United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is a relief and human development agency, providing education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid to over four million refugees living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and the Syrian Arab republic.

It was established in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War by the United Nations General Assembly under resolution 302 (IV) of December 8, 1949. UNRWA developed a working definition of refugee status to allow it to provide humanitarian assistance. This maintained that beneficiaries had to have lived in Palestine for at least two years before fleeing and had to have lost both their home and livelihood, or be the descendant of someone who had.

The UNRWA definition is designed solely for the determination of eligibility for UNRWA assistance. Under General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), of December 11, 1948, other persons may be eligible for repatriation and/or compensation but are not necessarily eligible for relief under the UNRWA’s working definition. Thus a person who is not or who has ceased to be regarded by UNRWA as a refugee for the purpose of receiving relief, may still qualify as a refugee within the meaning of resolution 194.

All Palestinian refugees who are registered with UNRWA and are in need of assistance are eligible for help from UNRWA. In 2004, there were 4 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UNRWA. [1] (http://www.un.org/unrwa/genevaconference/press/comgen_speech.html)

UNRWA provides facilities in 59 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It did provide relief to displaced persons inside the State of Israel following the 1948 conflict until the Israeli government took responsibility for them in 1952.

The refugee camps, which developed from tented cities to rows of concrete blockhouses to urban ghettos indistinguishable from their surroundings, house around one third of all registered Palestinian refugees. It also provides facilities in other areas where large numbers of registered Palestinian refugees live outside of recognized camps. In order for a camp to be recognized by UNRWA, there must be an agreement between the host government and UNRWA governing use of the camp. UNRWA does not itself run any camps, has no police powers or administrative role, but simply provides services to the camp.


Organisation and Administration

UNRWA is the largest agency in the United Nations family, employing over 25,000 staff; 99% of UNRWA's employees are locally-recruited Palestinians. [2] (http://www.un.org/unrwa/publications/pdf/uif-june04.pdf) The Agency's headquarters are divided between the Gaza Strip and Amman, Jordan. Its operations are organised into five fields - Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza.

Annual funding for UNRWA is in the order of several hundred million US dollars, of which the majority comes from donor countries. A smaller amount comes directly from the United Nations. Contributions and pledges in 2003 totalled almost $440 million US dollars; the major contributors (based on 2003 figures) were the United States ($134 million), the European Commission ($94 million), the United Kingdom and Sweden.

UNRWA is a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly and its mandate is renewed every three years.


Services provided by UNRWA include health care, education, relief and social services and micro-credit loan programmes.

Education Programme

UNRWA operates one of the largest school systems in the Middle East, with 663 schools employing more than 17,000 teaching and support staff. It has been the main provider of basic education to Palestinian refugee children since 1950. The education programme is UNRWA’s largest area of activity, accounting for half of its regular budget and 70 per cent of its staff. Basic education is available to all registered refugee children free of charge up to around the age of 15. By 2004 there were close to 500,000 students enrolled in 663 schools. UNRWA schools follow the curriculum of their host countries. This allows UNRWA pupils to progress to further education or employment holding locally-recognised qualifications and fits with the sovereignty requirements of countries hosting refugees.

In the 1960s UNRWA schools became the first in the region to achieve full gender equality. Overcrowded classrooms containing 40 or even 50 pupils are common. Almost all of UNRWA’s schools operate on a double shift - where two separate groups of pupils and teachers share the same buildings. Not all refugee children attend UNRWA schools. In Jordan and Syria children have full access to government schools and many attend those because they are close to where they live. UNRWA also operates eight vocational and technical training centres and three teacher training colleges that have places for around 6,200 students.

Relief and Social Services Programme

In Palestinian refugee society, families without a male bread winner are often very vulnerable. Those headed by a widow, a divorcee or a disabled father often live in dire poverty. UNRWA provides food aid, cash assistance and help with shelter repairs to these families. Fewer than six percent of refugees qualify as hardship cases, with the largest number being in Lebanon where restrictions on Palestinians entering the Lebanese job market cause severe hardship. Children from special hardship case families are given preferential access to the Agency’s vocational training centres, while women in such families are encouraged to join UNRWA’s women’s programme centres. In these centres, training, advice and childcare are available to encourage female refugees’ social development.

