Kal Penn donates $25K to Palestinian refugees after ‘MasterChef Celebrity Showdown’ win

  • On Monday’s MasterChef Celebrity Showdown, Kal Penn reigned as champion, winning $25,000 to donate to a charity of his choice. 
  • Penn used the prize money to support Palestinian refugees in Syria through the United Nations Relief and Work Agency USA.
  • The UNRWA is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees all over the Middle East. Read more

Via @theimeu: Actor Kal Penn WINS on MasterChef. His $25,000 prize money will go to support UNRWA USA and Palestinian refugees. Here he is discussing UNRWA with host Gordon Ramsay. #KalPenn #UNRWA #Palestine #Palestinians #MasterChef

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– Founded in 1957 just south of the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Yarmouk refugee camp was home to approximately 150,000 Palestinian refugees prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Today, there are approximately 18,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians remaining in Yarmouk, including approximately 3,500 children. The rest have fled to other parts of Syria or neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.

– Yarmouk has been besieged by the Syrian army since late 2012, when rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad occupied the camp, causing starvation and disease. At least 200 Palestinians and Syrians have starved to death in Yarmouk as a result. On April 6, 2015, the UN warned that residents were subsisting on approximately 400 calories a day, out of a needed 2,000.

– On April 1, 2015, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched an assault on Yarmouk, taking control of most of the camp within a few days, reportedly beheading two of the camp’s Palestinian defenders amidst fears of wider atrocities. Additionally, the Syrian armed forces reportedly began dropping “barrel bombs” on Yarmouk on April 5 in an effort to stop ISIS’ advance on Damascus.

– The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been unable to deliver desperately needed supplies since the fighting began on April 1. According to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness: “That means that there is no food, there is no water and there is very little medicine… The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane.”

– The violence in Yarmouk highlights the dire situation that Palestinians in Syria face as they attempt to navigate the complex political realities of the country and the unrest that has ravaged it over the last four years. According to the UN, approximately 220,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011, including more than 76,000 in 2014 alone. Estimates of the number of Palestinians killed vary. According to Palestinian officials, between 1,000 and 1,300 Palestinians have been confirmed killed, with about the same number missing and unaccounted for, while The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria puts the number of Palestinian fatalities at 2725.

– Prior to the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, there were approximately 526,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, living in nine official and three unofficial camps run by the UNRWA, the largest of which was Yarmouk.

– Most of the Palestinian refugees in Syria, including Yarmouk, arrived in the country after being expelled from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1948. Most are originally from the northern part of Mandate Palestine, mainly from Safad, Haifa, and Jaffa. For nearly seven decades, Israel has denied them their internationally-recognized right to return, as enshrined in Resolution 194, passed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, which stipulated: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”


Infographic by Michal Vexler: “Divide and Conquer. The Palestinian people may share one national identity, but they are divided by Israel into several different citizenship categories, each one with a different set of rights and restrictions:

  • Israel: Palestinians living within the ‘48 borders. Full Israeli citizenship. Vote for parliament, freedom of movement, equal rights under law, de-facto discrimination. Population: 1,413,500.
  • East Jerusalem: Palestinians living in Jerusalem neighborhoods conquered in 1967. Israeli residency, no citizenship. De-facto discrimination, freedom of movement, no right to repatriate after leaving Israel. 208,000.
  • West Bank: Palestinians living in area conquered in 1967. No citizenship, subject to martial law. Restricted freedom of movement. Discrimination by law. 2,361,000.
  • Gaza Strip: Palestinians living in Gaza Strip. No citizenship, under siege, separated from other Palestinians. 1,562,000
  • Refugees: Palestinians who were exiled in 1948 and their descendants, living mostly in Jordan, others in Lebanon and Syria - 436,000. Registered as refugees with UNRWA, and have no citizenship - 487,000. 1,980,000 [total].

Spatial Separation:

  • Refugees: Some people in this category were born in Palestine, but their return to their land, even for a visit, is rigorously denied.
  • Palestinians with Israeli citizenship/residency: Like their Jewish counterparts, they enjoy freedom of movement in the entire area controlled by Israel apart from the Gaza Strip, from which they are banned, even if they are journalists. In addition, they are prohibited by law from visiting enemy states, namely - the vast majority of the Middle East.
  • Palestinians in the West Bank: Their freedom of movement is restricted even inside the West Bank: access to settlement areas, the Jordan Valley and vast areas in Area C (making up 60% of the West Bank) is scrutinized and subject to a complex permit system. The only way they can go abroad is by driving to Jordan through Israeli-controlled border crossings.
  • Residents of Gaza: The Gaza Strip is under siege. Palestinians living in this area are completely prevented from leaving it - including into the West Bank, Egypt (due to agreements between Egypt and Israel), and the Mediterranean Sea, beyond a 5.5-km-wide fishing strip.” 

