UNHCR opens community centre for Iraqi refugees in Beirut suburb
BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 13 (UNHCR) - Amid all the bad news, Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon have something to cheer about - UNHCR has opened a new community centre to help it reach out to the community of some 40,000 exiles, particularly the children.
"We opened a new community centre last Tuesday in Chiyah in the southern suburbs of Beirut - the area hosting the highest concentration of Iraqis - so as to be closer to the Iraqi population," said Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR's representative in Beirut.
"The centre will provide a range of services for Iraqi refugee children, including remedial classes, recreational activities, vocational training and social counselling," said Sahar Assaf, a senior social worker with the Amel Association, which will be running the centre for UNHCR. "Iraqis will also be able to benefit from our medical consultations and health care services available for the Lebanese people in three other Amel centres," she added.
The centre will also employ educated Iraqis, who will conduct remedial courses and language classes and so pass on their expertise to fellow Iraqi refugees. This will empower them, bring in some money and help ease their burden in a country which also has its own political and security problems to deal with.
An initial 400 children will be targeted as part of a broader plan to help 2,000 refugee children go back to school. Interrupted education is a serious matter for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and other countries. No accurate figures are available, but there is limited access to the country's overcrowded public schools and private schools are too expensive for most refugees.
"Displacement has left many Iraqi children for a number of years without school. Those already enrolled in schools face the risk of dropout due to differences in curriculum and foreign language requirements. As a result of this and with the difficult economic situation, children aged 13-17 years are forced to work to support their families," said Carole El Sayed, UNHCR community services officer.
"Any support we get is appreciated, but a lot more is needed. Of course, we as Iraqis are happy to hear about a new project for refugees, but there are immense social pressures outside and we really need every bit of help we can get," said one Iraqi woman, who requested anonymity.
UNHCR and its partners are listening. "Iraqi refugees will not only gain skills and know-how here, they will find people who listen and people they can depend on. They will find moral support, compassion and many, many smiling faces," said Assaf.
A fresh appeal Wednesday for funds for UNHCR's Iraq-linked programmes noted that most Iraqi children are not attending school and said that outside Iraq, the agency would focus on five areas of assistance - education, health, food, social and legal counselling and shelter.
It is supporting the construction of 10 schools and the rehabilitation of 100 others. It is also working closely with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to increase the number of Iraqi children in schools in the region from 60,000 to 200,000 by the end of the 2007-08 school year.
By Laure Chedrawi
from Beirut, Lebanon