Rations are distributed to families in UNRWA’s special hardship category every quarter. The yearly value of the food is just over US$ 100 per person and most of it is received by the agency in the form of in-kind donations of basic foodstuff, such as flour, rice and dried milk. Finances permitting, the Agency also provides small cash grants to very poor refugee families to help with the purchase of items such as school uniforms and school books or as crisis grants, for example if they lose all their possessions in a house fire.

Most of the concrete-block shelters in the refugee camps were built by UNRWA in the 1950s to replace the tents in which refugees had lived since the 1948 war. Others were built after the 1967 conflict. Although most refugees have been able to make improvements and additions to their shelters over the years, the very poorest refugees often live in shelters that are now in extremely bad condition. Wet, crumbling walls, leaking zinc roofs and rodent infestation cause additional social and health problems. UNRWA has been able to repair hundreds of shelters in recent years, often simply by supplying materials while the families provide their own labour. UNRWA is unable to keep up with the growing numbers of special hardship case families who each year join its waiting list for shelter rehabilitation.

UNRWA created community-based organizations (CBOs) to target women, refugees with disabilities and to look after the needs of children. The CBOs now have their own management committees staffed by volunteers from the community. UNRWA provides them with technical and small amounts of targeted financial assistance, but many have made links of their own with local and international NGOs.

Health Programme

Since 1950, UNRWA has been the main healthcare provider for the Palestinian refugee population. Basic health needs are met through a network of primary care clinics, providing access to secondary treatment in hospitals, food aid to vulnerable groups and environmental health in refugee camps.

The health of Palestinian refugees resembles that of many populations in transition from developing world to developed world status. Immunisation programmes have vaccine-preventable diseases under control, but there remains a high prevalence of diseases caused by cramped housing and open sewers in the camps and high poverty levels. At the same time, non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are on the increase. Birth rates are among the highest in the world, with short intervals between pregnancies. Diarrhea and intestinal parasites are particularly common among children because of poor environmental health for the one third of refugees who live in camps. However, infant mortality rates are lower among refugees than the World Health Organisation’s benchmark for the developing world. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the violence of the Al-Aqsa Intifada has led to curfews and closures which have caused a growth in malnutrition, especially among children and nursing mothers. The economic hardships in the territory have driven many refugees away from private health care, increasing the number of patient visits to UNRWA doctors in the Gaza Strip by 61 per cent during the first two years of the conflict.

UNRWA’s network of 122 clinics provides free primary healthcare to all registered refugees who ask for it. The clinics are based inside refugee camps or near concentrations of refugees. In 2003 the clinics handled 10 million patient visits - averaging more than 110 visits per doctor per day. Medical services include outpatient care, dental treatment and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. Maternal and child healthcare (MCH) is a priority for UNRWA’s health programme. School health teams and camp medical officers visit UNRWA schools to examine new pupils to aid early detection of childhood diseases. All UNRWA clinics offer family planning services with counselling that emphasises the importance of birth spacing as a factor in maternal and child health. Agency clinics also supervise the provision of food aid to nursing and pregnant mothers who need it and six clinics in the Gaza Strip have their own maternity units.

UNRWA provides refugees with assistance in meeting the costs of hospitalisation either by partially reimbursing them, or by negotiating contracts with government, NGO and private hospitals.

The 1.3 million refugees who still live in refugee camps - one third of the total – receive environmental health services from UNRWA. These include such essentials as sewage disposal, the provision of safe drinking water and disposal of refuse. Large scale projects have been carried out in camps since 1989, but many still have inadequate infrastructure, including open sewers. A great many refugee shelters suffer flooding by waste water in winter.

Microenterprise & Microfinance Programme

UNRWA’s microfinance and microenterprise programme (MMP) aims to alleviate poverty and support economic development in the refugee community by providing capital investment and working capital loans at commercial rates. The programme seeks to be as close to self-supporting as possible. It has a strong record of creating employment, generating income and empowering refugees.

The MMP was launched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1991 in response to the high unemployment and spreading poverty that followed the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 and the Gulf War. In 2003 the MMP expanded into Jordan and Syria to allow UNRWA to help entrepreneurs and the poorest refugees in those fields. Since its inception it has disbursed over 67,000 loans valued at over US$ 77 million.

