One night we met with Bill Corcoran, the President for America Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) over an American dinner of hotdogs in the hotel. Funny note about these hotdogs – they had corn on them!
ANERA was founded in 1967 in order to give a positive face for humanitarian aid. ANERA simply does aid, no advocacy or political involvement. ANERA works in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and has projects related to healthcare, education, and economic development. It was a surprise to us when Bill said that there are probably only about 250,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Most figures we had quoted to us were almost double this number. He said that 450,000 is the figured used by the UN, but there is very little information to back this up. According to Bill, many other NGO’s have done headcounts and estimates which indicate the figure to be closer to 250,000.
The average Palestinian refugee family has six children. With poor living conditions, I asked Bill if there were any family planning programs in the camps. He said there are not and they probably would not be very effective because the Palestinians see their children as their legacy and their social security. I was surprised to learn that particularly in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, they see their large families as their way to beat the Israelis in the long run who only have around two children per family.
Over 50% of the youth drop out of high school and there is over 50% unemployment in the camps. Most people live on less than $6 per day.
One group member has been focused on brain drain during the trip and asked if this is an issue that impacts the Palestinians. Bill shared a surprising insight: if a Palestinian manages to break through all the barriers and gain a college education and then takes a job somewhere else (usually in the Gulf), Bill still sees this as a positive because of the individual success and also because generally they send a large amount of money back to their family in the camps which is a major positive.
The Palestinian refugee issue has been going on for over 60 years and is the longest standing refugee issue in the world, as well as the most religiously charged issue. An example of the frustrations felt by Bill in his position, in November 2008 he was asked to dedicate a wing of a new hospital that had been paid for primarily with money from the US. The frustration is that less than two months after the dedication ceremony, the hospital was completely destroyed by the Israeli army which is US funded. So essentially, US money built the hospital and US money destroyed the hospital. This is an example of the United States’ contradictory policy in the region.
We asked Bill what message he would like us to bring back to the US for our friends and family and he asked that we share the idea that blindly throwing ourselves behind everything that Israel does is not the same as supporting Israel, meaning that we can be more critical certain Israeli actions and decisions while still supporting the country as whole. It’s also important to note that US foreign aid is supposed to help end poverty, but Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid and has an incredibly high GDP. I agree with Bill’s insinuated comment that Israel does not need our aid. Unfortunately, it comes down to the US having an ally in the region and we are essentially paying Israel to remain our ally. To further complicate the situation, I think recent conflicts have shown that Israel is much more of a fair weather friend than the US likes to admit. Israel has indicated recently that they will do what they believe to be best for them, rather than simply do what the US wants them to do.
Hope you enjoyed a longer and more informational post! Here’s the website for ANERA if you’d like more information: http://www.anera.org/