Report, Gaza, 22-24 April 2013
Always good to go back!
It was a pleasure to return to Gaza to check on our various projects there and, more importantly, to show solidarity with the people and to affirm they are not forgotten.
On a rather positive note, there are no longer long lines at gas stations, as the supply of fuel is steadier. We did not hear many complaints about the shortages of basic food or medical supplies or building materials. Other aspects of life seem unchanged. The electric company still provides about 10 hours a day of electricity, while noisy, inefficient, polluting makeshift diesel generators offer power the rest of the day to homes and institutions.
On the other hand, there are still travel restrictions that neither Israel nor Egypt has eased; most of the population continues to complain about the “prison-like” environment they continue to live in. On the political end of things, few in Gaza believe that the much-talked-about “reconciliation efforts” between Hamas and Fatah are leading to anything meaningful. They remain very skeptical about any such discussions. Most feel that neither party is ready for real reconciliation and that it will not happen anytime soon. There is also a deep distrust between Israel and Hamas and a sense that both sides may be planning the next offensive. Many believe it is only a matter of time and that the civilians will again pay a hefty price. Let’s hope I picked up the wrong signals, and that peace will prevail. Keep Gaza and its people in your prayers, especially the small brave Christian community.
Update on Gaza Emergency Intervention Program
One of the main purposes of our visit was to assess the emergency intervention program CNEWA, through its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, was able to provide for individuals and institutions in Gaza after the war in November 2012. We were fortunate to have been able to raise over $450,000 from various donors to be able to engage in such a meaningful intervention. In general, all of our emergency intervention activities in Gaza are proceeding well, are on target and appear to be making quite an impact on those who suffered the most during the war. Needless to say, all institutions and individuals we were in contact with were very complimentary of our program, especially that it was designed on needs that were brought to our attention by the people themselves. This certainly is the hallmark of our work. The following summarizes each program’s implementation so far:
Home Renovation Project: We visited two homes out of the 45 (35 were Christian homes) that received minor renovation work as part of our home renovation project in cooperation with Near East Council of Churches (NECC). Meeting with families and listening to their stories was certainly a stressful experience. Parents spoke vividly about the events of the war and their desperate plea to provide safety to their terrified children, as if the attack happened yesterday. In many instances, the visible signs of the damage are still there. Clearly, the traumatic experience will remain with these people for a long time.
What was clear to me was the extent of the damage — not only to the buildings themselves, but clearly to the furniture and equipment. I am proud that we were able to fix these minor damages to enable the families to be protected again from the cold of winter. But clearly these families continue to suffer. It will certainly take much more than our intervention to get back into a normal way of life. However, the beneficiaries clearly appreciated our intervention and asked us to convey their appreciation to the donors.
Institutional Renovation Project: We visited four institutions that sustained war damages: the Rosary Sisters School, the Holy Family School, the Latin Patriarchate School and the Greek Orthodox Cultural Center. Most works have been completed, including fixing windows and doors, water systems, leaky roofs, etc. It was most gratifying to see all the schools operating in a safe environment for the students. Let us hope that this will be the last time our intervention is needed in this regard.
Medicine and medical supplies: Both the Al Ahli Arab Hospital and the NECC’s three mother and child clinics were most grateful to be able to replenish their stock of much-needed medicines and medical supplies depleted during the war.
Support to needy families to receive medical care: Al Ahli Arab Hospital has supported hundreds (over 70 cases during the month of April alone) of needy individuals, covering urgent medical treatment or surgical procedures. Thanks to CNEWA’s gracious donors, the lives of the poor and neediest are being saved.
Psychosocial intervention: The largest component of the program and the greatest need is to help the living stones regain their sanity and gradually take back their lives. The following is a survey of our intervention:
Christian Schools Psychosocial Program: In partnership with the Community Training Center and Crisis Management (CTCCM) at three Christian schools (Holy Family, Latin Patriarchate and the Rosary Sisters schools), an extensive program continues for the duration of the second semester (January through June). CTCCM counselors will work with groups of students, teachers, parents and administrators to help them cope with the trauma of the war. In particular, I was struck by our visit to the Holy Family School’s psychosocial session for 10th graders who were engaged in an activity “planning their future neighborhood.” Students were asked to draw what they think should be included in their neighborhood. It was inspiring to see that the students drew a church and a mosque next to each other — a witness of peaceful coexistence in mutual respect and trust.
