By Mohammed Akel (UWCAC 2016-2018)
The list of challenges faced by Palestinian refugee families living in Lebanon is long and overwhelming. They live in overcrowded camps and have to deal with discrimination, isolation and social exclusion.
The refugees often refer to themselves as “forgotten people” and feel they are living in a hostile environment where their basic human rights are not represented or protected. Caught in the middle of an unsettled political conflict beyond their control, they manage to survive with limited resources and a restrictive legal, economic and social system.
The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are considered the worst of the region’s refugee camps in terms of poverty, health, education and living conditions. Families crowded into what was designed as “temporary housing” have to cope with open channels of sewage and rotting piles of garbage. This makes conditions prime for the spread of disease, but there are few clinics and hospitals to treat the sick. A tangle of electrical wires hang dangerously low over narrow, unlit alleyways, within reach of the children who playing there.
However, in every darkness, there’s a light. In every struggle, there’s a way. In every faith, there’s a hope. For the Palestinian refugees, an NGO called ULYP (unite Lebanon youth project) was their hope. ULYP aims to empower the marginalized children, youth, and women living in Lebanon TODAY with the skills and knowledge they need to change and become active agents of change for a better tomorrow, without any discrimination. The organization was founded by Melek el Nimer, who was one of 12 recipients of the 2015 International Women’s Forum’s “Women Who Make a Difference” award. Of her decision to found ULYP, she says, “I had been working in the Palestinian camps for 20 years or so, and I decided that if you really want to make a difference you need to take the people who participate in our programs out of the camps. Whatever you do in the camps stays in the camps — there’s an invisible wall that separates refugees in camps from everyone else.” ULYP’s different activities take place in their 17km South of Beirut in Dibbiyeh campus. ULYP is contributing to reconstruct the future of Lebanon. A future where everyone feels welcomed, and where everyone is united. It is giving the marginalized youth a new opportunity to see the word. It is providing them with the appropriate tools to change their future and to help their communities.
Recently, ULYP was granted the 2016 Khalil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Award for Institutional Excellence. “The work of Unite Lebanon Youth Project has created a space for the vulnerable youth of Lebanon – Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians – to believe success is possible even in the midst of physical, financial, and mental insecurity. You’re leading a transformation towards unity and understanding between different nationalities that do not naturally interact and work together towards a brighter future” the Arab American Institute Foundation said. Since 2010, ULYP has always believed that education is a good way to empower those marginalized people and help them to overcome the different barriers they may face. What makes ULYP different from other NGOs in the same domain is their relation with their students. Ex-students are encouraged to remember where they came from and come back to volunteer with ULYP to help spread the education they gained.
Today, there are 400 ULYP students enrolled in universities in Lebanon and abroad, and more than 130 graduates working in various fields. Melek el Nimer says she hopes those in the program will encourage others they know to take the leap, and that a ripple effect will eventually lead to the paradigm shift she hopes to accomplish. Once the students have graduated, the pull to return home may be strong, but Nimer believes that creating a large community of educated refugees that pursue careers away from the camps has its advantages. A lot of ULYP students are studying in prestigious schools and colleges all over the world such as Eton and UWC. Melek believes that when you take a student out of the camp and help him to access a good education, they will always help their family members to access education and different life aspects as well. Melek and ULYP members do not only act locally, but also they think globally. They aim to change the western world’s perspective on refugees. In an interview with the IMEU, Melek said: “I believe that a successful professional living outside will change the opinion of the Western world. What comes to mind when most Westerners think of Palestinians? Either someone who is carrying a gun or lying in a puddle of blood. But when they meet a successful doctor, that perception changes.”
ULYP somehow has changed my life. I was enrolled in their Bridge program where I got the chance to participate in two university preparatory courses. In addition to that, they always supported me financially and emotionally to fulfill my dream. Through this NGO I was able to apply to some prestigious educational institution all over the world, like UWC, Eton and Amideast. Moreover, they gave the financial support to attend UWC short course turkey last year and to pay for my visa and tickets to start my AC journey.
Diane Mariechild says that “A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” Indeed, Mrs. Melek El Nimer has powerfully created chances for success through ULYP, for children, youth, and mothers. She has nurtured them to be tomorrow’s leaders and has transformed their lives for the best!