Irish men help rebuild life in Lebanese refugee camp

Fatima Mansions redevelopment chief John Whyte oversees €324m construction project

On the bustling streets of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, locals are drawn to an Irish man fielding impromptu questions.

One person asks when she can move into a new apartment; another wants to shake hands and say hello; another asks about building extensions to their homes.

All of them know that Waterford native John Whyte can get things done.

Whyte is taking on one of the most difficult jobs in the development world. As project manager for the rebuilding of Nahr al-Bared, he is overseeing a massive, €324 million construction effort being carried out by UNRWA, the United Nation’s agency for Palestinian refugees, to return thousands of families to the Palestinian camp gutted during clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants in 2007.


Whyte works with 32-year-old Joseph Burke from Meelick, Co Clare, who has been based in Beirut for the past 2½ years. As donor relations and projects officer, Burke works on making and maintaining UNRWA's connection with donor governments and international organisations that regularly want to see what their multimillion-dollar contributions have ended up amounting to on the ground.

Forgotten crisis

The Palestinians’ plight is a forgotten refugee crisis.

During the occupation of Palestine in the late 1940s, thousands from the country's northern regions went north to Lebanon where they set up tents by the coast. The tents were later replaced by haphazard, concrete-built homes served by basic infrastructure.

Then, over three months during the summer of 2007, 95 per cent of the camp was reduced to rubble during fierce battles. Thousands of pieces of deadly ordnance lay about. One hundred and seventy Lebanese soldiers were killed and the country, infamously divided, united against its Palestinian guests.

However, having reached an agreement with the Lebanese authorities, UNRWA undertook the reconstruction of the camp in 2009. More than 28,000 people would be returned.

Regeneration project

A former chief executive of the Fatima Regeneration Board in Rialto, Dublin, Whyte was drawn to the agency's work.

“At the beginning of 2009, when the regeneration project [in Fatima Mansions] was approaching completion, I started to think about what I would like to do next, career-wise. At that time, the news was dominated by the Gaza war and I was impressed by the work of UNRWA,” he says.

When researching UNRWA in Lebanon for a master’s thesis, Whyte came across plans to rebuild the camp. “Similar to the regeneration of Fatima Mansions, the reconstruction of this camp had placed a strong emphasis on the participation of the local community,” he says. Whyte applied and got a job with the agency, and moved to Lebanon, his wife and three sons staying on in Dublin.

Last March, Whyte took UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon around the camp to outline the community’s central involvement in the reconstruction, and to hammer home the need for more funding, a third of which is still outstanding.

So far, the shortage means that less than half of the residents due to return have done so.

Focus of aid

In managing such a large project, Whyte must carefully balance what is essentially a huge job site with navigating the lay of the land in a climate that is not always stable. Another issue is that many residents’ needs have changed since the plans for the new city were drawn up eight years ago.

But one of the most challenging aspects of the job is attending to Palestinian refugees' needs when the world's aid-giving focus lies elsewhere in the region. The fact that there are now more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone has pushed Palestinians – themselves more than five million in number spread across the Middle East – down the pecking order, even as some have themselves recently fled the mire in Syria.

“In terms of the actual work, it’s the frustration of seeing so much impeded potential, especially amongst the Palestine youth – there are so many bright, confident, creative youth that want to contribute,” says Burke. “They are passionately engaged and engaging, but constantly have to overcome hurdle after hurdle just to be given a chance. You want things to change more quickly for them.”

Milestones missed

Whyte says he gets back to see his family around eight times a year, but that being away can be tough.

“It is very challenging living and working abroad and being away from my family. While I try to get home as often as possible, and to be there for birthdays and big occasions as much as possible, inevitably I am missing a lot of milestones as they grow up, which is not easy,” he says.

Despite the security concerns that go with living in a country bordering Syria, Burke – who has lived and worked in Damascus, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – says he feels safe here.

“Lebanon keeps on keeping on. There is francophone Lebanon, anglophone and Arabic Lebanon and much more besides. You come to Lebanon wanting to learn about a new culture, but before long you realise it’s a kaleidoscope that humbles your sense of understanding. But that makes it an exciting place to live in.”