American actor Kal Penn, best known for playing “Kumar” in the “Harold & Kumar” series, donated his $25,000 winnings from the TV show “MasterChef Celebrity Showdown” to UNRWA — the United Nations refugee agency for Palestinians.
Following his win, Penn said, “Only in America can a guy make tacos on FOX TV, almost lose an eye, and win $25,000 to support Palestinian refugees,” according to a statement on UNRWA’s website.
He added that UNRWA is “a lifeline for so many families that have been struggling for decades to meet their basic needs and achieve their rights.”
Penn, who served in the White House Office of Public Engagement during US President Barack Obama’s first term in office, implored his followers on Twitter to also donate to UNRWA, saying he would write a thank you note to anyone who contributes to the refugee agency.
He currently appears in the political drama TV series “Designated Survivor.”
UNRWA’s US office wrote on Twitter prior to the final episode that “if Kal Penn wins, so do Palestinian refugees.”
Abby Smardon, the executive director of UNRWA USA, told the news website Middle East Eye that “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.”
— UNRWA USA (@unrwausa) January 2, 2017
Smardon also said that she believes Penn chose UNRWA because it serves as a “lifeline” for millions of Palestinians, noting that it provides numerous social services including education and healthcare, as well as being the largest employers of Palestinian refugees.
She stressed that UNRWA’s work should be viewed through a humanitarian lens rather than a political one, despite the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a highly fraught political issue.
UNRWA was created in 1949 to provide education, medical services and employment to some 750,000 registered Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Today, the number of aid recipients has mushroomed to over 5 million, due to a unique provision allowing Palestinian refugees to bequeath their status to their offspring, indefinitely.
The UN agency that treats all other refugees around the world, UNHCR, does not allow first-generation refugees to pass down their status.
While supporters of the organization have touted its role in providing vital aid and employment opportunities to Palestinians living in refugee camps it runs, critics of UNRWA have said it has helped prolong the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by keeping Palestinians registered with it in a state of dependency rather than resettling them, and accuse UNRWA of turning a blind eye to the use of its facilities in the Gaza Strip by Hamas to launch attacks against Israel.