by Sami El–Yousef
After several months of endless waiting, uncertainty and waning hope, we were finally granted the permit to go to the Gaza Strip. Seven months have passed since our last visit in July 2011, as all our earlier efforts to get entry permits failed. It is still a mystery to me why they were not approved, but that is part of the challenge of doing business in the Holy Land; what is logical and makes sense anywhere else in the world does not make sense here.
Nevertheless, my colleague Gabi Kando and I were eager to get to Gaza to follow up on several ongoing projects, including the Pontifical Mission’s student sponsorship program for Christian students, and to launch our new project with four local institutions. This new project will provide hands–on training and short–term employment opportunities for hundreds of unemployed young Gazans who have very few prospects and who suffer from the current political situation and blockade.
We also had some surprising visits to new institutions, as well as other observations of the conditions inside the Gaza Strip.
New Projects — New Hopes
We officially launched our training and short–term employment opportunities project soon after we arrived in Gaza, by signing four agreements. Two are with the Near East Council of Churches, to train and offer employment for about 50 recent university graduates, in addition to employment for around 100 graduates with vocational training. The third agreement was signed with the Ahli Arab Hospital to provide training and employment opportunities to about 70 health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, as well as other administrative and support staff. The fourth agreement was signed with the Society of Women Graduates to provide training and employment to about 80 women graduates of various universities in Gaza. There was to be a fifth and final agreement with the Myrrh Bearers Society to set up an income generation tailoring factory that would also provide 10 permanent employment opportunities. For technical reasons — and as a result of the election of a new board at the time of our arrival — it was not possible to sign this agreement. This will be completed as soon as possible, however.
Needless to say, our presence in Gaza and the launch of this important project — thanks to the generous support from Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Luxembourg, Secoure Catholique/Caritas France, Misereor Germany and CNEWA Canada — brought a ray of hope to our Gaza partners, in a place where hope is very difficult to find. All those we met were encouraged and thankful that we continue to consider Gaza a priority and that they are not forgotten. Thus, I feel a great obligation to return as soon as possible to listen, encourage and bring hope.
Reflections and Observations
I cannot help but reflect on the many observations that I made as we drove through the crowded streets, spoke to many people and visited institutions both new and old.
It was very clear to us that a serious reconstruction effort is taking place in Gaza. Most of the sites of the 6,500 or so structures that were damaged during the war four years ago have been cleared and, in many instances, are completely rebuilt. Although some of the building supplies have been smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt, Gaza is still short of necessities that cannot be smuggled in — such as road asphalt, fuel and electricity. Fuel is one commodity that everyone relies on, yet it is severely in short supply. Gas stations either lie closed or have long lines of cars if they still have fuel. The availability of electricity continues to be one of the most serious problems, since the supply from the electric company does not exceed six to eight hours per day; the rest of the time, individuals and institutions (including hospitals and clinics) must rely on electrical generators. Moreover, these generators run on either petrol or gasoline; when those are in short supply, electricity grows scarce as well. A desperate situation, indeed!
Driving through the Strip
We drove 40 minutes from Gaza City to the Near Council of Churches Vocational Training Center in Qarrarah near Khan Younis to inspect the works that were completed there as part of a grant from the Swiss Holy Land Foundation. During the trip, we observed the following details:
- There are many brand new cars on the roads with models not familiar to us in the local market. Our hosts explained that some come from Egypt, while many others were from Libyan dealerships, obtained at the height of the Libyan civil war. The tunnels evidently are alive and well, even growing in size, as they can handle goods the size of a car.
- Many old orange groves and other types of agricultural land are quickly disappearing as open spaces between major cities are being replaced by new commercial, industrial and housing construction. With land prices beyond reach in Gaza City, and given the scarcity of land, people are expanding outward. A strip that is already crowded is getting more so with each passing day.
- One can’t help but notice that donkey carriages and motorbikes hauling large trolleys (better known in Gaza as “tuk tuks”) are becoming the main mode of transportation, since they need little or no gas.
- Halfway along our drive, we could see a crowd of a few hundred people (if not over a thousand) lined up in front of the offices of the Ministry of Social Affairs food distribution center, all pushing and shoving to get their ration of free food supplies. We could not determine who these people were, what criteria are being applied to receive the rations, or what is being distributed. But it was a very sad sight in this day and age.
- Driving by the Rosary Sisters School, we noticed the construction of four new schools for UNRWA on the former site of the Preventive Security Forces that was bombed and completely leveled during the war.