GAZA CITY : Palestinian children play on January 27, 2015 next to buildings destroyed during last year’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas-led militants, in Gaza City’s al-Shejaiya neighborhood. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said today that it cannot afford to repair Gaza homes damaged in last year’s war with Israel because donors have failed to pay. “The agency has exhausted all funding to support repairs and rental subsidies,” said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). $5.4 billion was pledged at the Cairo (aid) conference last October and virtually none of it has reached Gaza. This is distressing and unacceptable. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED

In this 1971 photo from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, archive, Palestinian refugees pose for picture in the New Amman refugee camp in Eastern Jordan. The photo is part of UNRWA’s vast photo archive being digitized in Gaza and Denmark to preserve a record of one of the world’s most entrenched refugee problems, created in what the Palestinians call the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe”– their uprooting in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation. (AP Photo/G.Nehmeh, UNRWA Photo Archives)

Throughout the violent period of 1974-1990, which included the Israeli invasion of 1982, Palestinian camps in Lebanon witness heavy battles and tragedies. Of the 16 camps that had dotted the Lebanese territory, only 12 remain by 1990. This photograph shows a woman and child returning to Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp after learning that a close relative has been killed.© 1986 UNRWA Archive Photo by H. Haidar

A visit to Al-Buss and Saida

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with the Loan Project Coordinator of Najdeh, Ms. Yosra Jrad, in Al-Buss camp, located in Tyre (otherwise known as Ṣūr to the Lebanese). I had lost my translator last minute, as her bus broke down on the way to meet me at work, and had to manage with an English teacher from the camp. When I later went over the translated transcripts, the looks of confusion from Ms. Jrad during our interview suddenly made sense. It was clear that the English teacher did not really understand what I was asking and simply improvised all of the questions, leaving me with a very nonsensical transcript.

Luckily all was not lost, as the teacher, along with another Najdeh employee offered to give me a tour of the camp. I was expecting dire conditions, lack of space, wires hanging everywhere, much like my experiences in other camps. However, it was quite the contrary. In fact, Al-Buss camp is one of the cleanest, most spacious camps in Lebanon. Streets are wide, refugees have actual homes with gardens and backyards, there are trees and other greenery and the schools offer children actual places to play and have fun with jungle gyms and toys.

Despite the neighborhood-like aesthetic, there is still much improvement to be made. There are many who suffer from the heat of the summer and cold of the winters, with metal roofs and lack of insulation in homes. The only UNRWA school directly faces a garbage dump in the camp. Initially, there had been some disagreements on whether or not the waste could be removed from the camp at all. There is one hospital, however the majority of Palestinians do not carry insurance and must pay out of pocket for surgeries and other expensive treatments. To manage, patients will beg the community and neighbors to donate to their cause.

This was the first camp I went to that had checkpoints at the entry and exit. You must carry an ID or permit to enter and exit the camp. More than half the refugees find it very difficult to leave, as they are not documented. I was not aware of this before my departure and learned it would take up to several days to obtain a permit. The driver assured me not worry and said I could pass as Lebanese. We were able to enter, no questions asked. However, my new Najdeh friends expressed concern on my exiting the camp, as the checkpoints are very strict. They devised a plan to avoid the checkpoint. The driver drove out of the camp without me, while the teacher escorted me out over piles of rocks and rubble (from a fallen shop) to the main street. There, I was reunited with the driver.

 Above: Where I was able to exit the camp.

A few days after the Al-Buss interview, I was sent to Saida (a bit north of Tyre) to interview some students at a vocational center. Upon my return home, I learned that a UNFIL convoy had been bombed along the coastal road, a mere few hours after my departure on the same road. It was a strong reminder that there are still many dangers in Lebanon, the effects of the civil wars linger, and the anti-West sentiment remains strong.

Thanks to a donation from the Government of Finland, over 150,000 children in Gaza are participating in Summer Fun Weeks 2013, a two-week summer programme organised by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The programme features activities designed to encourage creativity and a psychosocial well-being like football, kite flying, drawing, and traditional games.