- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

Interpreters valued

The “house of peace” would become a tower of Babel if it were not for the U.N. interpreters, all of whom deserve thanks for their unique but invisible contribution during the summit, which opens Wednesday.

The United Nations is expecting 170 or so presidents, prime ministers and princes, not all of whom feel comfortable speaking English. In addition to their formal speeches, there will be untold numbers of official U.N. receptions, side summits and bilateral meetings.

The organization has a roster of up to 130 interpreters to turn speeches into the six official languages (English, French, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese). In addition, 80 freelance interpreters are on call.

Hurricane relief

The normally clean and art-lined Secretariat lobby resembled the attic of a pack rat on Friday, with piles of clothes spilling out of boxes, shopping bags and suitcases.

The accumulation was the response of U.N. staff members to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and they gave generously. A lot of the merchandise still carried sales tags.

The effort brought in about 600 boxes of clothes, shoes and even food, all of which was to be flown south in relief charters by American, United and Delta airlines.

Collecting was coordinated by a nongovernmental organization called Airline Ambassadors, a coalition of flight attendants who give to charity through the United Nations, said Shannon Banks, a flight attendant who usually works American Airline’s London-New York route.

The United Nations is taking an official role, too, with logistics and humanitarian-relief specialists working at the State Department and in the Gulf states to coordinate the foreign assistance that has been pouring in.

“All in all, we expect the U.N. involvement to grow as we expect there to be a very considerable increase in the number of international relief flights to the United States from many parts of the world,” said Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the Associated Press last week.

“We … deal with mass natural disasters around the globe a number of times a year, so we have well-tested systems,” Mr. Egeland said.

Gaza still split

The American overseeing the program to care for Palestinian refugees said last week that it was still too soon to feel the benefits of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Roads are still closed, making it nearly impossible for most people to travel between the north and south, said Karen Koning AbuZayd the commissioner-general of the U.N. agency that oversees humanitarian and economic assistance for two-thirds of the residents of the Gaza Strip. And Israel had still not concluded negotiations with the Palestinian Authority regarding major issues of autonomy and commerce , the fate of the Gaza airport, Mediterranean seaport and the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

Nonetheless, the agency “is working to promote the economy, focusing on job creation, microfinancing and housing reconstruction,” said Mrs. AbuZayd, who runs the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The disengagement went smoothly, she told reporters last week, but Israeli soldiers had still not opened up the former Israeli settlements so the Palestinians or the United Nations could assess the schools, farmland and other assets left behind by settlers.

Mrs. AbuZayd is based in the region, but was at headquarters last week to present the agency’s budget to U.N. committees and meet with the U.N. programs and funds that UNRWA works closely with.

She is seeking $440 million to provide basic services this year, an increase of nearly 30 percent, to care for more than 4.5 million documented refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

Mrs. AbuZayd, who became the commissioner-general this spring, said the Israeli closures in the West Bank had no beneficial impact because the Israeli government is still building settlements and completing the separation wall.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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