UNRWA project breaks down stereotypes between Lebanese, Palestinians

12 October 2011

12 October 2011
The Daily Star, Beirut

By Olivia Alabaster


photo credit: Daily Star

Through increasing communication between young Lebanese and Palestinians, “Dignity for All,” a programme organised by the UN Relief and Works Agency, is hoping to combat the danger of stereotyping.

En route to visit a refugee camp for the first time, Lebanese schoolchildren are asked how they view Palestinians, of which there are an estimated 400,000 in the country.

Many answer that, “We know they are terrorists, and that they sell drugs.”

“The purpose of the project is to highlight those positive things which show that everyone has the right to live in dignity and to show to the Palestinians and the Lebanese how and where each other live, and in what conditions,” says Hoda al-Turk, a public information officer at UNRWA in Beirut.

UNRWA is holding talks at various Lebanese schools, where they screen documentaries concerning the 12 refugee camps across the country, followed by a debate.

Students are then invited to visit Burj Barajneh camp, Beirut’s largest with around 20,000 residents.

“Often on the bus to the camps, you ask them what they expect to see; They expect closed places, with people in the streets, where no one goes to school or university,” Turk says.

But when the students walk around the camp, “it’s amazing how their attitudes change,” she adds.

“They realise that it’s just normal people like them living there.”

Student visitors see for themselves the ordinary, if often impoverished, lives of the residents and their ongoing social problems.

In a similar vein, UNRWA is inviting members of the media to Burj Barajneh, for visits entitled, “Have you ever been to a camp?”

For Bahaa Hassoun, UNRWA’s camp services officer for the camp, the project is about educating Lebanese about the fact that “since Palestinians arrived to Lebanon they have been denied their civilian rights and prevented from working.”

UNRWA provides education, health, employment and social services within the camp, in which a high level of people live in poverty – they simply “cannot afford to live”, Hassoun says. A recent American University of Beirut study revealed that 66 per cent of all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line.

At the camp’s medical centre, Hassoun describes that if a patient needs a service or treatment not available there, an MRI scan or chemotherapy for example, the patient is sent for treatment at one of UNRWA’s contracted hospitals, of which there are three private and several government-owned in Beirut. The UN Agency then pays 40 per cent of the fees, and the patient must pay the remainder.

“If you look at the maximum amount of services you can ever provide,” Hassoun says, “the needs will always be higher.”

Specifically in terms of health care, he asks that when “The Lebanese government can’t even provide enough services [for the Lebanese], how can UNRWA be expected to?”

Across the camp, as the narrow streets turn bright purple and pink, is the Active Ageing House, where elderly residents meet to socialise, cook together and take part in games and activities designed to keep them physically and mentally active.

Saher Serhan, the centre’s coordinator, says that there are 29 residents who regularly attend: those that for whatever reason are without the traditional family structure of support, including women without children, for example.

Educational and religious lectures are held at the centre, and members of the media sometimes come in to record oral histories, as many remember Palestine before the 1948 creation of Israel.

With computer skills learnt at the centre, many Skype with relatives still in Palestine – one woman at the Active Ageing House in the Nahr el-Bared camp discovered, after 12 years, a sister she had presumed dead and with whom she now regularly talks online.

Under the Social Support Society umbrella, funded by Melek Nemir, a Turkish woman, the organisation also carries out youth social work, including painting the walls of the camp’s narrow streets, and customising old clothes.

There are five UNRWA schools which provide education to the children of Burj Barajneh, one of which is Al-Yarmouk, an elementary school for 250 girls from grade 1 to 6.

Shahraban Abed Razak, the head teacher, says the annual budget is insufficient for the school’s needs. “We don’t have enough money for a library, or a science laboratory,” she says.

In each classroom, the paint is peeling from the walls. When Razak asks the pupils what one thing would improve their school the unanimous answer is a new lick of paint. The school has not been repainted in 20 years.

The lack of understanding from each community can be two-sided, says Mahmoud Abdullah, an UNRWA officer for Dignity for All. While many Lebanese are scared to set foot in a refugee camp, some refugees are reticent to leave the camp, as they can feel like strangers, he adds.

The Dignity for All programme is soon to premiere a documentary film, entitled “Someone Like Me”. It features two friends, one Palestinian and one Lebanese, and both students at the Beirut Arab University, going about their daily lives.

“Everything in Lebanon is highly politicised when it comes to Palestinians but we’re trying to highlight the human side and the bad conditions which the refugees live in,” Turk says.

“It has nothing to do with politics. It’s just a human side to the issue.”

This article originally appeared on the Daily Star website.

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