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Palestinian refugees celebrate Biden-Harris win, hope for relief

President-elect Biden's win was met with jubilation and hope for a better future among many of the thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. But the reality may not be as rosy, with many other domestic and international priorities far higher on the new administration's list, and limited funds. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports from Lebanon.

A clarification: This segment stated that more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees are living in Lebanon. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, more than 470,000 are registered, while fewer than 200,000 reside there; 45 percent of them live in the country’s refugee camps, not “most” as was reported in the segment.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees or UNRWA says more than 470,000 refugees are living in Lebanon, most of them have been there for generations.

    The agency helps provide social services, healthcare and education to more than 5,500,000 registered Palestinian refugees in the middle east.

    Until it pulled its funding in 2018, the United States had been the largest single donor. Now some of Lebanon's Palestinian refugees are holding out hope that a Biden administration might reverse course.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen has more.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It's 8 am, and the clinic waiting room is already packed in Burj al Barajneh camp in west Beirut.

    Rola has three children under 12. She's here to get medicine for her two-year-old son's flu. The clinic and drugs are provided for free by UNRWA, the UN organization that funds aid for Palestinian refugees like Rola. But recently, she's seen the services start to deteriorate.

  • Rola Jumaa:

    Life is difficult here, now it's gotten more difficult. UNRWA used to be better before, its services have gone down a lot.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It's not just healthcare: food aid has reduced, and other services are being restricted. UNRWA simply doesn't have the money to keep funding them.

  • Rola Jumaa:

    We are not living like human beings, there are no human rights. My children are little now, I don't know what tomorrow holds for them.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Palestinian refugees here don't have citizens' rights. They can't use normal state services and face restrictions on working and owning property. Many refugees around the world are similarly constrained, but the difference is that this situation isn't temporary; many of these families have been here for 70 years.

    There are more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, many of them 4th or 5th generation stateless people. Most of them live in camps like these, which were never meant for long term use. They've been patched up for decades, and are crumbling where they stand.

    This is the only clinic in Burj al Barajneh camp. It has two doctors serving 23,000 people; they each see up to 75 patients a day.

    Wafa is here to collect medicines for herself and her family. But they're no longer able to supply everything she needs, and she's afraid it's going to get worse.

  •  Wafa El Hajj:

    We are dying at the doors of the hospitals because UNRWA can only cover a small portion of our healthcare because nobody is supporting it. When America stops funding, they are killing a population of refugees. They say this new president is good. I don't know him, Biden? Let's see.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The US used to provide a third of UNRWA's budget, its biggest donor by far. Then suddenly, in 2018, the Trump administration slashed the funding. Meanwhile, the U.S. controversially moved its embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem, and endorsed the building of more Israeli settlements in the West Bank, eroding the hopes of Palestinians that a future peace deal might one day allow them the right to return to the lands where their ancestors lived.

    Having been the biggest foreign player in the Middle East peace process for decades, the U.S. taking these steps prompted anger and despair among Palestinian refugees across the region.

  • Claudio Cordone:

    Palestinian refugees here in Lebanon and elsewhere feel very much that they have been abandoned and to some extent, it's true.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    In 2018 when the Trump administration cut UNRWA's funding, they called the organization irredeemably flawed. They said that money was being wasted. They said that Palestinian refugees have become too dependent on UNRWA. How did you react to that?

  • Claudio Cordone:

    The accusation is unfair, and we know that it was politically motivated. The reality is that the refugees are going to exist whether UNRWA disappears or not. UNRWA is not a solution. UNRWA is a band aid, it's a temporary solution. It's been temporary for 70 years, which is not an indictment of UNRWA, it's an indictment on the inability of the parties to the conflict and the international community to achieve a solution which will resolve these issues. It's very important that the US comes back into the fold.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Now, the refugees and those who support them hope the incoming administration will reinvest in pursuing a political settlement, and reinstate the aid flow.

    These hopes aren't just speculative: speaking to a newspaper just before the election, Kamala Harris said:

    "We will…oppose annexation and settlement expansion. And we will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people."

    In the meantime, UNRWA is heading for collapse. They've already had to delay November salaries for the agency's 28,000 staff, most of whom are Palestinians, and don't know if they'll be able to pay at all this month.

  • Claudio Cordone:

    We've reached the bone. We can no longer cut. And this is a huge blow because, as you've seen here in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are a very marginalized community. So there isn't any other alternative.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It's the employment UNRWA provides that is just as essential as its schooling and health services. Palestinian refugees here are banned from most white-collar jobs that could earn them a good salary. UNRWA is one of the only employers that will hire them for professional work.

    A week ago, these protesting teachers were told the special needs classes they run will be cut at the end of the month; nearly 250 teachers face losing their jobs.

    Azhar is one of them. She teaches at Toubass school in Nahr el Bared, a sprawling camp in northernmost Lebanon near the Syrian border. She's depended on this job for a decade, and now she'll be out of work, with no other options to support her young family.

  • Azhar Wehbeh:

    My husband is unemployed, and we have no other source of income. I'm not sleeping, just thinking about what will happen after 2020.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    With so few jobs that Palestinians can do here, life is already a daily struggle. These 11-year-old boys are paid a couple of dollars a day to collect and sort garbage. They take the money home to help their families.

    Hussein is learning how to be a plumber on this course funded by American charity Anera. He'll earn about $150 a month while training, practicing on homes in the camp. It's a skill that offers a chance of regular work, and that's all he can hope for, he says.

  • Hussein Ahmad Daher:

    There's a lot of young men in the camps who are in a bad situation. There weren't many opportunities, there isn't much work. Ever since my youth, I've been crushed. I don't dream, because it's just dreaming, it can't become reality.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    But when ten-year-old Mais walks to school every day, she isn't thinking about what she can't do, but what she can. Like so many others, she believes that one day she and her family will go back to Palestine, a place she knows only in stories.

    I'm not Lebanese, she tells me. I'm Palestinian. I ask her what that means to her. Palestine, that's our country. I don't know where it is. I wasn't born there. We left it, she says.

    She wants to be a teacher, and can't imagine her life without access to school.

  • Mais El Roubani:

    If there was no school, I'd be very sad. How can I become a teacher, without the school and the teachers that are teaching me?

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Wafa is holding out hope that the U.S. will change its mind.

  • Wafa El Hajj:

    I hope that America will reconsider its position on this. To help UNRWA. Because UNRWA is the hope of the refugees, it's all we have. Honestly, it's our only shelter.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Like so many living in limbo here, hope is all she has left.

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