Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Palestinians protest UNRWA cuts

Funding is being reduced for Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, making an already difficult existence almost unbearable, reports Louisa Lamb from Lebanon

Al-Ahram Weekly

Life as a Palestinian refugee is more than a constant struggle these days, according to a sampling of some of the more than 200,000 Palestinians in Lebanon’s refugee camps.

Every day looms with pessimism, as many wonder if they will be able to feed their families and have drinkable water, while also anticipating, with apprehension, the possibility of being shelled by warring groups.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled Syria since 2011, now face an even bigger problem: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) recently apologised for its drastically reduced funding and warned there would soon be even more aid cuts.

UNRWA was established in December 1949 by Resolution 302 (IV) of the UN General Assembly as a response to the 1948 Nakba in Palestine. It was created as a temporary measure designed to respond to the plight of approximately three quarters of a million Palestinian refugees, pending a political settlement in their homeland, Palestine.

Sixty-six years after its establishment and in the continuing absence of a solution to the theft of Palestine, the agency continues to exist and function. These days, however, it lacks the necessary funds to fulfill its mandate, which was recently renewed by the UN General Assembly until 30 June 2017.

This extension and the agency’s continued existence are due, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said recently, to “political failure” and the inability of the international community to bring about a durable solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, millions of whom are scattered all over the globe, with nearly a quarter of a million existing in squalor and abject poverty in Lebanon.

This political failure, a policy choice made and upheld by the leading world powers, has perpetuated Palestinian suffering for four generations.

During my recent visit to Tripoli in Lebanon, where two of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, Baddawi and Nahr Al-Bared, are located, I witnessed a peaceful sit-in protest in the courtyard of a school filled with Syrian-Palestinians.

When I first approached the gathering, accompanied by my friends Wisam and Manal, both from Syria, I saw about 70 people in the courtyard, some standing in small groups conversing while others sat silently or prayed.

Many families gathered together in the evening before going home to put their children to bed, sometimes returning later to re-join the demonstration. With the help of Abdullah Othman and Wisam Kraein, who interpreted, I had the privilege of speaking to several individuals about their background, what they hoped to achieve and what they expected of the future.

Among the people who attended the protest every day since it started two weeks ago were two older gentlemen named Abo Feras and Abdullah. Abo Feras had been in Lebanon for 33 years after coming during the civil war to fight for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). He was in Beirut when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, and he lived in the Baddawi Camp ever since. Abdullah was born in the camp and has spent his life there.

Besides being at the UNRWA school protesting every day, the demonstrators sometimes spend the night inside the school. Abdullah described in detail the many problems in the Baddawi Camp, explaining with a pained expression that UNRWA has reduced its financial aid to Syrian-Palestinians and Palestinians born in Lebanon by $100 a month, effective in July.

Monthly funding is contingent on how many family members are in a household, but the $100 reduction mean families will now receive only half the monthly funding they rely on and are accustomed to.

Abdullah also informed me that UNRWA has fired teachers due to budget cuts, while increasing classroom sizes from approximately 25 students per classroom to 40 or more.

Abo Feras described his concern about being able to pay his rent because that additional $100 was barely, and sometimes not even, enough. Abo Feras and Abdullah agreed that they would remain at the UNRWA school every day until something happens to improve their situation, and if in future they can no longer pay the rent they will sleep at the site with other protesters.

The goal that all the Syrian-Palestinians want from protesting, Abo Feras explained, is for UNRWA to take responsibility to help the refugees with healthcare, education and finances. Approximately 70,000 to 90,000 Syrian-Palestinians have fled to Lebanon since 2011. Many believe that UNRWA doesn’t do enough to help them.

One Syrian-Palestinian woman, who asked to remain anonymous, suspects that UNRWA is getting pressured by Israel to reduce its funding as a method of dividing the Palestinians and keeping them from their homeland. This, she says, encourages the Palestinians to move abroad, most often to Europe and South America, and away from the Jewish state.

She was not the only person I spoke with who believed in this conspiracy: Abo Khaled, one of the main organisers of the Palestinians in the camps in northern Lebanon, said that this is the first course of action in a greater plan.

While these ideas circulated at the sit-in protest, most Palestinians were less concerned with politics and more focused on what the immediate future holds for their families. Abo Khaled acknowledged a debate among many protesters between the right to return to Palestine and staying in Lebanon, compared to the wish to leave Lebanon and travel to other countries for a better life.

According to Abo Khaled, Palestinian political parties want Palestinians to stay and fight against the obstacles, but the majority of the Palestinians themselves want to leave the Middle East altogether.

Ikbal, a Palestinian from the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria has been living in the Baddawi Camp for a year and a half. He says “it’s like death” to live without funding from UNRWA. She, like other members of the Baddawi Camp who have mobile phones, were informed of the funding cuts by SMS messages.

She already struggles to pay her rent and lives with her family in a house with two other families. She describes barely being able to afford the rent and food before the cuts, and she doesn’t know what to do now. Like many other women, she sits every day at the UNRWA school in solidarity with other mothers while their children play. Ikbal says that despite the war in Syria, she would go back to the country if she could because she hates her life in Lebanon.

Safeia is originally from the Sabineh Camp in Syria. She has been protesting for 13 days with her son. Safeia says she desperately relies on the UNRWA money because her husband has cancer and most of the money has gone towards his medicine.

Her husband needs an operation that costs $300, and she is stressed and discouraged about how to find the money to pay for it. In Syria, her husband was a lawyer, but since coming to Lebanon their life has changed drastically.

Work is scarce and Palestinians are lucky to find a job. The jobs available to Palestinians also pay little since they are barred by law from working in more than 35 professions. Safeia will continue to protest, and if she has to she will sleep in the school or the streets until she gets what she needs for her family, she says.

Most of the people I talked to were Syrian-Palestinians, people who were already living as refugees in Syria and were forced to relocate again to Lebanon. Manal, who has two small children, left the Yarmouk Camp in Syria because of the lack of food and water and the constant bombing.

Before getting married she worked for 11 years as a fashion designer. Her husband worked as an electrician and did home renovations. In Yarmouk, the living situation was terrible and she remembers getting food from charity.

After her husband’s arrest and worsening conditions in the Yarmouk Camp, Manal came to Baddawi with her children to stay with her husband’s family. After ten months of living with another family, she finally got her own place in April 2015.

But today Manal is worried about how to pay her rent and feed her children. If she cannot pay the rent and is evicted she will have to live among the many others already at the UNRWA school. Manal wants to leave Lebanon, but restrictions prevent her from doing so.

She hasn’t seen her mother for four years and wishes to move to Egypt to live with her sister and parents. Until she finds a way to leave, however, she will unite with the refugee community and protest.

For every person in the Baddawi Camp, as well as for the people currently residing in the Palestinian camps of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the future threatens hardships more severe than those they have already endured.

As an American whose government in partly responsible for their plight, I left with feelings of guilt and sorrow as I said goodbye to my new friends in the Baddawi Camp and returned to Beirut. Their gift to me was the testimony of what their human spirit has shown, as they continue to prove their ingenuity and resilience while living in Lebanon.

It is to be hoped that sooner rather than later UNRWA will find a way to gain the funds necessary to continue providing assistance to these noble people. It is also to be hoped that the world community will do what its claimed humanitarian values demand and return them to their country, Palestine.

The writer is an independent researcher who reports on marginalised communities worldwide.

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