Myra Abdallah

Talking to Bill Corcoran

NOW speaks to the head of aid organization ANERA about his work with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Bill Corcoran, President and CEO of ANERA

Bill Corcoran, President and CEO of the aid organization ANERA since January 2007, has been focusing on refugee crises in the Middle East. The Syrian refugee crisis that arose a few years ago, and was categorized by Amnesty International as the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time,  consumes the biggest part of Corcoran’s effort despite his continuous endeavors to keep the spotlight on the Palestinian crisis and the situation of Palestinian refugees, particularly in Lebanon. Earlier in 2016, the international Syria Donors conference took place in London, bringing together world leaders to rise to the challenge of raising the money needed to help millions of Syrian refugees whose lives have been affected by the Syrian civil war. Currently, Lebanon – that is, the country most affected by the Syrian crisis – hosts approximately 1.1 million  Syrian refugees, equal to a quarter of its total population, in addition to over 400,000 Palestinian refugees who came to Lebanon post the Israeli occupation of Palestine. After the Syria donors conference and his latest visit to Gaza, NOW talks to Corcoran to assess the situation of both Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.


NOW: How do you think the situation of Syrian refugees will change after the Syria donors conference?


Bill Corcoran: The world’s attention has turned to Syrian refugees’ crisis and this is good, but I think the world is also exhausted by the crisis as you [the Lebanese people] are. It has been five years into this flow of refugees and everyone is crippling with, ‘How do we solve this problem and when is it going to end?’ The other big question for everyone is, ‘How do we pay for this?’ and I don’t think anyone has those answers right now. There is a lot of struggling and my hope would be that the world doesn’t become tired because of the Syrian refugee crisis. If it does, not only we will have the humanitarian disasters for the [Syrian] families, but also the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. When I continuously talk to US officials or Gulf officials, I keep saying that there are multiple interests here, one of them is Lebanon and its stability. It is very important for them to keep that in mind. Unfortunately, there are so many crises in the world right now and they are competing for the world’s attention. We hope we can keep the spotlight on Syrian refugees.


NOW: In your opinion, is the Syrian refugees’ crisis taking the spotlight away from the Palestinian refugees’ crisis?


Corcoran: My first reaction would be to mention the Palestinians who came from Al-Yarmouk camp to Lebanon, who have less resources and don’t even have the ability to work. They are more limited in what their futures are. In the same time, the UNRWA is watching its deficit increase, they have less and less funding and more people with acute needs (basic medicine and shelter for example). What concerns me the most for Palestinians here is that the funders are slowing down in their commitments. They are pledging and promising amounts of money but they are not fulfilling them. For instance, in Gaza, we saw in the rebuilding process, only 3% of the promised money was fulfilled. My same fear goes to Palestinians here and whether we will be able to fulfill the promises we gave them after Nahr al-Bared and the rebuilding of the camp there. I hope we can hold Gulf countries to their promises, but it is difficult now.


NOW: Do you think the international response to the Syrian crisis is enough?


Corcoran: ANERA does not get involved into politics since we can’t solve it and we are not experts on that. However, in the end, the international intervention is not enough because relief can only put a Band-Aid on people’s problems and if it doesn’t solve it, the problem is going to continue and multiply. Obviously, the political problems haven’t been addressed well enough and, as a result, organizations are wondering: we can help sustain these people for a while but what are you, politicians, going to do to solve the problem?


[ANERA’s country director Samar al-Yassir  also told NOW that, almost 65 years after the Palestinians crisis started, their situation is only getting worse because the political problem that made them refugees in the first place was not addressed. The poverty level of Palestinian people in Lebanon is continuously increasing as a result of the Lebanese problems and the Syrian refugees’ crisis. “A recent report published by the United Nations shows that more than 70% of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live under the poverty line,” she said.]


Corcoran: We don’t have a strict opinion about whether the Syrian crisis will have the same future as the Palestinian crisis, but what I am hearing in certain circles is that the longer this situation goes on, the less the chances that the Syrians will go back. They will build lives here and it will be very difficult to make them go back, especially when there is nothing to go back to. We may have to assume that, in the future, these people are going to stay. We will have to start working on the long term, in a more development context and less on a relief one. However, no one likes to admit that because it means that Lebanon has changed forever. Realistically we see what is happening, but psychologically it is hard to admit it.