Emergency Operations

Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, UNRWA has been working to alleviate the impact of resulting curfews and closures on the refugee population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The effect of closures on the Palestinian economy has caused thousands to lose their livelihoods. It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the population is out of work -putting over 60 per cent of the population under the poverty line with an income of below US$ 2 a day. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that close to two million Palestinians, 62 per cent of the population, are considered “vulnerable” because they have inadequate access to food, shelter or health services. A US Agency for International Development (USAID) reported a sharp growth in malnutrition and anemia among Palestinian children - marked by stunted growth or low body weights.[3] (http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/006/j1575e/j1575e00.htm)

As part of its emergency relief activities UNRWA provides temporary jobs for unemployed breadwinners - a programme that has allowed the Agency to indirectly support 160,000 women and children in Gaza alone. UNRWA has also increased its provision of food aid. Before the conflict UNRWA distributed food to around 20,000 refugee families, it now targets 230,000 families across the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA food parcels typically contain 50kg of flour, five kg of rice, five kg of sugar, two liters of cooking oil, one kg of powdered milk and five kg of lentils.

The Agency assists the almost 30,000 refugees whose homes have been destroyed during military operations. UNRWA has provided tents, blankets, kitchen kits, medicines and drinking water, as well as cash assistance to help with renting a new home to those families made homeless. The Agency is also rebuilding and repairing shelters. The focus of the Agency’s rebuilding work has been Rafah and Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip and in Jenin camp in the West Bank. In Jenin a donation of US$ 27 million from the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society allowed UNRWA to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and communal facilities of the camp that were destroyed by the fighting in April 2002.

UNRWA’s health programme faces increased demands in the territories because of the injuries, stress and psychological trauma caused by the conflict. The economic impact of closures is also increasing the demands made on the Agency as refugees seek care from the Agency rather than from private providers. UNRWA ambulances and mobile medical teams bring healthcare to communities isolated by closures for long periods.

The crisis has had a particularly marked effect on the refugee children served by UNRWA’s schools. Teachers and pupils are often unable to reach their schools and thousands of teaching days have been lost. Schools have come under fire on many occasions and have been used as military outposts and detention centres. The violent events witnessed by the children have caused emotional and psychological trauma and many have suffered the loss of classmates or family members. Examination pass rates have collapsed because of the conflict and UNRWA is running remedial classes in each school to try to compensate for the time lost to education. The Agency has also hired teams of trauma counsellors to work with those children who have been emotionally scarred by their experiences.

To fund its emergency activities in the West Bank and Gaza UNRWA has launched a series of appeals for funds. The first of these was a flash appeal in October 2000 for US$ 4.83 million. In November 2004 UNRWA launched an appeal for US$186 million to cover emergency operations during 2005.

Relations with Israel

After Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the June 1967 Six-Day War, it requested that the UNRWA continue its operations there, and agreed to facilitate them. In the years since, relations between Israel and UNRWA have found themselves subject to the varying intensities of conflict that have continued to rock the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the most recent conflict, which started in late 2000, UNRWA has often complained that Israel closures, curfews and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza have interfered with its ability to carry out its humanitarian mandate. The Agency has also complained that large scale demolitions of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip have left over 30,000 people homeless. Israel claims that demolitions are a necessary part of its battle against Palestinian terrorists, who commit suicide bombings inside Israeli cities.

Relations hit a particular low in November 2002 when Iain Hook, a British employee of UNRWA was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while working in the West Bank town of Jenin. Further strain has been put on relations by the killing, by Israeli gunfire, of several schoolchildren in UNRWA schools in Gaza.

For their part, Israeli officials have often alleged in the media that, whether knowingly or not, UNRWA has aided Palestinian militant organizations, such as Hamas. There have been claims that UNRWA facilities, such as ambulances have been used by terrorists for the purposes of transporting men and arms. In May 2004 masked and armed men carried an injured colleague into an UNRWA ambulance during an Israeli incursion into the Zeitoun district of Gaza City and then boarded the ambulance with him. The ambulance driver requested that the armed men leave, but was threatened and told to drive to a hospital. UNRWA issued a plea [4] (http://www.un.org/unrwa/news/releases/pr-2004/hqg-0904.pdf) to all parties to respect the neutrality of its ambulances, but the incident was captured on film and subsequently aired on Israeli television. This led to allegations by Israeli politicians that UNRWA ambulances had transported the body parts of Israeli soldiers in Gaza City and assisted gunmen in Rafah. UNRWA said it requested details of these incidents so that it could investigate its staff but no detailed allegations were ever put forward.

