By Dalila Mahdawi Monday, December 22, 2008
BEIRUT: Inaam is one of an estimated 50,000 Iraqis who have sought refuge in Lebanon, a fraction of the 2 million scattered across the Middle East, mostly in Syria and Jordan. Although she possesses a Masters in chemistry and is keen to find work, she is not entitled to that right.
According to a 2007 survey by the Danish Refugee Council, 77.5 percent of Iraqis in Lebanon arrived illegally, usually via Syria. As Lebanon has not signed the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, many Iraqi refugees could face arrest or deportation if discovered, let alone found working.
As a result, Inaam said most of her days were “wasted” at home. “If you don’t have a job, you get bored and start to feel as though you are less [valuable] than other people. You get depressed.” With no income, Inaam survives off aid and her rapidly diminishing savings.
There are thousands of highly educated Iraqis in Lebanon like Inaam facing the humiliation of being barred from pursuing a career or being forced to take casual jobs completely unrelated to their professional training.
Last week, the plight of Iraqi professionals was addressed by the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Medical Corps (IMC). On Wednesday it launched the “Continuing Medical Education and Continuing Professional Development Program,” comprising 10 workshops aimed at strengthening and developing the professional skills of Iraq’s educated elite. By the end of the program, some 200 Iraqi professionals will have benefited.
The workshops, developed and implemented by the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) office of Regional External Programs (REP) and funded by the US State Department, were providing a much-needed lifeline to Lebanon’s population of Iraqi professionals, said IMC medical director Haidar Sahib. “There is a thirst for these kinds of activities,” he said.
A dozen Iraqis participated in the first three-day workshop, “Finance for non-Financial Officers,” taught by AUB professors. While the issues covered in the first workshop were relatively broad, REP assistant vice president George Farag said the other workshops would be more tailored to professions such as medicine, business, teaching or engineering.
Inaam, who has cancer in her salivary gland, was so keen to participate that she came straight to the workshop after having a session of radiotherapy. “This is the first time in Lebanon the [Iraqi] intellectual community is being addressed,” she said. In fact, the IMC program is the first of its kind in the Middle East.
The goal of the workshops, said Sahib, was not only to upgrade the skills of long-idle Iraqi professionals, but to provide them with the expertise to ensure they found jobs upon resettlement or return to Iraq. According to Sahib, an IMC assessment of critical needs indicated that “one of the biggest gaps [in service provision] not only in Lebanon but across the region,” was in capacity-building.
The “huge displacement of professional Iraqis” meant the war-afflicted country was suffering from a shortage of skilled professionals at a time when they were needed most, he added. “Iraq is keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of technology – there are more than 14 million cell-phone lines and 1 million internet users,” Sahib said. “All this requires human resources.”
The program was also addressing the mental health and psychosocial needs of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. Many of the participants said the workshop helped to restore their lost dignity, morale and self-esteem.
Haidar, who has an advanced degree in mathematics, lost his job as a day laborer because of his attendance. “I don’t care because I didn’t want to miss this course,” he laughed. “We have all had to work in fields inappropriate to our expertise, work that has humiliated us.”
Suha, a social researcher who lives with her two sisters near Qana, just outside Tyre, said the Iraqi population in Lebanon was “keen to update their professional knowledge and pursue careers,” and hoped she would be able to join IMC’s future workshops. “It makes you feel as if your degree has value,” she said, wishing the workshops were longer.
“For a few hours at least, they feel as though they are not refugees but real professionals,” Sahib said of the participants.
“I don’t have the proper words to express my gratitude to the organizers,” Inaam said. “We are thankful to know there are people out there who care about helping us develop our skills and find careers when we go back to Iraq.”
Although IMC had limited funding for the workshop program, support officer Michelle Kayaleh said the NGO was hoping to expand its partnerships to continue providing capacity-building programs to Iraqi professionals and to create partnerships with Iraqi universities.
For more information, check out the IMC website at www.imcworldwide.org