SIDON, Lebanon: Acting UNRWA Lebanon Director Hakam Shahwan toured the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp Wednesday and met with local officials in Sidon, in an effort to ease tensions between the organization and refugees. Shahwan took over from former UNRWA Lebanon Director Matthias Schmale earlier this month. Schmale had run the organization in Lebanon for 17 months before he was appointed UNRWA director for Syria.
Shahwan visited a school for refugees in Sidon, meeting with students and hearing questions, comments and concerns from them. He encouraged the young people to continue their education, while stressing the importance of the Arabic language.
While at the school, Shahwan, himself a Palestinian, asked the students if they knew who he was.
The students responded, “You are the head of UNRWA Lebanon and from Jerusalem.”
“I came to listen to the people’s voices and I am thrilled to have made this visit ... The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon now know that UNRWA is present and committed to serving the people,” Shahwan told The Daily Star.
During his visit, Shahwan met with local officials including MP Bahia Hariri, South Lebanon Gov. Mansour Daou, and the Chief of Army Intelligence in South Lebanon Brig. Gen. Khodr Hammoud.
Shahwan’s appointment was significant as he is the first Arab to hold the country director position at UNRWA. He will be the interim director of Lebanon for a transitional period of four months and says he will focus on regaining Palestinians’ trust in the agency, following strained relations since changes in health policy were announced at the start of the year, and ongoing financial concerns.
Over the last two years, a funding crisis has led to budget shortfalls, and in some cases, suspension or cuts to programs. In September 2015, the start of the school year was delayed due to a lack of funds.
In January 2016, UNRWA also announced a change in health policy that would see Palestinian refugees pay a portion of health costs when receiving secondary treatment at hospitals in Lebanon. The move, aimed at directing more funding to expensive tertiary care, led to protests that closed UNRWA offices in a number of areas. The agency and the Palestinian factions entered negotiations over the issue.
Palestinian refugees have long complained of insufficient aid barely covering health care and education.
While visiting Ain al-Hilweh, Shahwan met with representatives of Palestinian factions and security units to hear their questions and concerns, and to assure them of UNRWA Lebanon’s commitment to their cause.
Sources have noted that the appointment of a Palestinian from Jerusalem as the temporary head of UNRWA in Lebanon boosts the agency’s image – at least during the transitional period while he is in charge. While also having the benefit of being a native Arabic speaker, he is also able to identify with them over their concerns, as a Palestinian first and foremost, and as an international aid worker second.
UNRWA funding shortages have been caused by a combination of a lack of donations from the international community and increased spending to cover the emergency response to the Syria crisis. It estimates some 42,500 Palestinian refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon since the start of the crisis in 2011, though Palestinian factions place the number closer to 32,000.
Last year, this led to cuts in cash assistance, having a major impact, as the agency estimates that UNRWA cash assistance is the main source of income for 95 percent of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon.
Source & Link : The Daily Star