NECC Psychosocial Program: Another program extends to the three clinics primarily for NECC staff and mothers and children members. It also helps children from nine of the poorest kindergartens operating in the vicinity of each clinic. Again, words cannot describe the depth of the trauma sustained by various stakeholders. We were privileged to visit one such kindergarten, where some 100 children participated in an open day activity with singing and dancing, clowns and magic tricks.
Society of Women Graduates: We visited a unique program that combines employment for 30 unemployed women social workers and psychosocial intervention at 10 kindergartens selected in the hardest hit and poorest neighborhoods of Gaza city. We were privileged to visit two of the kindergartens where the program is implemented. The enthusiasm of these unemployed graduates — who were trained to become counselors in the initial phase of the project — along with the happiness and relief seen on the faces of the children is beyond description.
Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA): A psychosocial program is implemented at the YMCA in favor of children of its kindergarten as well as all members of the Y and the staff. This is probably the only place in Gaza where the community gathers in a mixed environment away from the segregation that Hamas is trying to impose. Unfortunately, no activities were planned during our visit. But the progress report presented by the coordinators was rich.
Update on our other interventions in Gaza: Again, there is a great sense of satisfaction with the professional implementation of all the projects, emergency-related or not. The presence of a part-time project assistant in Gaza who is monitoring our projects over the past year has made a big difference; George Anton is able to follow-up regularly and be in daily contact with our partners, anticipate problems and suggest solutions before situations get out of hand. He truly has been our eyes on the ground between visits.
- Short-Term Employment Program — Gaza: This program, which is nearing completion, has created hundreds of employment opportunities for Gazans; we had the opportunity to discuss with three of our partners the expansion of the program during this project period. Additional job opportunities will be created over the next three months relieving the financial situation to an additional 70 people and providing them with added skills to better tackle the difficult job market in the Gaza Strip.
- Support to Institutions: Progress is steady at both the Rosary Sisters School — where the new annex (12 additional classrooms) is being furnished for use in the upcoming 2013-2014 academic year — and at the YMCA to provide furniture and equipment, including video conferencing facilities serving as an income-generating project. The project implemented at Atfaluna for Deaf Children is showing excellent progress. Twenty five teachers are being trained in sign language and will eventually work under the community-based screening program to detect hearing problems among young children in the poorest neighborhoods of Gaza.
- Youth Support: The YMCA soccer school, as well as the Latin Parish youth group, is progressing well. It is providing extracurricular activities that are much needed and appreciated. In both instances, requests were made to renew the programs, which are due at the end of the summer.
- Christian Students’ Scholarship Recipients: CNEWA-PMP was privileged to meet again with the 12 Christian students who are studying at Gaza universities. It is amazing how with each visit, we see more maturity, a greater sense of self-worth and determination among them. We will soon be seeing the fruits of our intervention, with two of the students graduating at the end of the current semester. Again, the lack of clarity that these students have toward a clear career path because of the limited opportunities available in Gaza is something that is clearly on these students’ minds. I promised them we’d continue to work with them, to see how we can continue our support beyond graduation. The visit was also an opportunity to meet with the new Board of Directors of the Myrrh Bearers Society, which administers the scholarship scheme in Gaza. They clearly have many ideas of how we can better serve the Christian community in Gaza — including the expansion of the scholarship program to allow more needy Christian students to get a higher education — plus other projects for job creation and to help support the elderly.
