Chances are, you have probably never heard of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), the first not-for-profit organization from the US that works to help mainly Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon.
According to ANERA’s President Bill Corcoran, on a trip to the Middle East to raise awareness about the ongoing hardships Palestinian refugees continue to face despite other high-profile conflicts ongoing in the region, this lack of exposure is deliberate.
“We for years had an approach that we wanted to stay obscure because we were afraid, quite frankly, of retaliation from the Israelis and so we felt if we stayed small we could operate without any interruption.
“But we realized over the years that if we continued to be an organization that was not political in the way we do things and that was professionally focused on humanitarian aid, (if we try to raise our profile) that doesn’t cause problems.”
ANERA has grown over the years since it was founded shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
The idea to establish the organization came from a group of Americans, many of whom had worked in the Middle East, who decided that something needed to be done to help those affected by the conflict.
ANERA was initially established as a temporary committee, but it has since grown in stature and support, with around one-third of its support coming from Arab-Americans and the rest coming from more mainstream communities.
It has been able to work effectively with the Israeli government to import and distribute medicine worth $30 million a year to Palestinian communities as well as ensuring that its teams on the ground are able to carry out their work effectively.
Another key factor in ensuring the effectiveness of ANERA’s coordination with the Israelis is the fact that all but one of the organization’s 85 employees working in Palestine are Palestinians who are fluent in Arabic and English. Logistics staff can also speak Hebrew.
The main focus of the organization’s work is to help communities become self-sufficient by setting up various infrastructure, education and agriculture projects.
As Corcoran says: “We don’t give money to anyone and we have a mentality that this is a development agency and we want to build up the capacity of Palestinian society.
“We’re not going to run institutions for them and we’re not going to work around them.
“Our work is in tandem with local Palestinian organizations.” He also said all projects are audited by locals to ensure transparency, a value the organization has adhered to for the last 45 years in order to build its high reputation.
ANERA’s work has by and large been successful but, as Corcoran concedes, sometimes lessons have had to be learned the hard way about which type of projects work and which do not.
“We’ve got to be realistic; [Palestine] is a country under occupation, so there are certain things that fail. “For instance, I would say our education programs have been highly successful. “Building of infrastructure, especially water and sanitation, has been highly successful.
“Where we have had real problems, (is that) we were heavily involved in agriculture but particularly agribusiness and helping Palestinian farmers build cooperatives and then export [their products].
“The problem is, if you have a wonderful product and you get it to the border and it’s not permitted to go through the walls, then it just sits in the sun and rots.
“And then the [farmers] can’t meet their obligations and the business collapses.”
In response, ANERA instead revised its agriculture programs to focus on meeting demand for food within the West Bank and Gaza, a solution typical of the organization’s innovative nature.
Corcoran is keen to ensure that the Palestinians’ plight is not forgotten in light of ongoing violence in Syria and other Arab countries.
“With so many things happening in the Middle East, all at the same time, the Palestinian situation seems to have fallen behind and been slowly forgotten.
“I would really want to raise this issue up and not let [the Palestinians] be forgotten.”
He said he had just come from Gaza and refugee camps in Lebanon holding Palestinians who had fled the conflict in Syria.
“It’s absolutely disgusting to see a situation where huge numbers of children in both locations don’t even have shoes.”
Some of the refugees in Lebanon are “left to live literally in chicken coops, small sheds, empty garages or in unfinished buildings” and are surviving on two meals a day.
Corcoran also claimed that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which works exclusively with Palestinian refugees, despite doing all it can to help, was millions of dollars in debt.
He urged those living in the Arab world not to forget the Palestinians’ ongoing plight.
“I think everyone’s frustrated with the political situation (in Palestine), but in the meantime there are concrete things that can be done for individual families and communities that give them a little bit of dignity and relieve some of the pressure. “I would like people to think about groups like ANERA that are trying to raise up the conditions of Palestinian families.”