Visit Report – Lebanon

In May 2010, Jane Best (CEO of RIJ) visited Lebanon to gain more pespective on the complicated situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and to review the progress of community projects funded by RIJ. The following is an account of her experiences.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

I arrived in Beirut late Monday evening so I did not see much of the city that night. The Mayflower hotel is one of the oldest in Beirut and now one of the less expensive places to stay. I was booked in at a special NGO rate, but even then I did not think it was very cheap. It is a comfortable and clean, with all the necessary facilities – including internet access in my room – so I can do this blog each evening. Someone told me that the telephone services are very expensive in Lebanon and I noted that guests are charged for all calls over 48 seconds whether the call is answered or not!

Early Tuesday morning I met with members of PARD (Popular Aid for Relief and Development) and drove north to Tripoli and meetings in Badawi camp.

Refugees fled from Palestine in two waves – the first was in 1948 and the second in 1967. Many of those who fled in 1967 have since resettled to Russia. So the majority of refugee families in Lebanon have been there 62 years – that means that two generations have never seen their homeland and have limited freedom. There are now 12 official camps in Lebanon and a number of unofficial ‘gatherings’.

Driving north from Beirut we passed through some beautiful scenery with the sea on one side and mountains on the other, but we also passed by damaged buildings and industrial areas. The roads outside built-up areas are generally in good condition and in the early morning the roads were clear. It was much busier when we returned later in the day.

RIJ has funded two projects operated by PARD. In 2006 we provided funds to rehabilitate the water supply in four villages near the southern border following a bombing incursion that destroyed infrastructure and homes. In 2007 RIJ funded the provision of water heaters to needy families in Nahr el Bared camp in the north after the camp was torn apart by fighting between Fatah al-Islam and Lebanese soldiers.

Refugees from Nahr el Bared camp fled and many went to nearby Badawi camp. Security is very tight in the camp now and it was not possible to get a pass for in the time I was there. Even residents have to get permission sometimes to return home. So we went to Badawi camp and met people who had worked with refugees from Nahr el Bared during the war.

The camps in Lebanon are unlike camps I have visited elsewhere. Badawi camp is an integral part of the city with a more permanent look – hardly surprising after 62 years! In fact, Badawi camp was established in 1955. It is now home to between 15,000 and 17,000 people and is a peaceful place to live. The camp is administered by UNWRA (United Nations Works and Relief Agency) – the agency set up by the UN in 1949 specifically to handle the Palestinian refugee problem. All refugees in the camps have free accommodation, utilities and education but they have the choice to live outside the camp. Living outside the camp allows them a little more freedom though they are still severely restricted in the choice of jobs.

We went to the Al-Shifa socio-medical centre that PARD partners with in Nahr el Bared camp. This clinic provides medical support to the residents of Badawi camp. Patients are charged 5,000 Lebanese pounds (about 3.5 USD) to visit the General Practitioner and 10,000 LBP to visit a specialist. The Centre keeps 1,000 LBP and 2,000 LBP respectively to cover staff and administration costs. The Centre has 30 staff and 21 doctors. There is no hospital or X-ray equipment in Badawi camp. The doctors were trained on full scholarships in the Soviet Union but these days Russian scholarships only cover tuition fees. The doctors can work in the camps but they are forbidden to work elsewhere. The doctors told me how they had provided medical support round the clock during the Nahr el Bared war, setting up make-shift shelters near the camp to handle the numbers wounded in the attacks.

Everyone I spoke to emphasised the importance of providing aid and funding where it is needed, not where the donors think it should be directed. The Lebanese authorities believe that community policing is the answer to keeping the peace in Nahr el Bared and have sent people for training in Chicago where a similar scheme was successful in controlling the mafia. The people I spoke to argue that the cause of the problem has gone (Fatah al-Islam) and the present system of Popular Committees with representatives from various groups within the community, is effective because they know the community. I have witnessed this elsewhere in refugee camps – the emphasis being on establishing some kind of normality based on cultural ways.

In Badawi camp there are nine schools run by UNWRA and several kindergartens. We met with a group that co-ordinates activities for children working with NGOs such as Right to Play, World Vision, Handicap International and Paces. They run two centres – in Badawi camp and Nahr el Bared camp – providing psycho-social activities, such as drama therapy. The main problem is violence amongst the children and this has increased since the war in Nahr el Bared. There is no play area for children in Badawi camp so they are building a recreation area. We went to see it – it is a huge area including a football (soccer) pitch on artificial grass. With the World Cup coming up this is clearly very important. Everywhere on the roads we see cars sporting different flags in support of teams in the World Cup!

