As a UN relief co-op, this Northeastern student is helping shelter Palestinian refugees of Israel-Hamas war

Men walking through rubble in Gaza.
Palestinian men walk amidst the rubble of a UNRWA school in Gaza City, which was destroyed overnight in an Israeli airstrike. Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via AP

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

When Sebastian Chávez Da Silva sought a co-op at United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, he never imagined he’d be thrust into the middle of a war.

With a passion for humanitarian logistics, Chávez Da Silva applied to work for UNRWA in early May. After a fairly speedy onboarding, he arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Aug. 9 to provide technical support to the U.N. agency’s Chief Central Support Services Division.

The agency provides assistance and protection to some 5.5 million Palestinian refugees in the region who’ve been displaced or are in need of humanitarian aid as a result of the decades long strife between Israel and Palestinians.

Arriving well before the ongoing bloodshed, Chávez Da Silva says he’s been working around the clock to help the international agency support its personnel on the frontlines in Gaza — all of whom are helping countless Palestinians.

“While this situation isn’t what I was expecting when I first came here, it is, in a way, exactly what I signed up for,” Chávez Da Silva tells Northeastern Global News.

Chávez Da Silva was actually supposed to be in Israel the weekend of Hamas’ surprise attack in southern Israel. In fact, he was traveling through the West Bank and Israel during the week leading up to the incursion learning more about the zones in which UNRWA operates. 

“I was supposed to leave Israel the afternoon of [October] 7th, but had to submit some work by the 5th and had forgotten a notebook with details of the project back at my desk,” Chávez Da Silva says.

His work desk was located in Amman, where Chávez Da Silva has been stationed with the UNRWA. 

Over the past several weeks, Chávez Da Silva has helped to produce field operation manuals, standard operating procedures and other technical documents needed to carry out the U.N.’s humanitarian operations. 

Working at the Amman headquarters, “we essentially dictate the instructions for what the rest of the agency needs to do,” Chávez Da Silva says.

While this situation isn’t what I was expecting when I first came here, it is, in a way, exactly what I signed up for.

Sebastian Chávez Da Silva, a Northeastern student on co-op at United Nations Relief and Works Agency

So it was that on Wednesday, Oct. 4, a fortuitous, last-minute decision to retrieve a personal notebook brought Chávez Da Silva far east of the violence that was developing around him.  

“I would’ve likely woken up to the sound of air raid sirens and the Iron Dome on Saturday morning,” he says.

Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that launched the initial assault on targets in Israel, are in a state of war. The violence perpetrated by Hamas, including the killing, maiming and abduction of civilians, has been universally condemned by nations around the world, including Israel, the United States, Europe and the United Nations. 

Israel retaliated over the weekend — and over the last several days — with airstrikes on targets in Gaza. Those warplanes are starting to exact a deadly toll in Gaza, reducing neighborhoods in the densely populated strip to rubble, reports show. The death toll on both sides is fast rising — standing at more than 1,900.  

Among the dead are a confirmed 30 UNRWA school students, and nine UNRWA personnel, according to the agency’s count.

“Needless to say, work this week has been the most hectic it’s been since I’ve arrived,” Chávez Da Silva says. “All hands are on deck working to support our field office and headquarters in Gaza, as it’s our largest primary operating zone — the others being the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.”

As of Wednesday, UNRWA teams are sheltering approximately 175,500 of the 263,000 internally displaced people across 88 of its school sites throughout the Gaza Strip, Chávez Da Silva says. 

Chávez Da Silva isn’t the only member of the Northeastern community impacted by the weekend’s events. Two students engaged in co-ops and one visiting in Israel were evacuated in recent days. 

Amid such death and destruction, Chávez Da Silva is grateful to be able to make a difference during these trying times. 

“Things here seem grim and bleak, but the ongoing situation in Gaza honestly makes me feel even more immense pride and honor to be able to work with an organization that’s putting their all into helping those who need it most,” he adds.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.