Love of Korean pop links UK teenagers with Palestinian refugees

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British students at the Connaught School for Girls in London connect via a video call with Palestinian refugee students from Al Fallouja and Haifa schools in Damascus, Syria, which is run by aid agency United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA). - Thomson Reuters Foundation

LONDON - The sugary pop songs of South Korean groups BTS, EXO and BlackPink might be sung in Korean but it has not stopped Palestinian refugee teenager Tasnim from being an avid fan from her home in war-torn Syria.

To Tasnim's surprise, it is a love shared by students at London's Connaught School for Girls with whom her school in Damascus holds Skype calls as part of a project to connect refugee students in the Middle East with European and U.S. pupils.

"My favorite kind of music is K-pop music, Korean music," exclaimed Tasnim during a recent video call, sitting alongside classmates from two schools in the Syrian capital run by aid agency United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA).

"Do you like BTS?" 14-year-old British student Asiya replied, before excited chatter erupts between the two groups about their favorite 'K-pop' performers.

"Did you hear their latest song? Do you like BlackPink?" said Tasnim, wearing a white hijab, as does Asiya in London.

More than half a million Palestinian refugee students attend 700 UNRWA schools across Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, the aid agency says.

UNRWA was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1949 after thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation.

"Even though we are worlds apart... we're all teenagers, so we found some common ground," said Asiya, who volunteered to join the 'My Voice, My School' project run by UNRWA and social enterprise Digital Explorer to learn more about refugees.

"It was quite ironic because we were on a conference call to people in Syria and we were talking about Korea."

UNRWA says it currently supports 5.3 million Palestinians across the Middle East, including in Gaza and the West Bank.

But the United States, the agency's biggest donor, said last month it would withhold about half of a $125 million aid package after President Donald Trump questioned the value of such funding amid a widening rift with Palestinian leaders.

UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said the funding cut would put the stability of the Middle East at risk.

"It's a time when extremists are in full recruitment mode. It's simply unwise to have 500,000 children not in schools," he said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

UNRWA has launched a global campaign for countries and private donors to help it deal with a shortfall in funding.

Seven countries - Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Russia - had already transferred early funds while four - Belgium, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Ireland - had pledged to do so soon, the agency said last week.

"Our education is at risk because of a funding reduction," Palestinian refugee Mulham, 14, told students in London, asking for their support to ensure they have access to education.

British student Asiya said hearing about Mulham's and Tasnim's circumstances firsthand has made her appreciate her education and inspired her to do more.

"Although we sometimes complain a lot about school, we found that their situation is a lot worse and we should be grateful for what we have," she said. - Thomson Reuters Foundation


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