October 1, 2004 Incident

On October 1, 2004, Israel again lodged accusations against UNRWA. The Israeli Defence Forces released UAV footage (http://www1.idf.il/DOVER/site/mainpage.asp?sl=EN&id=7&docid=34160.EN) and video (http://www1.idf.il/SIP_STORAGE/DOVER/files/7/34147.wmv) documenting what they initially claimed was a group of Palestinian militants load a rocket into UN-marked vehicle. [5] (http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/spages/483950.html), video (wait to the end) (http://switch3.castup.net/cunet/gm.asp?ClipMediaID=40850&ak=6177920). Israel announced its intention to file a strong complaint against UNRWA and demand that Danish diplomat Peter Hansen, UNRWA's head, be removed from office. [6] (http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-2984103,00.html)

Hansen claimed that the footage was of UNRWA crew members carrying a stretcher into the UN ambulance, stating "While the quality of the video clip is poor, its analysis shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the object carried and thrown into the vehicle is not / cannot be a Qassam rocket". Moreover, Hansen accused Israel in "baseless accusations" which put UNWRA's ambulance crews in "grave danger". [7] (http://www.un.org/unrwa/news/releases/pr-2004/hqg30-04.pdf), [8] (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/484003.html)

Dan Gillerman, Israel's UN ambassador, dismissed UNRWA's reaction and blamed Hansen has "for years has expressed anti-Israeli, biased, unrestrained positions and statements". [9] (http://www.cbc.ca/story/world/national/2004/10/03/unwra041003.html) However, on October 5, Israeli General Yisrael Ziv admitted doubt over whether the object was a rocket-launcher or a stretcher. [10] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3716930.stm), [11] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3719432.stm). At the same press conference, Ziv claimed that 13 UN staff had been detained on terrorism charges - but it was later revealed that this figure covered detentions within the past four years, some of whom had since been released, whilst the UNRWA claimed to know of only one member of staff held in detention, and that this person had been in detention for the past two years.

On October 6, 2004, Israel retracted the accusations (http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsPackageArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=602558&section=news), but did not offer an apology.

Peter Hansen

Israel has claimed that Peter Hansen, UNRWA's former Commissioner-General (1996-2005) "consistently adopted a trenchant anti-Israel line" which resulted in biased and exaggerated reports against Israel. Israel complained that Hansen had exaggerated reports to the UN about the number of houses demolished by the IDF in Rafah. Israeli media reports said that Hansen claimed he was forced to send foreign workers employed by UNRWA out of the Gaza strip, because of the risks posed by the positions taken up by Israeli troops on the road leading out of Gaza. The Israeli media claimed that the decision to remove the international staff had been motivated by fear of violence at the hands of Palestinian elements, regarding a wave of kidnappings that occurred between May to July 2004. UNRWA denied this allegation. Israel also complained to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan following the publication of an article by Hansen in the International Herald Tribune in which he denounced Israel's policy of house demolitions.

UNRWA responded that since the outbreak of the current strife the United States government has been financing a programme of "Operations Support Officers", part of whose job is to make random and unannounced inspections of UNRWA facilities to ensure their sanctity from militant operations. They reported that no such uses had been detected. In 2004 the US Congress asked the General Accounting Office to investigate media claims that taxpayer's dollars given to UNRWA had been used to support individuals involved in militant activities. The GAO gave UNRWA a clean bill of health.

Hansen caused controversy in Canada in October 2004 when he said in an interview with CBC TV
"Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another." "We demand of our staff, whatever their political persuasion is, that they behave in accordance with UN standards and norms for neutrality".
Media reports claimed that this implied that the UNRWA head was turning a blind eye to terrorism, however he later claimed that as Hamas was not a membership organisation he had been referring not to active Hamas members, but to Hamas sympathizers within UNRWA. In a letter to the Agency's major donors, he said he was attempting to be honest because UNRWA has over 8,200 employees in the Gaza Strip. According to polls, Hamas had the support of perhaps 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the population of Gaza. Given those two facts, he said he acknowledged that it was likely that there were at least some Hamas sympathizers among UNRWA’s employees. The important thing, he wrote, was that UNRWA's strict rules and regulations ensured that its staff remained impartial UN servants.

