerusalem. By Joseph Croitoru
Nahr El-Bared, the first Palestinian refugee camp after 1948 (photo: UNRWA Archive/S. Madver)
An UNRWA exhibition entitled “The Long Journey”, which documents the history of Palestinian refugees since 1948, is causing something of a sensation. It is currently being shown in the Al-Ma’mal Palestinian cultural centre in the Old City of Jerusalem and consists of a small selection of exhibits from the huge UNRWA archive.
The show was conceived as a touring exhibition to be displayed both in some of the Arab countries where Palestinian refugees live and in the West. It is part of a larger project, which also includes the step-by-step digitalisation of the archive and its being made available on the Internet.
The media archive of the UNRWA, which has since become part of the UNESCO “Memory of the World” programme, consists of more than half-a-million objects, including photographic prints, videos on VHS cassettes and numerous negatives and slides.
Similar to the Palestinian refugees themselves, the history of the archive is eventful. Until 1982, it was located in Beirut, but as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in that year, it was moved to Vienna. In 1999, the majority of the collection was moved again, this time to Amman, Jordan. Some 50,000 photographs and negatives found their way to Gaza. Due to the periodic armed conflicts between the governing Islamist Hamas movement and the Israeli army, the management of the agency became increasingly concerned about the safety of the archive material. For this reason – and because of the threat of deterioration due to age – the decision was made to digitalise the collection.
The almost one hundred photos, as well as a number of videos, which for the most part illustrate the first phase of the refugee saga after 1948, have been carefully chosen. The organisation, which clearly does not seek to cause controversy, but rather aims for a historically accurate documentation of events, appears to have avoided depictions of violence on principle.
Thorn in the side of the Israeli government
The modest exhibition does not seem particularly political, even though a UN representative stressed at the opening that Palestinian refugees have not only a past, but also a future and the right to a life of dignity.
Nonetheless, the exhibition is a thorn in the side of the Israeli government. A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry accused the UN of only making such a great effort because the subject deals with Palestinians and of unnecessarily spending its funds on the exhibition project, which could have been otherwise better spent, such as on the truly needy.
The UNRWA rejected these accusations and stressed that the funding for the exhibition and digitalisation project, estimated to cost around US$1 million, did not come from its own budget, but was provided by the Danish and French governments and the Palestinian private sector.
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Video: Remembering Service: UNRWA in Gaza – استذكار الخدمات: الأونروا في غزة
UNRWA photo and film archive for Palestine refugees
“Collective memory is a vital element of communal identity, and this rich archive documents one element of Palestinian identity: the refugee experience. Digitization was our only option for preservation and I am grateful to the Welfare Association, Bank of Palestine, PADICO, Wataniya and PalTel, as well as to the Governments of France and Denmark, for making this possible.” – Filippo Grandi, UNRWA Commissioner-General.
Ever since it was established, UNRWA has recorded all aspects of the life and history of Palestine refugees through film and photography. This has led to a rich audiovisual archive, containing more than 430,000 negatives, 10,000 prints, 85,000 slides, 75 films and 730 videocassettes. In 2009, the UNRWA Archive was inscribed by UNESCO in the Memory of The World list, recognizing its historical value. Digitizing the archive not only rescues and preserves all the material, but also makes it easier to categorize and disseminate, giving new life to this historical resource.
The archive consists of images and films taken by UNRWA photographers (and their predecessors) throughout the tumultuous second half of the twentieth century and start of the twenty-first. It includes iconic images of Palestinians having to leave their homes, in 1948; the establishment of refugee camps, in the 1950s; the second flight, in 1967; the hostilities in Lebanon; and the unrest from the second half of the 1980s to the early twenty-first century. The lives of Palestine refugees are central to the archive, often in the context of UNRWA work, but its portraits of important public figures and scenes of turbulent political events serve as a reminder of the troubled context that has become part of the community’s collective memory over the past six decades.
The Long Journey
Visit Our Archive
One of UNRWA’s leading early photographers, George Nehmeh, is featured in a series of short videos produced specially for the UNRWA Archive.
The videos showcase examples of his work, along with features about the people featured in it. Click to watch
UNRWA is proud to unveil the first part of its newly digitized archive, which consists of over half a million negatives, prints, slides, films and videocassettes covering all aspects of the life and history of Palestine refugees from 1948 to the present day. Read our press release
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