WASHINGTON – American movie star and former White House official Kal Penn donated his prize in MasterChef Showdown to the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, bringing the suffering of the displaced Palestinians to the US national stage.
“Palestine refugees make up 44% of the world’s protracted refugee population,” Penn, the Harold & Kumar movie star, said in a tweet.
The US television show, a competition between amateur chefs, brought eight celebrities for a special edition cooking “showdown” on Monday. Each participant chose a nonprofit organization as the recipient of a monetary award given to the winner.
Penn, a former official in the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Barack Obama, also urged his 270,000 Twitter followers to donate to UNRWA, promising to send thank you postcards to some donors.
The $25,000 donation won praise on Twitter, with many thanking Penn for highlighting the suffering of the Palestinian refugees.
“Thank you sir for your generosity Palestine and all off it’s people from the locals to all around the world deeply appreciate that thank you, God bless,” Facebook user Osama Khader wrote.
The UN defines Palestinian refugees as people who lived in Palestine and lost their homes and means of livelihood in the conflicts between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, when the state of Israel was established.
The descendants of Palestinians displaced before 1948 can also register as refugees with UNRWA. The agency serves about 5 million people across Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
The US UNRWA office thanked Penn, adding that the agency has seen an influx of donations after the show.
“From our end, the most exciting part is that he was able to bring the issue of Palestinian refugees to prime time television – talking about Palestinian refugees in a positive way, which is something that doesn’t happen enough, particularly in US media,” Abby Smardon, executive director of UNRWA USA, told Middle East Eye.
Smardon said she thinks Penn chose UNRWA because it is a “lifeline” for millions of Palestinian refugees.
“The services we provide are primarily education, healthcare, other social services that could run the gamut from gender equality initiatives to vocational training to job creation programs, micro-finance loans, as well as emergency protection,” she said.
Smardon added that about 98 percent of UNRWA staffers, estimated at 33,000 people, are Palestinian refugees themselves.
“Beyond all of the programs that we are carrying out, we are also the largest employer of Palestinian refugees,” she said.
“In places like Gaza we are the largest employer.”
She also stressed the humanitarian nature of the agency’s work.
“There’s nothing political about education; there’s nothing political about healthcare; there’s nothing political about social services,” she said. “These are services that are tied directly to human rights.”