UNITED NATIONS. TRIBUTE TO OUTGOING UNRWA COMMISSIONER GENERAL KAREN ABU ZAYD

 

15 JANUARY 2010

TRIBUTE TO OUTGOING UNRWA COMMISSIONER GENERAL KAREN ABU ZAYD

Karen Abu Zayd deserves a special tribute on her last days in office.

For almost a decade, she carried an unbearable burden as Commissioner General of UNRWA, the U.N. Agency looking after Palestinian refugees: increasing humanitarian needs with decreasing financial support and diminishing political commitment. Her tasks were compounded by more militancy at the grass roots, hard-line Israeli government policies, a lack of credible unifying leadership by the Palestinian Authority, no progress on a settlement by the international Quartet, no effective involvement by the United Nations leadership, no substantive support by the main contributor, the United States government, and no serious attention -- other than politically correct speeches -- by the Arab host countries. Both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority ignored UNRWA's role except when they discovered how much they needed it.

Yet Karen Abu Zayd demonstrated unique creative leadership by keeping her commitment to the objectives of UNRWA and managing to inspire and mobilize her local and international staff to continue their indispensible work.

A year ago, during the war on Gaza, UNRWA did its best to maintain its basic services, despite brutal interruptions. Its staff courageously stayed in place, drawing attention to the daunting humanitarian challenges. Indeed, they were the heroes of that period, risking their lives to save others.

Karen Abu Zayd deserves special mention because she exercised her leadership during last year's war with admirable courage and professional competence. She stayed on the ground, never left except to raise badly needed funds or handle urgent business abroad. Obviously, she was in a very vulnerable position. As a U.S. citizen, while the U.S. government was condoning the attack (and as a woman in a conservative society), she was an easy target for any frustrated extremist militant. Confident of her role and strengthened by her unshaken credibility, she stayed in Gaza accomplishing her job daily with whatever resources were available. She was not afraid. No one could cajole or intimidate her. She kept her dignity intact and raised the flag of UNRWA -- the only U.N. flag -- flying.

As she retires in January 2010, we thank her for her outstanding service and wish her all the best in Alexandria.