Thursday 28 January 2016

Open the Sewing Factory

What better way to open the morning than by baking my bread for breakfast Lebanese style and handing over $2000. We were visiting a Human Appeal social enterprise in Saida, an old port town on the Lebanese coast. Its a family run bakery, producing their own bread.  Of course in London we would die for these fantastic artisan flat breads, but here it is the staple of this working class district. It's run by Palestinian refugees and HA are going them the money to expand. And I got to hand over the cheque! Have to say the flat bread with thyme and herb coating is most delicious. It's often called the Lebanese pizza I'm told! 

It was off to see some schools. The first is a charity run school which takes kids from nursery to secondary. The Principal is the brother of the President of the famous Finsbury Park Mosque and his brother, Mohammed Kozbar, was there to greet me as well.  That was a bonus as he wants me to go and visit, which I shall certainly do when I'm back in London. Then it was on to a school for Syrian refugees.  It's a mark of the crisis in Syria that all the pupils come from every region in that country. There is no part of Syria not affected by war.  These pupils have often seen the most applying abuse and atrocity. But they are keen to learn and so return eventually to the country they have left. I wished them well.

But the main event of the day was officiating at the opening of The Sewing factory, along with the representative of the Qatar charity and Human Appeal. This is a social enterprise which aims to train Syrian women refugees and give them qualifications that will lead to employment. They also take in donated clothes which they wash and sew and either sell or give away. And they do a nice line in school uniforms. I made a speech which I hope fitted the occasion. I'm afraid I used that corny line about how good it is to give a starving person a fish, but how much better it is to teach them to fish. But it seems so apposite for the occasion. Many of the refugees have been here for so long they need to be supported both in their physical needs but also in education and skills. A brilliant initiative which has been done with major support from Britain and Qatar.

And then onto a conference for representatives of local charities to hear and discuss the role we have in humanitarian aid and sustainable development.

Then finally an hour of sightseeing. The port city of Saida is an ancient settlement and has an old fortress, port and souk.

So now my 3 days here in Lebanon are at an end. My views on the importance of support for the work of the Muslim Charity Forum remain as strong as ever. With the increasingly nasty climate that faces our British Muslim community it's essential our charity's work as a whole to support their work. Indeed we need to ensure the government, so far dismissive of  the work that these charities do understand that tackling extremism is built upon the roots that communities develop themselves it is Muslim charities that take such an important role in their humanitarian work and their development of civil society. ACEVO will continue to battle their cause against ignorance and prejudice. When governments are so keen to lecture and not to listen to the future for social cohesion. It remains bleak. 

Wednesday 27 January 2016

A health day in Lebanon

When you don't have a health service and the government doesn't even provide the basics you realise what people suffer for lack of health care. What is available is provided through charities. Which is fine if those charities have all the reassurances they need. But they don't here. I was spending the days visiting some of the projects supported by the British Muslim charities.

We started in the south of the country at a mobile clinic that services the Syrian refugees in the region. It's funded partly by Islamic Relief UK.

We then moved onto visit a new project run by the Medrar foundation. I met the CEO, Rami Harajli, who is in charge of the work. He is a nephew I believe of the President of the Parliament. In this part of south Lebanon they are Shia. We saw rather a lot of posters and propaganda for Hezbollah. You see him here in front of the building that is going on.

But then it was moving north and a meeting with the Sunni Chief Mufti. A fine cleric and scholar who is also the chief judge in these parts.

Then it was straight to the north of the country and a hospital in Tripoli. Human Appeal have donated equipment to start an eye clinic in the hospital that proved medical care for the Syrian refugees who come from across the nearby border. 700,000 of them in and around these parts   A great and ancient port city known to the Romans and Greeks, we finished our field tour by eating at a fish restaurant by the harbour. I choose a dorado which they then grilled for me. With prawns and calamari  it was a lovely end to a hectic day. Again it's notable how little the government does for anyone. It is only the work of charities like the Muslim Charity Forum that supports such good humanitarian causes. When I was in the hospital in Tripoli I spoke to a young lad who had a badly broken leg. He has lost all his family. And now the job he had. 

It's worth remembering when we have so much publicity about extremism that there is a groups of strong and effective Muslim charities who are funding vital work in this war ravaged region. When we know the draw of Europe for so many refugees it's good that there are British charities who are doing vital work that support people staying in the region. Though this is support at the most basic and more is needed. Meeting families and hearing their stories brings home to you the need for a strong humanitarian response to this crisis.

At least here the refugees have a home in a building not a tent. Basic but at least better in the bitter cold. Built by the UN but they still have to pay rent for each room they use.
Got a rather sad girl keen on me taking her picture so here it is.

Then it was onto a spectacular project in the Deep South; a brand new hospital being built as a state of the art teaching hospital in a prime spot on a mountain top. Lots of fresh air! It is funded by the Medrar foundation. I met the CEO of  the foundation, Rami Harajli, and he is also on the board for the new medical centre. He is the nephew  (I think I got this right?) of the President of the Lebanese Parliament, who comes from these parts. In the interesting constitutional set up here the President of the Parliament is a Shia. The Prime Minister a Sunni and the President a Maronite Christian.
And no visit would be good without meeting with the religious leaders, so we had a short time with the Mufti in South Lebanon.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

In the camps

So, even given the language difficulty it's difficult to know what to say to a woman with breast cancer . Looking after her 3 kids after fleeing Syria as her husband had been shot in the street in Homs. And she has no money to pay for the treatment that would save her.