Despite the fact that we are reporting excellent progress on all our projects in Gaza, one cannot help but notice the general deterioration of the general situation in Gaza under the Hamas government. Though recent measures are not specifically directed against the Christian community, it is this community with its relatively liberal orientation that is directly affected. Here are a few measures and incidents that will illustrate the general mood:
- The Hamas government recently put into practice the “education law” that forces the segregation of boys and girls in all educational institutions starting at the fourth grade level (age 9 and beyond). It further mandates that female teachers should not teach boys and vice versa. Naturally, this applies to all educational institutions, including all four Christian schools in Gaza, which are mixed schools. Not only would these schools be required to add staff in compliance with the new law, but they will also need additional classroom space and other facilities. This, of course is the visible, easy part. The more difficult part is the damage that will be done to a whole generation of youth by such a step. They will be completely alienated from and have no social interaction with the opposite sex. This naturally affects more than simply the Christian schools, but also some of our other partners, including Atfaluna and Palestine Avenir. In the words of many administrators, this law will be impossible to implement. Furthermore, this new law is being contested by human rights organizations through the legal system in Gaza, and our hope is that Hamas will rescind the law. It should be noted that representatives of all the institutions we support in Gaza informed us that they reject this law and will not adhere to it, regardless of the consequences.
- In addition to this new law, the Hamas government, through its domination of the Legislative Council in Gaza, passed four additional laws already, with 25 more being discussed at various levels. These will further alter the fabric of Gaza society to make it a more fundamentalist Islamist society. Again, it remains to be seen how far Hamas will be going with this.
- As far as trade is concerned, Hamas has also mandated that in clothes shops, it is illegal for men to sell women’s clothes and for women to sell men’s clothes, again segregating the sexes. On a humorous note, I challenged my newlywed colleague, Gabi Kando, who accompanied me on the trip to buy clothes for his wife from Gaza!
- Male teenagers who have long hair or wear fashionable clothes are now arrested, taken away, reportedly beaten up with their heads shaved and sent back on the street with stern warnings to abide by “decent” appearance. Two youth from the Holy Family School got this treatment during our visit.
- Students who attend the public school system are subjected to weekly classes in fundamentalist Islamic indoctrination, with students being drilled and raised with no tolerance to anything that is not Islamic — a truly sad dimension of life in Gaza under Hamas, and certainly not an environment based on respect, human rights, tolerance and acceptance of the other.
- The attack on the Holy Family School a few days before our arrival is another example of the lawlessness that is prevalent despite Hamas’ iron fist. Youth who jumped the fences of the school after hours to play on the school premises were asked to leave by the principal. They returned to the school with their “buddies,” creating havoc and causing damage by burning the school doors and breaking the security cameras as well as many glass windows before the police intervened. For the sake of maintaining good neighborly relations, all charges were dropped and the perpetrators are on the street again. The conflict was dealt with as a local domestic event and resolved in a cultural Palestinian “Sulha” of mediation and reconciliation by drinking a cup of coffee! Too many “‘what-ifs?” went through my mind listening to how the brutality unfolded and how it was eventually resolved.
Every trip to Gaza leaves me with very mixed feelings. On one hand, I am very happy with the progress made on all our projects in Gaza, with clear successes in all areas. However, it is very depressing to see the recent developments regarding life at large with what Hamas is trying to do. Clearly the Christian community will be paying the heaviest price should these trends continue. We certainly can take the easy road and phase out of Gaza, or alternatively continue to concentrate on the bright spots and successes and build on them and continue to be in solidarity with our small but vibrant Christian community there. I have no doubt in my mind that we need to take the road less traveled and continue to be agents of hope in Gaza. The continued support of our many donors for our work in Gaza is truly appreciated. We hope we can continue to count on your support of the poor and weak!
Our work in Gaza would have been impossible without the generous support of the following donors: Archdiocese of Cologne; Manus Unidas; Kindermissionswerk; Misereor; Kinderhilfe Bethlehem; Caritas Switzerland; Caritas Luxembourg; Secours Catholique; the Grand Magisterium of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem and its lieutenancy in Holland; Embrace the Middle East; donors who wish to remain anonymous; and CNEWA’s generous donors throughout Canada and the United States.