Penn, movie star and former White House official, also called on his Twitter followers to donate to UNRWA
Actor Kal Penn has donated his $25,000 prize for winning MasterChef Showdown to the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA. But supporters of the Palestinian cause say that the movie star also made a priceless contribution to the cause: He brought the suffering of displaced Palestinians to the US national stage.
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 organisation as the recipient of a monetary award given to the winner.
Penn, a former public engagement official in the White House Office under President Barack Obama, also urged his 270,000 Twitter followers to donate to UNRWA, promising to send thank you postcards to some donors.
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) January 2, 2017
"Palestine refugees make up 44percent of the world's protracted refugee population," the Harold & Kumar star said in a tweet.
The UN defines Palestinian refugees as people who lived in Palestine and lost their homes and means of livelihood in the conflicts between 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 five million people across Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
Many people expressed praise and gratitude to Penn on social media.
"Thank you sir for your generosity. Palestine and all of it's people from the locals to all around the world deeply appreciate that thank you, God bless," Facebook user Osama Khader wrote.
The US UNRWA office thanked Penn, calling him a winner.
— UNRWA USA (@unrwausa) January 3, 2017
Abby Smardon, executive director of UNRWA USA, said the agency has seen an influx of donations after the show, but supporters are more thrilled about the awareness that Penn brought to the humanitarian cause.
“From our end, the most exciting part is that he was able to bring the issue of Palestinian refugees to primetime television - talking about Palestinian refugees in a positive way, which is something that doesn’t happen enough, particularly in US media,” Smardon told Middle East Eye.
'There’s nothing political about education; there’s nothing political about healthcare; there’s nothing political about social services'
-Abby Smardon, executive director of UNRWA USA
Smardon said she thinks Penn chose UNRWA because it is a “lifeline” for millions of Palestinian refugees. She highlighted the agency’s services, describing UNRWA as a human development programme.
“The services we provide are primarily education, health care, other social services that could run the gamut from gender equality initiatives to vocational training to job creation programmes, micro-finance loans, as well as emergency protection,” Smardon said.
She said what makes UNRWA’s work special as a UN organisation is that it implements all of its initiatives directly with a mostly Palestinian staff of 33,000 people. About 98 percent of staffers are Palestinian refugees themselves, according to Smardon.
“Beyond all of the programmes 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.”
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a politically charged issue in the US, but Smardon stressed that UNRWA’s work is strictly humanitarian.
“There’s nothing political about education; there’s nothing political about health care; there’s nothing political about social services,” she said. “These are services that are tied directly to human rights.”
However, Penn’s donation sparked online debates about the conflict, with some social media users blaming Israel for the plight of Palestinian refugees and others defending the US ally.
"We have the terrorist state Israel to thank for that," one Twitter wrote of the number of displaced Palestinians.
The tweet was followed by a wide range of responses.
"I'm sorry, who's firiing [sic] rockets at who again? (Hint: Palestinian terrorists at Israel.)," a pro-Israel account tweeted.
This isn’t the first time Penn has advocated for refugees. In November 2015, he scolded Democratic lawmakers who backed a bill to restrict the resettlement of Syrians in the US.
"Disgusted to see some House Democrats join crazy Republicans in stoking mass hysteria on the refugee issue," he said at the time.