By Sami El-Yousef, Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission for Palestine, 16-18 October 2012.
Since my last report on Gaza in late February 2012, I have been back in early May, again in August, and most recently for a three-day visit in October. This report shares my latest experiences so that many of you who care about Gaza — especially the small Christian presence there — yet do not have the means to visit, can continue to get a firsthand account of the situation, the way people live and how they cope with these extreme conditions.
Divide between Rich and Poor
During this trip, I could not help but notice the huge economic gap between the rich and the poor; many brand new cars share the same crowded roads with donkey carriages, new marble storefronts across the street from dusty, graffiti-filled street shacks. Nor could I avoid noticing the major construction boom — mainly because of the actions of the Hamas government, constructing brand new buildings on practically every corner.
Yet, the lives of ordinary people continue to be severely affected. Electrical outages last anywhere from 12-14 hours a day; countless supplies continue to be off limits, resulting in shortages; unemployment remains very high; and the political division between Hamas and Fatah is only getting deeper, with no hope for any reconciliation in sight. Moreover, many of the underground tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt, which continue to be Gaza’s main supply lines for goods, have been demolished by the Egyptian authorities as the “new Egypt” tries to find a new status quo with Hamas, the shape of which remains unclear.
Dedication of the People
In the midst of all this, I was touched and encouraged by so many fine people doing their best to tune out the depressing situation of Gaza and live their lives to be of service to others. There is a strong spirit that guides them no matter who they are: heads of institutions, professionals, board members, university students, or young children. It is truly amazing how ordinary Gazans have become accustomed to life amongst tension and turmoil.
Talking to various people during my visit, I was inspired at the deep sense of mission and pride in what they do to serve the greater community of Gaza: whether a decent education at various levels — kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, or a vocational training — public services in the health sector or social services including old age services and centers for the care of severely handicapped. Whether it is our partner institutions or the beneficiaries of our training and short term employment (S.T.E.) program, countless other institutions that find ways to cope and even improve, or whether it is in the eyes of our Christian university students, who despite all odds are continuing their higher education under extreme circumstances, I found strength in all of their heroism, and returned to Jerusalem charged, determined more than ever to work hard to continue supporting them.
Expansion of Christian Institutions in Gaza:
That Christian institutions are expanding despite the difficulty is in itself a great testimony to their dedication in serving their community — certainly not a sign of a community that is about to go extinct. Such institutions include:
Groundbreaking and excavation works at the Ahli Arab Hospital to build a three-story comprehensive diagnostic center — the first to serve the Gaza Strip — funded by USAID.
- Finishing the three-story annex to the Rosary Sisters School, consisting of 12 classrooms, funded by ANERA.
The addition of a third floor to the Holy Family School at Remal, currently in the process of being furnished and equipped via funds from the John Paul II Foundation.
The finishing works of the auditorium of the Greek Orthodox Cultural Center, currently in its final stages, funded by CHF.
Success Story of a Gaza Christian:
Success stories are varied and numerous, but one in particular is striking. On the last day of my visit, I was privileged to meet the managing director of a Christian-based engineering company by the name of Technical Engineering Consulting Company (TECC). Mr. Samir Manneh, a member of the Holy Family Latin Parish in Gaza, had just landed two out of five bids for the rehabilitation of two major roads in Gaza — one of them being 42 kilometers — for a total of $88 million. Evidently this is part of five major contracts resulting from $400 million of assistance provided by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, emir of Qatar, for the reconstruction of Gaza. This news broke the day we arrived in Gaza and I was adamant not to leave before meeting Samir to congratulate him personally and get a firsthand account from this proud Gaza Christian. It is people like Samir who, through hard work and professionalism, are able to land these major contracts. His qualifications could not be overlooked and he has certainly become a model for younger generations.
When we met, he was full of pride and joy and told me that he immediately needed 25 local engineers in addition to the team he already has. He was clearly appreciative of the opportunity and told me at great length that the vetting and bidding process proceeded in a most professional way, and that it was his qualifications and the technical qualifications of his staff that landed him the contracts. It may be possible that further staff will be needed — including accountants, secretaries, electricians and welders, to name a few — and the company would need look no further than to the Near East Council of Churches’ Vocational Training Center’s S.T.E. program, run by the Pontifical Misson, which has newly trained, professional graduates ready to work.