On the way back we passed by Nahr el Bared camp. It is heavily guarded with several barracks for the soldiers. We could see the damaged buildings that have been abandoned. Residents now live in new buildings on land that was purchased for the refugee community with funding from several European countries.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Olfat Mahmoud from Women’s Humanitarian Organisation (WHO) came to meet me on Wednesday morning and we drove to Shatila camp in west Beirut.

Shatila camp in Beirut is home to 12,000 Palestinians and 5,000 people of other nationalities, many of whom are stateless; people originating from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Kurdish areas.

Shatila camp and nearby Sabra were the site of a massacre in 1982, and again in 1985 a affected these camps as well as Burj el-Barajneh. The number of casualties and fatalities continues to be disputed due to the ensuing chaos. The camp lost some houses and became more cramped as a result.

It was obvious that the camp is crowded and cramped – the houses are close together and little sunlight can penetrate. We walked through narrow streets competing with children, motorbikes and the occasional car. Overhead was a tangle of utility wires where residents tap into the electricity supply. It looked hazardous and I was told it is!

Olfat told me how WHO began operations in 1993 concentrating on community nursing. WHO works with women and believes that it is important to address women’s needs as women as well as mothers. So their programmes include issues relating to middle age and old age as well as parenting and children.

One of the problems I heard again is that of space and somewhere for the children to play. Mothers believe that playing is expensive because it needs toys and space to play. WHO programmes show how to make the best of the space available and are aware that some children may be a little afraid when they make trips out of the camp to more open areas. In their activities they show how children can play with limited resources and the physiotherapists work on activities that help develop the children physically.

We sat in the WHO centre and Olfat told me about the problems of the camps. Depression is clearly a big issue and has increased in the last 8 to 10 years. Unemployment is high – jobs have decreased with a larger number of immigrant workers and less opportunities in the Gulf states since the Gulf wars – so men feel they are failing as the traditional bread-winners. This sets off a cycle of violence that means abnormal behaviour becomes the norm. Children are not motivated and the disturbing thing is that they are prime targets for brain-washing. This emphasizes the importance of RIJ funding to psycho-social programmes –many of you know that these are the projects that always impress me and provide the greatest hope for the future.

Olfat took me to meet members of an NGO called Najdi (Saving) that works with women in the camps. Najdi was established in 1978 and works in rehabilitation, vocational training and counselling on violence as we as educational programmes. WHO and Nadi meet together to discuss their work in order to avoid duplication and ensure the best use of their resources. Again I heard of the problems with school drop-outs as children see no future in getting an education. WHO works with parents as well as the children to raise awareness of the importance of education and even encourages parents to further their education, while Najdi provides literacy classes and after-school tutoring.

I wanted to know the problems and rewards of their work. The problems related to graduates who cannot find work, depression and lack of motivation eg school-outs. The rewards come from working with their own women, empowering them and taking a holistic approach that covers a variety of issues.

Another woman, Hanan, that I spoke to later, put it more succinctly “From nothing, we are doing something.”

After lunch the children came to the WHO centre for an activity session. They divided into three groups, mostly according to age, but I noticed that the children from stateless families tended to keep together. The groups were given different tasks: the little ones had coloured pencils for drawing while the older ones had paints. The third group worked with plasticine making candles because the electricity is always going off. As if on cue, the electricity died on us! I was a disruptive influence on the children as I was trying to take photos and video (the RIJ team are always ‘nagging’ me to take lots of photos and film!) so we left them to complete the session with drumming and dancing.

Olfat and I wandered through Shatila camp – under the tangle of overhead wires, past small shops and workshops; we passed a young man with a gun resting on his lap and I wondered why. We stopped in at the hospital and heard about their work. The hospital provides day-time surgeries and can carry out minor operations but they do not have any inpatients. I have found that a lot of people smoke in Lebanon but most surprising is that every doctor I have met so far smokes!

There is no clear delineation to the camps – Olfat told me we were leaving the camp so I put my camera away but I could not see the border. However, she told me that everyone knows. Immediately outside the camp we were in a bustling market with excellent fruit and vegetables alongside clothing and hardware.

