Lebanon News

Social affairs minister makes rare visit to Palestinian camp

Abu Faour and Lombardo tour Burj al-Barajneh. (Mahmoud Kheir/ The Daily Star)

BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon: Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour became the first Lebanese Cabinet member to make an official visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in six years Tuesday, when he toured the Burj al-Barajneh camp before signing a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

The agreement will enable UNRWA for the first time to work in coordination with the Social Affairs Ministry to provide services to some of the most vulnerable people in the camps.

Speaking at the event, Faour called on his fellow politicians to follow his lead and experience firsthand conditions in Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps.

“We are used to bringing Palestinians to discussions in fancy hotels and then sending them back to the misery in the camps. We decided to invert these traditions by coming to the camps,” the minister said. “Whoever wants to rediscover his humanity has to see the living conditions in Palestinian camps in Lebanon.”

The memorandum will enable UNRWA to provide services to the most vulnerable in the camps through the ministry, including the disabled, elderly and children.

The agreement will include the potential for programs already offered by the ministry throughout the rest of Lebanon to be rolled out in the Palestinian camps, and the broadening of pre-existing social awareness campaigns tackling issues such as drug abuse, to include the Palestinian populations.

It will also provide for the establishment of a special fund to finance this work.

During his visit, Abu Faour, accompanied by Salvatore Lombardo, the director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, visited the homes of some of the camp’s residents to observe conditions, including the house of one family whose roof was on the brink of collapse, and a woman who suffered from multiple sclerosis, an illness that UNRWA has so far been unable to afford to provide treatment for.

The social affairs minister also visited the Women’s Program Center and the Active Aging House, a center for elderly Palestinians to engage in social activities, and discussed the daily challenges of their work.

Speaking at the press conference Lombardo praised the memorandum and said he hoped Abu Faour’s visit would be the first of many to the Palestinian camps.

“This agreement with the Lebanese Social Affairs Ministry is an important contribution to Palestinian refugees as it allows technical expertise to the most vulnerable,” he said.

“It’s a pleasure to have, after a long time, a member of the Lebanese Cabinet visiting the camp,” he added. “My wish is that you will be the first of a new series.”

Official visits by Lebanese Cabinet ministers to the Palestinian refugee camps are rare, and according to UNRWA the last was in 2005 when five Cabinet ministers visited Shatila.

Abu Faour spoke Tuesday of the difficult relationship between Lebanon and the Palestinian population. The Lebanese government has consistently declined to grant rights to Palestinian refugees for fear that it would pave the way to naturalization, which it argues would diminish their right to return to Palestine.

The new memorandum, Abu Faour said, “respects the particularities of the Lebanese system that has been living daily the nightmare of Palestinian nationalization.” However, he urged Lebanese authorities to cease trying to keep issues shared between Lebanon and the Palestinian camps separate.

“The theory of separating the Palestinian camps from the rest of Lebanon is naive. What’s the point in tackling drugs in the area around Burj al-Barajneh but not in the camp itself?” he said.

“The Lebanese state needs to get out of its obsession, or nightmare, of nationalizing Palestinians, which obstructs us from doing what will protect the dignity and rights of Palestinians as well as the safety of the Lebanese and the Lebanese society.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 25, 2012, on page 3.

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