Update on Job-Training Program:
The Pontifical Mission for Palestine’s two-year, $400,000 program continues to provide specialized on-the-job training opportunities and paid internships for young Gazans for three to six months. We have partnered with the N.E.C.C. to support graduates and vocational training graduates; the Ahli Arab Hospital to support medical health professionals; the Society of Women Graduates to support unemployed women university graduates; and the Palestine Avenir for Cerebral Palsy to support the training of young people to work with severely handicapped children and youth.
I was privileged to meet some of the beneficiaries of our program during various field visits. They were enthusiastically telling me about how grateful they are to us for providing a once in a lifetime opportunity to give them a chance at decent employment and to be better equipped with new skills to tackle the limited job market in Gaza. I was touched by so many experiences and personal stories, about which I can write volumes. One of the stories that was most striking to me was about Hiba, from the Society of Women Graduates. Hiba, a young Gaza graduate in social work that happens to have a hearing impairment and speech difficulties, spoke eloquently to me about her newly acquired skills in computer applications, report writing and languages through our program and the local partner, Society of Women Graduates. She proceeded to tell me how beneficial our grant was to her and her family: The income she received from the work as a trainee at the Society of Women Graduates helped her parents pay their debts and enabled her buy her first hearing aids, which she has been dreaming about for so long.
CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s Involvement in Gaza’s Youth Sector:
The other major area Pontifical Mission for Palestine has been supporting for a very long time is Gaza’s youth sector. Our work with Gaza’s youth has impacted the lives of both Muslim and Christian students — bettering education, culture and social activities. Reflecting on my discussions at the various youth institutions I visited, it is clear to me that if we are to be faithful to our Christian presence in Gaza, a rational investment in the youth sector is very much needed. We will continue to work with the major stakeholders to ensure that this sector is not overlooked. What is important to focus on is not the need for big budgets, but rather capitalizing on the talent available in Gaza and the goodwill of the many volunteers who are able and willing to take on a leadership role in this sector, and to provide adequate funding to make their work possible.
I was fortunate that the visit coincided with an important meeting — representatives of the Latin Patriarchate met jointly with a select number of dedicated people who are working with youth at the Holy Family Parish and School in Gaza. It was heartening to listen to their presentation about the hard work undertaken by some 40 youth volunteers to arrange and organize year-long activities for Christian youth. The most amazing part was how much was done with very limited funding, and with so many limitations and external pressures. Naturally, I offered to assist in any way possible.
Another inspiring visit was to Gaza’s Y.M.C.A., which recently underwent a changeover in its board, now consisting of 12 energetic young Y.M.C.A. members who are volunteering their time to return the Y to its rightful place: offering a wealth of sports, social and cultural events for local families. The board members explained the difficult financial constraints within which they have to operate. With a total of 500 family memberships, let alone the individual memberships, one would tend to think that they should be financially set from membership fees alone! However, going a bit deeper, a family membership is a mere NIS 100-200 (under $50) per year, which is hardly enough to pay the Y’s electric bill.
This is one of the only places in Gaza where men and women, boys and girls and even entire families can get together in a safe environment amidst a fundamentally Islamic society that looks suspiciously at any gender mix. The Y has many wonderful facilities including its sports complex, a recently refurbished and equipped fitness room, a small cafeteria, a kindergarten, and a variety of multipurpose halls that can be utilized for a variety of activities and events. However, the new board needs financial assistance such as the renovation of facilities, equipment needs, or furbishing and rehabilitating the various playgrounds to keep this wonderful institution functioning and growing.
