Found in Tyre: Kiwi health worker
by Chris Ritchie
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Kiwi Aid worker Miranda Pittaway and some of her trainees
(Photos courtesy of Christophe Saint Esteben)
Lebanon’s fourth largest city of Tyre, once the pearl in the crown of a Phoenician trading empire that stretched out to
the Mediterranean shores of Europe and Africa, these days marches to a distinctively slower drum-beat than the country’s
Young couples stroll down its recently-renovated Corniche promenade along the seaside before sunset and its
marketplaces, some of whom appear to be survivors of the earliest times in its 5,000-year history, are busy enough but
seem an age away from the bustling, modern metropolis of Beirut around 80 kilometres to the north.
Times are a world away also from the four decades of conflict that began in the 1960s when Tyre and surrounding areas of
southern Lebanon had been a stage-set for a vicious tit-for-tat war between Palestinian commandos living in Lebanon and
the all-powerful Israeli armed forces that pursued them.
The shooting died down just five years ago when an occupying Israeli army withdrew the last of its soldiers from
Lebanese soil, 22 years after first despatching them in what, at the time, had been promised to be a swift military
operation to destroy the Palestinian resistance movement.
Whether the present peace is sustainable, or merely another lull in ongoing shooting war, undoubtedly hinges on
political developments often outside of locals’ control - not least of which, of course, is the unresolved Palestine
Palestine Refugee Population Of 400,000
In 2005, nearly sixty years since Israel’s creation and the mass, overnight arrival of so many of its indigenous
Palestinian population to Lebanon, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has over 400,000 Palestinian
refugees registered in the country, around half of whom reside in twelve camps scattered throughout Lebanon.
The stateless Palestinian population in the Tyre area, which is the Lebanese township closest to the border with Israel,
is estimated at 102,124 and UNRWA’s role is to provide basic education, health and welfare services to camps in the
Rashideh, which has nearly 26,000 registered refugees, is the largest and stands just south of the city. Burj
el-Shamali, with just under 19,000, is to the east while El-Buss, at the city’s northern entrance, has around 10,000.
There are also ten "gatherings" or "settlements" spread over 15 kilometres on the coastal area north of El-Buss that
have a total population of registered refugees of 10,430.
But if UNRWA provides basic services, a vacuum exists in the provision of a range of specialist services required by
the nation of stateless people and it is into this vacuum that New Zealander, Miranda Pittaway has stepped into the form
of a project aimed at improving the living conditions for Palestine refugee children with disabilities.
A one-time physiotherapist with Capital Health in Wellington who has also studied international development at Massey
University, Pittaway is a technical advisor with a Spanish non-governmental organisation called MPDL (Movimiento por la
Paz, el Desarme y la Libertad) which successfully bid for funding from a pool of monies allocated to the area by the
European Commission through its Humanitarian Aid Department.
The aim of the project is to increase the functional independence of disabled Palestinian refugee children working in
collaboration with local NGO partners.
With a project budget of just 330,000 euros, MPDL’s 12-month operation which started on July 1 is targeted at disabled
refugee children who need on-going rehabilitation services, home adaptation and - in a few cases - surgery to improve
their daily functional abilities.
Part of the project’s work includes providing technical training to local NGOs and facility upgrades so that MPDL’s
work can be sustained independently in a better future when foreign NGOs won’t be required.
Complicating life for disabled refugees is the reality that in many households there are no income earners because of
labour market restrictions placed on Palestinians living in the Lebanon.
In practical terms that means that households with disabled children normally don’t have the money to pay for needed
changes within their homes at the cost to the childrens’ intellectual and physical development.
A Rehab worker
So the MPDL project aims to put in place systems to alleviate unnecessary hardship in the form of rehabilitation
centres, educational materials, local staff trained in occupational and speech therapy, and, where needed, access to
on-call local orthopaedic surgeons for advice and possible surgical intervention.
The project undoubtedly alleviates the immediate needs of refugee families with special needs, but, as is often the
case in this part of the world, politics and political reality have a habit of intruding into even the most mundane of
every day activities.
Miranda checking out a building upgrade
The ultimate hope of Palestinians, and those working with them, is that the international community will put in place a
permanent political settlement with appropriate institutions to service the ongoing needs of Palestinians without the
need of either the NGOs or the U.N. relief agency established in 1949 initially with few months’ mandate.
But for now the Palestinian refugee population of Lebanon has no voting rights to select representatives to either the
Israeli or the Lebanese Parliaments, which accordingly provide no services to the refugees in Lebanon.
The Palestine Legislative Council, which is elected solely by Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza districts
recently abandoned by the Israeli army in favour of the Palestinian Authority, is similarly removed from the daily lives
of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
One idea that has been floated by some politicians in Lebanon in recent times has been for the Palestine Legislative
Council to take responsibility for providing services to Palestinian communities within Lebanon, with talk of a
high-profile Palestinian politician being sent to Beirut as the first ambassador to represent the Palestine Authority.
The idea is perhaps a first tentative official acknowledgement from the Lebanese political establishment that
Palestinians are a permanent fixture in the country and not a temporary group of refugees about to head home anytime
soon and a community, moreover, needing input into representative institutions, even if to a separate authority to the
Also on the agenda of at least some politicians in Beirut is for consideration to be given to a package of reforms
which would include both the disarmament of the Palestinian camps at the same time as serious moves to revoke some of
the restrictive labour and civil discrimination that Palestinians in the country continue to endure 57 years after their
first arrival here.
It is too early to judge whether diplomatic moves in the direction of peacefully determining the final status of
Palestinians in Lebanon in a compromise acceptable to both the four million citizens of Lebanon, and the 400,000
Palestinian non-citizens who make their home here, will amount to anything concrete.
But for the people of Tyre much is at stake, including whether their current peaceful town remains that way or descends
back into the violent political conflicts of the second half of the 20th Century.
Chris Ritchie is a former AP Dow Jones reporter