BEIRUT — The influx of refugees from Palestinian areas and the inability of the government to do much for them has strengthened a unique NGO providing essential services.
The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), which began working in the early 1980s before registering as an official NGO with the Lebanese government in 1990, has taken it upon itself to provide environmental services, health education, medical services and community development centres for refugees.
“We give services because services are better than money,” Ahmad Halimeh, co-founder of PARD told IPS at one of the group’s busy clinics in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. “I try to teach people to help themselves.”
This policy is not just an ideal but a necessity for Palestinian refugees who now comprise at least 10 percent of the Lebanese population of four million, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
As of December 2003, UNRWA lists 394,532 refugees in the country, about a quarter of a million of them living in registered camps. The group also lists more than 46,000 “hardship cases”.
UNRWA is by far the largest UN operation in the Middle East and has a staff of more than 27,000, most of them refugees themselves, but that is still not enough. That is where PARD comes in.
Halimeh, a Palestinian, suffered prolonged hardships in a camp during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). “I quickly realised there wasn’t enough food or basic services for us, so five of us decided to start a committee to teach hygiene in the camps and deliver food and basic aid.”
The group has grown rapidly since then. PARD now receives financial support from several international NGO’s, including Norwegian People’s Aid, Novib from the Netherlands, Oxfam Canada, Solidaridad International in Spain and the Karim Rida Said Foundation in Britain.
The need for support to the refugees has become increasingly well recognised among concerned groups. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not have social or civil rights, and only limited access to public health and educational services. Considered foreigners, Palestinian refugees are prohibited by law from working in at least 70 trades and professions.
This has led to a very high rate of unemployment amongst the refugee population. A Palestinian refugee in Lebanon still needs a work permit, valid for a maximum of two years.
The refugees are now the poorest section of Lebanese society, and are the poorest group of Palestinian refugees in any Arab country. The Israeli government refuses to repatriate them. Some refugees have been in Lebanon since 1948, the year the state of Israel was created in Palestine.
PARD has found itself campaigning for rights, besides providing services. “We do advocacy work for labour and civil rights of people because Palestinians cannot work here,” said Halimeh.
But PARD focuses on solutions, rather than the obstacles.
The NGO has developed several clinics in Beirut, as well as two in southern Lebanon. It now owns a mobile clinic. During the war last summer this was among the first of medical services that victims in the south could access.
PARD also runs a transportation service to carry children to schools administered by UNRWA.
But despite its efforts towards education, healthcare and community building, PARD is unable to integrate Palestinian children into Lebanese society, since law prohibits Palestinians from using services meant for Lebanese civilians.
PARD has nevertheless made a great difference to the life of many Palestinians. “I like this administration because it treats us and the patients better than anyone I’ve seen,” said laboratory technician Ata al-Hassan inside the general clinic at the Shatila refugee camp, where the PARD head office is located.
“Earlier I worked in one of Beirut’s main hospitals, but I was never allowed to use my full training,” Imam Dirbass, a midwife who has been working with PARD for 11 years told IPS. “We do everything for the women here before sending them to a general hospital for their delivery.”
PARD clinics also provide ophthalmology services, paediatric care, first aid and education classes.
“UNRWA told me they could not help me and suggested I come here,” Suthir Assad at the main clinic told IPS. “My 18-year-old son needs operations, so I’m hoping that these people can assist us somehow.”