UNWRA and the Palestinian Curriculum

In 1998, two years before the Al-Aqsa intifada, U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch (D-FL) and other Congressmembers pressured the State Department to ask UNRWA to investigate evidence that Palestinian Authority school books used in UNRWA-run schools contained anti-Semitic statements. The allegations surfaced in reports complied by the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, an Israeli-American NGO. In response, UNRWA acknowledged that the books contained statements such as "Treachery and disloyalty are character traits of the Jews and one should be aware of them," but insisted that this phrase was not offensive because it described actual "historical events." In January 1999, the State Department confirmed to Congress that "UNRWA’s review did reveal instances of anti-Semitic characterizations and content in these host-authority texts." According to UNRWA’s web site, "UNRWA staff participated in the design and development of the Palestinian curriculum." (Weekly Standard, June 3, 2002)

For historical reasons UNRWA schools followed the Jordanian curriculum in the West Bank and the Egyptian curriculum in the Gaza Strip and this practice continued under the Israeli control of those areas between 1967 and 1994. Since 1994 the Palestinian Authority has progressively been replacing the old Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks as new PA-produced textbooks become available. The last of the older books was phased out of UNRWA schools in the autumn of 2004.

In 1999 and 2000, Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, published a study on this subject. [12] (http://www.fmep.org/analysis/brown_abstract_study_on_palestinian_textbooks.html) Regarding the Palestinian Authority's new textbooks, he states: "The new books have removed the anti-Semitism present in the older books while they tell history from a Palestinian point of view, they do not seek to erase Israel, delegitimize it or replace it with the "State of Palestine"; each book contains a foreword describing the West Bank and Gaza as "the two parts of the homeland"; the maps show some awkwardness but do sometimes indicate the 1967 line and take some other measures to avoid indicating borders; in this respect they are actually more forthcoming than Israeli maps; the books avoid treating Israel at length but do indeed mention it by name; the new books must be seen as a tremendous improvement from a Jewish, Israeli, and humanitarian view; they do not compare unfavorably to the material my son was given as a fourth grade student in a school in Tel Aviv". Brown also described the research into Palestinian textbooks conducted by the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace as "tendentious and highly misleading". However, in an exchange with CMIP Brown notes "my criticism that CMIP's work is 'tendentious and highly misleading' was made before CMIP issued its 2001 report and could hardly have referred specifically to it." [13] (http://www.edume.org/react/brown1.htm)

In 2002, the United States Congress requested the US Department of State to commission a reputable NGO to conduct a review of the new Palestinian curriculum. The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) was thereby commissioned by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the US Consul General in Jerusalem to review the Palestinian Authority's textbooks. Its report was completed in March 2003 and delivered to the State Department for submission to Congress. Its Executive Summary states: "The overall orientation of the curriculum is peaceful despite the harsh and violent realities on the ground. It does not openly incite against Israel and the Jews. It does not openly incite hatred and violence. Religious and political tolerance is emphasized in a good number of textbooks and in multiple contexts." However, its June 2004 follow-up report notes a number of deficiencies in the curriculum. It contradicts Nathan Brown's study, stating "The practice of “appropriating” sites, areas, localities, geographic regions, etc. inside the territory of the State of Israel as Palestine/Palestinian observed in our previous review, remains a feature of the newly published textbooks (4th and 9th Grade) laying substantive grounds to the contention that the Palestinian Authority did not in fact recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people." It also notes, regarding maps, that "A good number... show Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as one geographic entity (without demarcation lines or differentiated colorings). Historically Palestinian cities (e.g., Akka, Yafa, Haifa, Safad, al-Lid, Ar-Ramla, Beer As-sabe’) are included in some maps that lump together the areas controlled by the PA with those inside the State of Israel. No map of the region bears the name of “Israel” in its pre-1967 borders. In addition, Israeli towns with a predominantly Jewish population are not represented on these maps." The Summary also states that the curriculum asserts a historically dubious ancient Arab presence in the region, while ignoring any Jewish connection: "The Jewish connection to the region, in general, and the Holy Land, in particular, is virtually missing. This lack of reference is perceived as tantamount to a denial of such a connection, although no direct evidence is found for such a denial." It also notes that "terms and passages used to describe some historical events are sometimes offensive in nature and could be construed as reflecting hatred of and discrimination against Jews and Judaism." [14] (http://www.ipcri.org/files/4&9report.pdf)

See also

External links

de:Hilfswerk der Vereinten Nationen für Palästina-Flüchtlinge im Nahen Osten he:אונר"א


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