I'm in Lebanon as a guest of the Muslim charity forum and travelling with the CEOs of Islamic Relief and Human Appeal as well as the director of the Forum. We have been visiting the Syrian refugee camps in the Beeka valley where I met this lady and her family. We met with other families. You can see the mother of the family of 6 kids. Her eldest son is only 13 and he goes out to work to support them. One of the kids has epilepsy. And the other lady with her 2 grandchildren is supporting them as they have HepB and their mother is out at work as a housemaid to support their treatments.

Many of the kids in the camp have health problems. Many do not go to school and so many cannot read or write. They have been in the camps  for 3 or 4 years and still no end in sight. This is desperate and hearing the tales of the atrocities and the suffering brings home to you why so many have fled the war in their country.

The only support they get is from charities and international agencies. It's basic. It's not on a sustainable basis. And the winter is harsh and bitter when you live in a tent. It's remarkable how clean and tidy they are kept though when you can't afford money for fuel.  Or you make choices between eating and heating; it's a cruel life. 

But you can see at least I got stuck in with helping distribute aid for Human Appeal.  The aid convoy had brought bottles of fuel, blankets and mattresses.  We were welcome. 

I'm here in Lebanon with representatives of the Muslim Charity Forum, including the CEOs of Islamic relief and Human Appeal as well as the local NGOs.  We spent today visiting some of the camps in the Beeka valley, just across from the border. The camps vary in their organisation and management from those lucky enough to be in a camp with its own school to much smaller camps like the one we went to with just 15 families who have been here for 3 or 4 years and fled atrocities that these kids will never forget. Many of the kids don't go to school. 
In one family we visited the mother and her 6 younger kids are supported by the eldest son of 13 who goes out to work. Most of the families have health problems. One lady and her family  I met all had heb b and the mother, despite the illness goes out to work to try and pay for treatment;  there is no NHS out here and it's what you can afford. And when you don't have money, you don't get treatment.
The winters a fierce here.  We drove across the mountains to get to the camps.  The show is over 2 feet on the mountains and it is bitter in the valley, minus 7/8 at night.  You need fuel to warm the tents.  That costs and so sometimes there is no heat at all.  Just a flimsy tent to keep out the harsh and deadly weather. 
But we did not go empty handed.  We were with a lorry convoy that brought mattresses, bottles of fuel and blankets.
And obviously yours truly got stuck in.  Who said ACEVO doesn't work at the front line!

Monday 11 January 2016

A stitch in time

Benjamin Franklin said, "Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy”.  

Not sure Dame Sally Davis would quite agree after listening to her on the Today programme on Friday talking about new NHS guidelines on drinking. I've no intention of giving up on of the great joys in life , drinking good wine, but it is absolutely right that the NHS gives us this advice. And I have to admit I was reflecting on this as I walked the Hound over to the Plough at Finstock over the weekend. I eschewed the usual pint as it happens! 

There has been a lot of silly commentary about the "nanny state" and  Farage was his usual bone headed self. The point is that this is about giving us the information we need to make choices about our life style. It's not that we are being forbidden to drink. Just that we should know better the consequences. Just as we should know the consequences of smoking or a lack of exercise or overdosing on sugar rich food. 

There is a mounting problem with obesity leading to a sharp rise in diabetes. It is estimated that diabetes costs the health service 10 billion a year. And yet our Chancellor recently cut the public health spending budget. Far better to spend money on prevention than cure! As our recent commission on remaking the state recommended, we should spend 5% of our public services budgets on prevention. It has to make sense. 

And finally, sad news this morning about the death of David Bowie. Born in Brixton, it was good to see local tributes being paid this morning as I made my way to ACEVO towers. 

Wednesday 6 January 2016


Christmas was relatively quiet, apart from  doing a slot on the Tuesday of Christmas week on  "You and Yours". They woke me up and as I refused to drag into the studio they did it down the line. My sister said it was excellent to hear a sensible and robust defence of fundraising against a see of whinging and moaning about getting phoned too much.

And then there was a story in the Daily Telegraph about the Cabinet Office  plan to extend FoI to charities.  I doubt they will do this when they think it through- imagine all those churches and colleges and volunteer sports clubs having to field  FoI questions about what they do. "And how much communion wine did you consume last year Vicar?'.

But as I said there can be no objection in principle to being open with the public about how government money is spent when we receive contracts or grants for delivery of services. Indeed we should be up front and open about this. Using the opportunity to tell about our impact. What we don't  want is a blunderbuss approach that has us tied up in knots answering enquires that have little to do with our impact and are often malicious or there to fill a spot in a sparse news week. Far better to tackle this through a voluntary code, for example, that would cover the organisations that have big contracts for delivery. And obviously, if this were aimed at charities, you would have to create a system that targeted a university or local care home but did not cover SERCO or Capita. Indeed, its odd that in this leaked story there was no reference to obligations on the private sector- yet government contracts are significantly bigger  for private companies. How ludicrous it would be for FoI to cover small charities delivering a work programme contract as part of a prime but the prime itself totally free of FoI. So I'm not expecting this to go far. But it does underline how we need to be open to scrutiny in what we do. Indeed not be afraid to be open but use this as an opportunity to sell the value added we give when we deliver services for citizens and communities.FoI is a good piece of legislation that promotes good government- but the aim was to open up government not target the local church or small business. 

So the Old year ended much as it has been over 2015 with more digs at charity. But as Peggy Archer said on the Archers on Sunday - "I like the new year- its always so full of possibility."