Sarah Shouman wants to focus the world’s attention on the plight of Palestine refugee youth in Lebanon; a tall order when 25% of the country’s residents are Syrian refugees and that conflict dominates media headlines.
She wants Palestine refugees in Lebanon to get access to the same education, life skills and livelihood and economic opportunities as other youth and says this is the key for youth to be positive contributors to their society as a whole.
“The international community and everyone else talks about prevention of violent extremism and wants to put money on youth programs for this reason but if you give these youth the same opportunities as others have, then we wouldn’t have to be preventing extremism or developing special programs to prevent it,” Sarah said.
“When we give them opportunity and life skills and education, they won’t be attracted to it,” she added.
Many of the estimated 280,000 Palestine refugees in Lebanon have been there since they fled their homeland after the 1948 Israel – Arab War or are descendants of those refugees; others are recent arrivals from Syria where they had sought a safe haven but have now fled the Syrian conflict.
Today, they mostly live in one of Lebanon’s 12 official Palestinian refugee camps and they are the victims of a protracted crisis that began almost 70 years ago. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East is responsible for supporting Palestine refugees in five countries including Lebanon until there is a solution for their plight.
UNRWA was established in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some five million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Their services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance. The agency operates 12 high schools and 97 primary schools in Lebanon.
RedR deployed Sarah to UNICEF which is collaborating closely with UNRWA and recently launched a national youth assessment of Palestine refugees in Lebanon. The study investigated existing resources and opportunities available to the youth, a group that had already been identified as falling through the cracks.
“The assessment identified a lack of opportunities as the most pressing issue for Palestinian youth. This includes opportunities in education, employment and health,” Sarah explained, adding that she had established a youth unit for UNRWA and would now develop a youth strategy for the agency that would address these issues.
“This age is crucial if you want young people to become contributors and change makers in society,” Sarah said from her base in Beirut.
The Melbourne woman, who is fluent in Arabic and boasts Lebanese ancestry, said the Syrian crisis had negatively impacted Lebanon and its economy which had relied heavily on tourism. According to a recent report in Britain’s Arab Weekly, Lebanon’s unemployment rate hovers around 25% for the general population and more than 35 per cent for youth. However, official data on unemployment rates has not been collected and disseminated since 2009.
“Lebanon is still a developing country that requires assistance from the international community. The economy has suffered a lot and the jobs that are available are few and far between,” Sarah said.
“The Palestinians are a group of people for whom UNRWA is the only agency that helps them and only a number of national & international NGOs are working with them.”
“Once Palestinian youth in Lebanon finish school, they can go to UNRWA’s vocational institute but if they are not wealthy and don’t win a scholarship, they can’t go to university,” she said noting that the fees are prohibitive for most in this community.
Under current local laws, Palestine refugees cannot work in 39 professions in Lebanon that are reserved for Lebanese citizens and they pay fees to access universities.
“The youth strategy I’m developing involves a targeted plan for youth with a number of elements, some of which would be to have equal access to education and health and to be enabled to set up businesses and be change makers and able to communicate with the powers that be on their needs and concerns,” she said.
Sarah is also committed to ensuring the most vulnerable youth are protected and able to access programs.
“The national youth assessment found that youth with disabilities are mostly isolated. Physical access to many services is difficult for the able bodied so for people with hearing, sight or physical impairment, it’s often impossible. They are house bound and don’t have many friends. They are isolated and don’t get access to information and get depressed.”
UNRWA’s strategy will propose ways of engaging these vulnerable youth.
“We have been getting schools to swap classes to the ground floor if they have a disabled student or one that wants to enrol in that year level,” she said.
A 2010 American University in Lebanon estimate put the local Palestinian population at around 280,000 but there’s no officially recognised figure, other than UNRWA’s registration estimates. A census on the population of Palestine Refugees in Lebanon will be released later this year.