By Claudio Cordone, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon
Ten years ago today, on 20 May 2007, fighting erupted in the Nahr el-Bared camp for Palestine refugees in North Lebanon. Three months later, the camp lay in ruins, with its 27,000 residents displaced. Since then, with the support of the Lebanese Government and the international donor community, UNRWA has been engaged in its largest ever individual reconstruction project, with an estimated cost of US$ 345 million.
So what has been achieved 10 years later? Of the approximately 5,000 families who are registered to return, 2,514 families have received the keys to their newly reconstructed housing units as of May 2017. In addition, 718 retail units have been provided to traders, supporting the revitalisation of the camp’s economy. Returning families are receiving furniture grants. The reconstruction work in Nahr el-Bared has been an impressive exercise in community consultation and participation. Each family has been closely involved in the design of their new home, drawing on a comprehensive survey prepared by local volunteers of every building that existed, with the aim of preserving the old neighbourhoods and social fabric of the community. The rebuilding of the UNRWA compound is also advancing, with five out of six schools and the health centre completed.
Among those who have returned to their reconstructed home in Nahr el-Bared is Aya, a young Palestine refugee student. Aya is 10, a high achiever despite being born with a severe hearing impediment. She attends the reconstructed UNRWA primary school of Battir and is one of the top performers in her class. As she says it, “I like the school a lot, especially the maths teacher, and I dream of becoming like her in the future. I like to play in the neighborhood with my friends, watch TV and listen to songs.”
However, other children still wait to return to Nahr el-Bared. The pace of reconstruction has been slower than envisaged: initially expected to be completed in three years,10 years on nearly half the camp still needs to be rebuilt. Despite significant fundraising efforts, UNRWA needs to find US$ 105 million to complete the reconstruction project.
Today there are about 2,425 families waiting to return. They are located in the nearby Beddawi camp, in Tripoli and in temporary shelters in Nahr el-Bared that are in need of urgent rehabilitation. While UNRWA continues to ensure the provision of basic services such as education and health care to every family, many are living in very difficult conditions, including extreme poverty.
According to the American University of Beirut’s Survey on the Socioeconomic Status of Palestine Refugees in Lebanon 2015, between 2010 and 2015, we have seen poverty levels among Palestine refugees in North Lebanon rise to 72.3 percent.
In the last several weeks, protesters from the camp have been asking UNRWA to resume paying rental subsidies to the families whose homes still need to be rebuilt. Protesters have been forcing UNRWA’s offices to close and have been preventing our vehicles from circulating in the camp. I fully understand the predicament of the families facing dire economic difficulties, and have been raising the situation in Nahr el-Bared with donors. However, I regret that the actions of the protesters are hindering UNRWA’s work. Urgent action is needed by all concerned parties to address this situation.
Personally, I draw inspiration and resolve from the courage shown by Palestine refugees. Despite the multiple displacements, their difficult socioeconomic conditions and the lack of meaningful prospects of an early settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Palestine refugees are successfully confronting adversity – some achieving at the highest levels of education and professional careers. I hope that this will also be the future for Aya and her classmates from Nahr el-Bared.
I want to convey UNRWA’s sincere thanks to the many donors who have been funding the relief and reconstruction works for Nahr el-Bared over the past decade, contributing to maintaining stability in a highly volatile region. UNRWA is also grateful to the Government of Lebanon for its efforts towards the reconstruction of the camp – most recently by convening a meeting in Beirut in October 2016, during which contributions for US$ 32 million were announced by donors. This additional funding will enable the reconstruction of eight additional residential blocks which will be completed by 2019, benefiting almost 700 families.
I urge the international community to redouble their efforts in order to bridge the remaining gap of US$ 105 million, which is needed to complete the project and support UNRWA in ensuring that the refugees from Nahr el-Bared can live in dignity and return to their homes in the camp as soon as possible.