New Hopes — Stagnant Dreams
Once we arrived at the training center, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the works completed. It was impressive to see the installation of a large LCD screen in one of the classrooms; educational resources were being downloaded from the Internet and viewed by the first–year students to supplement their classroom teaching. The other piece of great news received during our visit to this center, which provides a two–year training certification program as licensed electricians, is that all the graduates of the last two programs are fully employed because of the reconstruction boom that started over the past few months. That’s very encouraging news to those who are currently enrolled in the program; they know that, if current trends continue, they will be assured employment upon graduation.
“And what about the reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah we hear so much about these days?” was the standard question everywhere I went. The unanimous answer was that such efforts remain distant dreams and will not happen anytime soon.
Some experts have offered their analyses of the situation, which tie the current situation in Gaza to the so–called “Arab Spring” and in particular to the new direction Egypt may take. Many feel that Hamas will continue to take a wait–and–see approach, hoping that an Islamic regime will emerge in Egypt that will be friendly to Hamas, and such a new direction will solidify their position and help them stay in sole control of Gaza without the need to reconcile with Fatah.
Steadfastness — Doing so Much With so Little
The last day of our three–day visit was particularly inspiring. We started our morning with a visit to the Palestine Avenir for Childhood Foundation (P.A.C.F.) Cerebral Palsy Center. The center was established in 1995 to help provide handicapped children, especially those with cerebral palsy, with therapeutic, educational, social and recreational programs. Housed in a three–story building owned by the foundation, the majority of the center remains unfinished but totally utilized. Some rooms had broken windows — a result of recent bombardment by F–16 jets in the neighborhood — covered with plastic, while others have no electricity; some others were fixed up nicely.
The Christian Presence
The second highlight of the day was our meeting with nine of the Christian students who received a scholarship to study at Gaza universities through the generous donation of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Holland. It was a very engaging meeting with the students and a very touching encounter; to listen to their stories and their concerns and to help keep their hopes and dreams alive was a task dear to my heart.
As one would expect during our seven–month absence from Gaza, some of them went through life’s happy and sad experiences. One of them lost her husband a while ago and has three young children to rear. You can see the hope and determination in her eyes. Another student lost her father a few months ago and is still dressed in black as she tries to deal with that loss; another student got engaged and one got married. Yet, one observes in them the desire to continue and to graduate despite the harsh conditions under which they study.
All those between the ages of 18 and 35 (the ages of all these students) are labeled by the Israeli authorities as “potential terrorists” even though there were never any “terrorist” activities conducted by any young Christian student. Thus, during the Christian holidays, they are never granted a permit to come and celebrate in Bethlehem or Jerusalem; they continue to be locked up in the big prison called Gaza.
The other difficulty they face, as Christian students who were raised in a Christian environment and studied at one of the four Christian schools in Gaza, is having to take the usual university requirements imposed on them as part of their academic programs. These include, in some cases, six courses in Islamic studies and Sharia (Islamic law). One first–year student commented to me that it was a culture shock being in a very Islamic environment as a student at the Islamic University in Gaza after graduating from a Christian school, and that she is still trying to integrate and cope.
I told them that, as a former university teacher who has spent many years of his professional career in academia close to students and teachers, I felt entitled to lecture them on life lessons — particularly on the need to look always on the bright side and to never lose hope. I lectured them on the need to enjoy their college experience and to make the best of whatever life has to offer. I reflected on the ups and downs in my own life and on my own successes and failures. I tried desperately to lift their spirits and to assure them that we will not leave them alone and that we will do whatever is in our power to walk with them until they graduate from college. We hope to be able to help them remain proud Christians in their land of birth, to integrate into their society and to make their contributions with their Christian values at heart.
There is no way of knowing for sure how my little pep talk went, but they listened, smiled and nodded as I spoke. My prayers are with them. These are my heroes in Gaza. I just hope I was able to encourage and inspire them. They certainly deserve all the attention and support we can give as they grow morally and develop their own code of ethics during their college years under conditions that are most challenging and exceptional, to say the least.
Shortly thereafter, Gabi and I headed to Erez to start what ended up being a five–hour trip back from Gaza to Jerusalem. We waited for 45 minutes outside the heavy metal doors of the Erez terminal in the midst of one of the nastiest sand storms of the season, until about ten people lined up and the Israeli officer decided to let us inside the terminal. Once inside, security checks and clearances took close to two hours before we were able to get in the car and drive back through one of the main rainstorms of this winter season.
We cannot complain about the much–needed rain, and I cannot complain about the slow procedures to get back. I am grateful that I was able to get to Gaza, and the long wait at Erez served an important purpose; during the three days we were there, we were running from one meeting to the next so quickly that I hardly had any time to pause and think. But once I did, in some ways I was grateful to the Israeli security agents for forcing me to wait. It gave me time to reflect on the heroes in Gaza and how brave they all are to live under these difficult conditions, yet how they are still able to smile and laugh and continue to hope that tomorrow will be a better day.