At the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza, I paid a visit to the kindergarten. There, I met Sister Davida Twal as she helped tuck the kindergarteners into their newly hand-made beds. The wooden beds as well as other furniture were part of a larger project funded by Pour les Autres Foundation to provide furnishings for the existing school. It was also heartening to see the new three-story annex — a project funded by ANERA and nearing completion. This will consist of 12 new classrooms and could allow the expansion of the Rosary Sisters school to include high school students, enabling it to become more self sufficient, so that our Christian students will have the ability to complete their high school studies in a Christian environment. Needless to say, once the classes are ready, the challenge would be to find the right funds to purchase school furniture and equipment that will make the annex fully operational.
Finally, a courtesy visit to Catholic Relief Services (C.R.S.) Gaza Branch was an opportunity for the Pontifical Mission to reinforce its efforts to collaborate with other Catholic agencies working in the country, under the auspices of the youth support initiatives of the Catholic Coordination Committee in Jerusalem. We reiterated the need to work together in various areas, especially in the Christian Civic Engagement Program — a program that we have been jointly trying to develop to ensure that Christian youth are well integrated in their local societies, so they can become active members of society despite the many difficulties and restrictions. We agreed that we will maintain close contact both in Gaza and in Jerusalem to continue this important work.
Christian University Students
As has been the case in previous visits, I met with the 11 Christian university students who are studying at the various universities in Gaza — all recipients of scholarships courtesy of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher-Holland. It was a treasured experience. These students ended up where they are because of the continued Israeli blockade that prohibits them from studying at West Bank universities for unjustified security reasons. Another main reason is that most of them cannot afford to travel abroad to study. All of them are graduates of one of the four Christian schools in Gaza and were raised, for the most part, in a Christian environment.
However, they told me about all the many difficulties they face — especially the women, who make up 9 out of the 11. For these young girls, studying in a predominantly Muslim environment that has become very conservative and less tolerant to other religions in recent years makes their educational experience very challenging.
Their experiences varied but they all spoke with one voice:
Some professors refuse to have any women student in class unless they are veiled, a request that was denied by our students which led them to drop such courses.
All students must take Islamic studies courses (30 credit hours for those at the Islamic University, and 18 credit hours at other universities). Christian students are no exception and the grades they receive in such courses (if they pass) certainly affect their overall grade point averages.
Most Christian students do not attend Islamic courses since they are frequently criticized during the lectures, and they end up studying independently and only taking the exams to get by. Luckily, attendance is often not taken, since such courses are university requirements and can have classes of up to 800 students!
Recent complaints to deans and chairs about unfair treatment to Christian students have led to failing grades not only in the course in question, but in other courses as well. The message is very clear: If you complain, there will be harsh consequences across the board.
Exams, including final exams, are scheduled on Christian holidays such as Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, with no excuses given to any Christian student.
These are only some of the experiences our students must encounter day in day out, and they have found ways to cope. As I was boiling inside about the grave injustice these students are subjected to, I found strength in their humor.
One of them told me,
“Thank God we have two ears, where the abusive rhetoric goes in from one ear and out through the other!”
Another student claimed,
“We have become used to this and we do not allow it to dampen our spirit. We are there to learn and get a university degree and this is what we will focus on.”
I gained so much respect for them and for what they go through, and all I could do was promise to continue raising financial support to help them continue their college education and look toward possible employment opportunities, so as to help sustain their presence as the future leaders of our Christian institutions in Gaza.
As has been the case from previous visits, I returned from Gaza inspired by this small Christian community, determined more than ever before to stay the course and continue to find ways to support our Christian institutions in Gaza — to help them grow and continue to provide quality services to the whole Palestinian community at large. Their presence and determination despite all the odds should be an inspiration for all of us. They are true heroes.
Our sincere appreciation goes to the following generous partners; without their support and encouragement, the work of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission in Gaza would have been impossible:
Misereor, Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Luxemburg, Secoures Catholique, and CNEWA’s Canadian benefactors for their support to the Training and Short Term Employment project.
Kinderhilfe Bethlehem for their support of the youth activities.
Pour les Autres Foundation for their support to the Rosary Sisters furnishing project.
Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in Holland and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Deiters for their support to the Christian university student’s scholarship program.
And to CNEWA’s donors in the United States and elsewhere for their continuing support toward the operating costs of the Near East Council of Churches clinics in Gaza.