I took a taxi back to the hotel – it cost 2 dollars and takes on passengers along the way. A great system and great value in a country that is quite expensive.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

There is so much to write but I will try to keep it succinct so that it is easy to read!

Olfat took me to the main WHO office in Burj el-Barajneh camp. Burj el-Barajneh is home to about 20,000 Palestinian refugees in west Beirut. It is a labyrinth of alleyways and wires. In the early morning it was quiet with just the sound of water running through the alleyways. Our first stop was the physiotherapy centre, mainly for the elderly. Problems that face middle-aged women and older women leave them lonely and neglected. Whereas older people used to be respected and have an important role in the community, they are now sidelined. The Arabic language does not help the situation, for example menopause translates as the ‘Age of Despair’. WHO activities are designed to rebuild self-respect and encourage a more positive outlook. The physiotherapy centre is well equipped and relatively spacious.

In the WHO women’s centre people had gathered to meet the nutritionist and for beauty sessions. The emphasis is on socialisation so although just two people were having their hair done or receiving a facial, the others were watching, learning and helping where they could. It is chance to escape the confined space of their homes and relate to other women. I talked to some women who were waiting to meet the nutritionist: three of them had travelled from the ‘Gatherings’ in the south and were new to the centre. They know that their diet is poor and want to learn more. Another woman had been visiting the Centre for three years; she said that she really enjoys it because it has increased her self-esteem – she cooks better food, shops better and the beauty treatment makes her feel good. In addition, she has learnt to understand her children better. The nutritionist told me that many of the refugees eat a lot of junk food and too many sweet things – diabetes and hypertension are the main problems.

I was then introduced to Hanah (no names are real) who took me to her home on the way to the youth centre. She lives in two rooms with her three children on the top floor of a house. Her mother and two brothers live downstairs. The house was cluttered but clean. The second room had a toilet in one corner with cooking facilities, laundry and wash-room all in one. She proudly showed me her pet tortoise as we left.

In the Youth Centre I met with social workers and youth counsellors. The centre caters for 50 to 60 children who are selected from those with the most problems: social, psychological or economic. During the various conflicts they have continued their activities in a shelter. I saw pictures that children had drawn during this time showing their desire for trees, flowers, birds etc and often with the Palestinian flag flying somewhere in the picture. The staff told me that Play-do is an excellent medium for the children to help them relieve their anxieties. I was introduced to Hanzalah, a cartoon character without a facial expression who has come to be a symbol for the Palestinian people.

In the children’s centre I watched different groups of children playing, drawing and the older children were writing their names on a blackboard in English. The atmosphere was very different to Shatila where WHO are starting from scratch and the children are still very undisciplined. Yousef was writing his name. He had severe problems – being solitary, not talking to anyone including his parents and not socialising with other children. He is now taking part in the activities and he was expressing himself well.

The rest of the morning I spent visiting some homes of children who attend the Centre.

Kalila runs a shop in the front of her house. Her husband has some health problems so they decided to open a shop to allow her to earn some income while caring for the family. They have nine children and all are still at school. She is able to manage this because of the services provided by WHO. I was shown the house at the back of the shop and, as I often find on my visits, it was immaculately clean. People taking a pride in keeping their homes clean despite the conditions in which they live. I was fascinated by the size of the furniture in all the homes I visited – huge wardrobes and enormous refrigerators in a camp with narrow alleyways. They told me that they bring them in over the roof-tops.

Leila also has nine children. Her eldest son is 16 years old and works at a restaurant where his father works, but the others are still at school. The family had lived in Nahr el-Bared and fled to Burj el-Barajneh after the fighting because they have relatives there. She told me that the army had given them transport and had mattresses ready for people to sleep on.

I went to meet Salvatore Lombardo, Director of UNWRA Affairs in Lebanon. I was introduced to Salvatore by Tom Getman, a Board member of RI in Washington. Salvatore worked for UNCHR for many years and knows Sadako Ogata and Johan Cels, the UNCHR representative in Tokyo.

It was very interesting talking to Salvatore. UNWRA is different from UNHCR in so many ways.
99% of the UNWRA staff are Palestinian refugees whereas you would never find this in UNHCR where a lot of the staff are international employees. UNWRA are involved with direct implementation whereas UNHCR works through Implementing Partners. UNHCR is involved in solutions and, therefore, in the political process whereas UNWRA is not.

