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To Help Refugees, Help the Whole Community

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On a recent trip to Lebanon, my first to the region as the new head of Anera, I met with a group of youth. Two were Syrian refugees, one a Palestinian refugee from Syria (a refugee twice over), one a Palestinian refugee who’s grown up in Lebanon, and one a Lebanese. Though their stories and backgrounds are different, all of them are vulnerable, living precarious lives, with many of the same challenges. In Lebanon, though, there is a definite pecking order. “It is so upsetting that the dirtiest word now is refugee,” said Alaa, the young Palestinian whose family was splintered by war, with some dead, some still in Syria, one in Europe and the rest now in Lebanon. “What is most upsetting is, we didn’t choose this, it isn’t our doing.”

It is so upsetting that the dirtiest word now is refugee.

Alla had learned to play three instruments, and studied two languages, and was a teacher in Syria. Now, like many fellow refugees from Syria, she describes not only the loss of her previous life and dreams, but discrimination from the host Lebanese communities and also from fellow Palestinians who, in her words, “deny a common heritage” and label her Syrian, as an intended insult.

Alla was one of many young refugees I met who even after their homes and lives crumbled around them, now often find doors shut to them on their search for a normal, productive life. And, now, a new political crisis in the country used as a proxy by many, and created by forces inside and outside, has all residents of Lebanon on edge. Many, myself included, fear a potential setback to development among refugee and vulnerable host communities.

How to Help Refugees with Limited Resources

The Syrian war has hit no country harder than Lebanon, a small nation where now more than one in four people is a refugee. Over 1 million Syrians fleeing civil war over the past six years have joined 450,000 Palestinians who have lived in Lebanon for generations. Imagine the equivalent in the U.S.—the population rapidly swelling to over 400 million, with more than 80 million refugees. Nearly half the world’s 22.5 million refugees are Palestinian or Syrian, and about one of every seven of them now live, temporarily or permanently, in Lebanon. As elsewhere, refugees in Lebanon face poverty, institutionalized discrimination, and, as tensions mount between refugees and their hosts, continuing threats to their security. Not surprisingly, many in the Lebanese host communities also struggle.

Economic growth has slowed considerably in the past few years, and unemployment rates have risen, especially among Lebanese youth. Though only about 20 percent of the Syrian refugees are working-age men, some Lebanese youth feel they have been “driven out of the labor market” by refugees who work for less pay. Meanwhile, Syrians and Palestinians are legally relegated to menial labor and thus face difficulties of their own. Social tension is particularly acute in Bekaa and Akkar—rural regions with the highest number of refugees and host populations that compete for jobs in agriculture and construction.

So, with development needs present and overlapping among Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese, we integrate all vulnerable communities into our development work in the country. Whether in education, sports, youth community organizing, or vocational training. Anera’s programs don’t discriminate. All are welcome.

Youth Come Together in Class

In Saida, near Ein El Hilweh Camp, where I met the group of youth, one of the others was a young Lebanese woman, 25-year-old Dina. She was a teenage bride who was forced to drop out of school in sixth grade because her then-husband disapproved of women being educated. After having a child, getting divorced, and missing many years of school, she enrolled in Anera’s X-ray technician course, one of a variety of job skill offerings throughout the country. Now, she’s doing an internship at Al Na’eeb Hospital that will soon turn into a full-time position.

Dina sat beside Omar, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent. They are about the same age but face different circumstances. The Syrian war took a toll on Omar’s outlook on life, and he became introverted and dropped out of school, even though he was once the top of his class in Syria. Stuck in Ein El Hilweh with little to do, he thought he might join a dabke dance class to have a bit of fun. But the trainer quickly dismissed him—he was told he couldn’t dance.

“I took this as a personal challenge and decided to practice to prove it to myself,” he told me. He’s gotten so good at dabke that he’s teaching one of our dance classes in the camp. He also enrolled in a photography course and found a new passion, and the potential for paid work. Because he couldn’t afford a camera on his own, we are giving him one as part of a graduation kit so he can earn a living as a wedding photographer.

I took this as a personal challenge and decided to practice to prove it to myself.

With a majority of the refugee population under the age of 25, our work focuses on youth, and on supporting youth-led initiatives. On my trip I was moved by the innovative projects young people have taken up—from making toys, crafts and furniture out of recycled materials, to growing gardens in the narrow, dank alleys of refugee camps, to replacing hazardous electrical wiring hanging over the streets with solar-powered lamps that improve security.

Community-Based Initiatives Take Off

In response to Lebanon’s trash crisis, which made headlines in 2015, and continues to this day, Anera works with youth and other civic and municipal leaders from host and refugee communities to lead a pilot project in solid waste management in villages and camps. Focused on reducing, reusing and recycling solid waste, and through successful outreach campaigns and community organizing, the project garnered national attention. It was so successful in the northern Lebanese town of Mashha—where half the residents are refugees—that 80 percent of residents participate. Neighboring towns are joining to solve their ongoing trash crisis and scale up the model.

In all of these instances, development success comes when we work with the whole community, not just one sect or segment, refugees or residents. In opening doors for the displaced to opportunities for dignity, normalcy, and income security, those doors must not swing against the aspirations of the young and vulnerable among their host communities. Fortunately, we have good models and successful impact, integrating work across sectors and among different communities. Let us all encourage and build on an environment that allows for this integrated, community-led approach, rather than a return to increased sectarianism. Let us recognize and respond to differences in obstacles and aspirations – not in nationalities, sects or status.

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