He used to make a living playing the bagpipes at gigs around Scotland, but a trip to Lebanon a year ago moved him to change his life drastically.
Tony Collins, 32, has moved from Glasgow to the Nahr El Bared Camp, a refugee base for displaced Palestinians in Lebanon, located near the Syrian border.
On his first visit to the country in September 2015, the situation he saw had a major impact. “The problems here are so many and so daunting,” he reflects.
Now, living in and around the camps, he’s trying to start his own non-governmental organisation (NGO), striving to improve the lives of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in a small way.
Lebanon has been the home of Palestinian refugees since 1947 when militias, and later the Israeli military, drove more than 750,000 people from their homes. Almost seven decades later, more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees live in 12 camps in Lebanon, with few prospects of ever leaving, given the intransigence of the political situation in the Middle East.
More recently, Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country have migrated into Lebanon. Both the Palestinian and Syrian camps are impoverished, their residents caught in a net of unemployment, failing infrastructure, inadequate healthcare, woeful access to education, and overcrowding.
The whole situation is something of a morass – with different groups holding different legal statuses and being eligible for some types of assistance, but not others. Palestinians are excluded from most worthwhile economic opportunities and have no political rights.
They don’t get much help from the UNHCR, the main UN refugee agency, as they are not considered citizens of a formally recognised state, but there is an NGO called UNRWA, which is dedicated to assisting them. However, it’s still complicated: Tony talks of a man in the Palestinian camp who requires medical care, but won’t get it from UNRWA because he isn’t Palestinian, and he won’t get it from the UNHCR because he lives in the Palestinian camp.
Most Syrians are classified as illegal, since the Lebanese government, not wanting the Syrians to stay, has made life as tough as possible for them by setting the bar for registration impossibly high. Those who can’t register as official asylum seekers – most people – are deprived of legal rights and denied access to any kind of education.
They are eligible for the aid of several high level NGOs providing sanitation, food, etc but, with nowhere to go, the refugees live in fear; with no legal rights, they are often exploited.
Tony says this is common; it has happened to several friends and acquaintances. “I visited friends in a camp recently to see how they were doing. A family I met a fortnight before where the eldest son who is 16 was working in a chicken farm to support the family. He worked 10 hours every day and enjoyed working hard he said, but has now stopped working because the owner refused to pay him. At the next tent, I was talking with a friend who had been working on another farm picking vegetables – same thing, he’d been working two months and they refused to pay him.”
Facing almost insurmountable problems, Tony has looked for opportunities to help and do what he can. He spent three months volunteering with an NGO called Relief and Reconciliation for Syria. He says, “I implemented a music project where we recorded rap music with a group of kids in one of the ITS [Informal Tent Settlement] camps. I have divided my time between the Palestinian camps and the Syrian camps where the situations are different but have a common theme of hardship and exclusion.” With medical problems, he admits he can’t do much, as it often costs more than he can afford, but he says he can direct people to the appropriate NGO.
He also takes young people on day trips out of the camps. It’s not something they can do without risk of arrest, and as Tony says, “So much of their time is spent imprisoned in these camps.” The NGO he is in the process of founding will be dedicated to these day trips. He is calling it “Trips of Hope,” or “Mishwar al Amal” in Arabic. The justification for it, he explains, comes from the lack of educational opportunities coupled with the severe restrictions on movement: “The education provision for Syrian and Palestinian refugees is brutally inadequate. Only 3% of Syrians make it into formal schooling in Lebanon so my plan is to couple these day trips with activities which engage youth in constructive educational and esteem boosting activities.”
I ask him how he plans to travel out of the camps without the refugees being arrested.
First, he clarifies that Palestinians have ID cards and freedom of movement, but Syrians don’t. Then he explains, “For trips we’ve done, I’ve made sure that we go on routes that are as short as possible and avoiding checkpoints if possible. When it comes down to it, the risk of arrest is diminished when there is a foreigner present (me or other volunteers) and when it’s clear the majority of the group are minors.”
He hasn’t let his piping languish either. McCallum Bagpipes, a company in Kilmarnock, has provided him with three sets of pipes to give to the refugees. “The Palestinians love bagpipes and play their own style of music on Scottish pipes,” he says.
Tony is back in Scotland this month, raising awareness — and hopefully money –for his NGO.
“It’s clearly a deep political, economic and social problem with endless needs for help and solutions so I hope what I am doing can help in a small way.”
For more information on Tony’s NGO, go here