UNWRA is in the strange position of being responsible for the maintenance and service of 12 camps in Lebanon but they have no say in the running of the communities; nor does the Lebanese government who are not allowed to police the camps.

The biggest problem for UNWRA now is a lack of funds. There are 3000 homes in need of repair, but they only have funds for 60 homes. The UNWRA schools used to be of a very high standard (I heard many people say this) but last year only 10,000 students passed out of 35,000 – and 11,5000 students failed all subjects.

The most urgent issue in Lebanon is clearly human rights. The right to work: many professions are forbidden to Palestinians. The right to citizenship: those who marry Lebanese are unable to obtain citizenship or permanent residence. These are issues outside the authority of UNWRA.

UNWRA are working on five pilot schemes in schools in September, working with Right to Play. After school activities will involve sports and recreation. If the pilot schemes go well they will expand the programme in October. This project sounds very interesting and may be something for Refugees International Japan to consider.

Friday, 21 May 2010

After visiting the PARD office and meeting the accountant, I went out to the visit two of the ‘gatherings’ in the south of Lebanon with Rita Hamdan from PARD.

There are nine ‘gatherings’ in the south of Lebanon and one in Saida. They are unofficial sites where farmers and agricultural workers gathered after fleeing Palestine in 1948. Refugees were allowed to settle on land owned by Lebanese as long as they worked their land.

To me life in a ‘Gathering’ looked much more attractive than living in a crowded camp in the city. There is a lot more space, the air is cleaner and people can enjoy the environment. However, the reality is that the residents have no support from UNWRA, nor anyone else. There is no educational or health support provided and they have no rights in the communities.

PARD is working on community empowerment providing primary healthcare, organising clean-up campaigns, training youth and women in such things as community leadership, infrastructure, negotiation and individual rights. For example, water mains supplies are provided but PARD and the community arrange the link-up with individual households.

The youth group were meeting in the PARD centre in Shabriha when we arrived and a training session on decision-making was underway. The Centre includes a clinic that has good facilities for gynaecology check-ups; several of the youth are trained first-aiders. After a couple of slides on gathering information in preparation for making a decision, we were diverted on to other topics as I asked questions. It was a very lively discussion about the issues facing youth and others in the gatherings. Mostly it comes back to rights and opportunities. There were six participants and they had all finished school after the 7th grade, wanting to go to a better school. However, they could not afford the transportation costs to attend the school. They would like more vocational training opportunities and access to the internet. They have no rights to construct or expand their homes; one member wants to get married but they have no house to move into – the one possibility requires repairs and they cannot get the permission. I asked what advantages they have in living in the gatherings and being involved in PARD activities. They feel very united and feel there is some solidarity in that. Unfortunately the frustrations build despair and anger in young people who see no opportunities in the future for themselves and they are made to feel inferior to their neighbours. Training that helps give them a voice is one way to boost their self-respect.

We moved on to meet Aliya (all names are changed), one of the women’s group leaders in nearby Qasmiye gathering. She was with two PARD trainers when we caught up with her and we went to her house to chat. Her house is spacious and comfortable, so different from the camps. The women’s committee meet twice a month to discuss community issues and how to deal with them – for example: water supplies, rubbish collection, domestic violence and gender. They do not have representation on the Popular committees (this requires a political affiliation and to be a man!) but they say they are listened to. Aliya told me how they organised rubbish collection once a month. They lobbied successfully for covered receptacles and other facilities. Hospital access is difficult – the nearest hospital that Palestinians can attend is 15 kilometers away in Tyr. Her husband has a thrombosis in his leg and she is worried about him.

We talked about the problems of Nahr el_Bared camp and the possibility that the Qasmiye women’s group could help the women of Nahr el-Bared who have even less rights than they used to have. It is important that the groups help each other to build their unity and those who have undergone training can pass on their knowledge to others. I talked with Farah, one of the trainers, who told me she does volunteer work with an addiction prevention group. She fears that as many as half the youth are addicted to something. Their behaviour is erratic and unpredictable. The group can work on prevention but treatment is a huge challenge given the number of locations and the size of the problem.

So we left them and drove back through beautiful countryside with the Mediterranean sea on our left and the mountains of Lebanon on our right. Such a contrast to the life of thousands still living there in exile after 62 years. I mulled over the incredibly complicated situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and how we can provide hope for them

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