NOW: What would you say about the response of European countries?


Corcoran: I think their response was generous. For example, Germany and Scandinavian countries have been very good. Now, I am worried that now that refugees have landed on their shores, they will take care of the crisis there and forget about Lebanon, for instance. The idea is to pay now or pay later. If they paid enough for refugees who live in Lebanon, they might not have to leave Lebanon and flee to Europe; but if they don’t take care of them here and give them some dignity, they are going to flee, and that’s guaranteed.


NOW: How is the Lebanese government collaborating with organizations to deal with this crisis?


Corcoran: A while ago, the Lebanese government made a new decision. The decision is that organizations’ projects have to be done from now on very aware of the Lebanese communities. Nobody is unaffected by this crisis, and [the] Lebanese economy, environment, electricity grid, water system [were affected]. The Lebanese government was right to say: ‘If you help them, you have to help all of us.’ This is also smart because it does not segregate people and cause competition.


NOW: Aren’t you concerned that corruption in the Lebanese government might affect the donations given to Syrian refugees?



Corcoran: That will be up to foreign governments and their foreign aid to decide. We coordinate things with the Lebanese government but we never give any government money. We run control and audit around it and we go back to our donors with a paper trail of what we spent. Our operations run on 6% expenses and this is remarkable. We do it in a tailored way for specific problems. The government definitely has a role, but we also have to look at NGOs since they can fill a lot of needs that the government couldn’t flexibly respond to.


NOW: How is ANERA cooperating with other organizations to reduce the negative impact of the Syrian crisis?



Al-Yassir: We work on supporting local organizations in the fields of health, education and economic development. This is concentrated on program areas or gaps very few organizations are working on. For example, ANERA worked on a project for developing rural tourism and supporting rural dwellers in opening their houses as ‘Bed and Breakfast’ places. The project’s name is Diyafa and it is registered as an organization. We are supporting the concept and the owners of these almost 150 houses with capacity building and marketing. On [the] health level, we are cooperating with grass root health organizations and the Ministry of Health. We help them providing medicines and medical supplies. We also work with these organizations in the Palestinian camps where very few health organizations are working. For the Syrian crisis, we tried to respond since the onset of it by providing basic needs like clothing, food, hygiene supplies, etc.

From the beginning, we prioritized youth since we realized that it is an underserved group. We provided alternatives and outlets for them such as safe areas in different regions with high concentration of refugees, specifically in Akkar and Tripoli. We are now expanding to Beqaa. We also prioritized our programs dedicated to out-of-school youth because these people are the more vulnerable. Also, we are starting new programs related to dental and oral hygiene among Syrian refugees and programs for Lebanese youth related [to] solid waste management in collaboration with municipalities.


Corcoran: We work almost all the time through local organizations and we hear more and more about how stressed are the local organizations. Their staff are tired and they have demands that are way beyond their capacities. In addition, they are unable to get the funding they used to get and some of them are not able to pay their staff.


NOW: What are the future plans for Lebanon?


Corcoran: The Syrian refugee crisis is still one of the major problems in Lebanon and we need to continue responding to that, in the region, but in Lebanon more specifically. We do not work in Syria; we are here because of Lebanon. We have chosen in the past to work first and foremost with the youth, and we will continue this trend now, because maybe we can help affect their future and give them a chance; and also, in Lebanon, they are the most volatile. If they don’t have jobs and they have too much time on their hands, what will happen with them? We will continue working in youth formal areas, particularly non-formal education, job training and continue to push that in more areas. We will also continue working in health and will start extra programs in the agriculture field, especially that Lebanon could afford having more of food production. Basically, we try to find what the government is not doing, and we try to go there and find the path of least resistance, where we will get the least obstacles, and try to work there.


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

Corcoran has headed ANERA since 2007 (Source: YouTube)

“However, no one likes to admit that because it means that Lebanon has changed forever. Realistically we see what is happening, but psychologically it is hard to admit it.”