This has been the first visit to Gaza since Israeli authorities placed a ban on East Jerusalem ID holders back in July 2015. Though the ban is still in effect, a limited number of permits were allowed, and I feel lucky to be one of the few approved.
Upon arrival in Gaza, there seemed to be a general feeling that life is gradually returning to “normal.” Traffic was busy and more people were on the streets; shops seemed sufficiently stocked with no lines at gas stations. There were also a limited number of construction projects and more workers doing odd jobs. People seemed more relaxed than in previous visits. The two main streets (Salah Eddin Street and Beach Street) crossing Gaza from the north to the south have been widened and paved with new street lamps and beautiful landscaping, and the promenade area has been totally refurbished.
However, when one digs deeper into the situation, it is clear that not much has really changed. Electricity is still on either 6 or 8 hour shifts; unemployment continues at an all-time high; the Rafah borders continue to be tightly closed, severely limiting travel; the fragile industrial base is still in ruins; prices of goods and services are through the roof; and most of the people who lost their homes during previous wars continue to face extreme temporary living conditions. The hoped for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas continues to be a dream. Thus, for all practical purposes, not much has changed, except that the people of Gaza have become resigned to their current state of affairs and accustomed to living on much less than their counterparts in the West Bank, and certainly with much lower standards than their neighbors in Israel. For now, they seem content with what is available to them. There is a strange sense that life must go on regardless of the harsh reality on the ground.
During our three day trip to Gaza, we were able to visit all of our partner institutions where projects are ongoing or just concluding. This included visits to the Ahli Arab Hospital, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC), the YMCA, the Holy Family School, the Latin Convent, the Rosary Sisters School, the Women’s Graduates Society as well as the Brotherhood Park at Shate’ Refugee Camp. We only received good news about the work of the institutions at large, and the implementation of the projects funded by CNEWA — Pontifical Mission with the generous support of many donors.
Below are some highlights:
Ahli Arab Hospital
The malnutrition program is currently supporting hundreds of children aged 3 months to 6 years.
Graduates of Scholarship Program: Dalia Tarazi (Acct.) and Ibrahim Tarazi (IT) employed at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital as part of the PMP Job Creation Program.
The psychosocial program just concluded, after supporting hundreds of mothers and children for a period of one year immediately after the war. It was uplifting to hear sometestimonies from some of the participants that came from the most devastated neighborhoods.
An unexpected surprise was to see two of the students who recently graduated from our scholarship program employed at Al-Ahli through the ‘training and job creation program’ alongside doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and other professionals. The experience gained will be invaluable in securing permanent employment in the future.
The diesel electric generator to replace the old, malfunctioning generator will be installed within the coming days to ensure uninterrupted power supply, saving lives.
The medical fund set up to relieve the suffering of sick and old patients has already covered the treatment and medical costs of over 215 people in Gaza.
Near East Council of Churches
As part of our monitoring, we visited the job creation project at NECC which included two field visits; we visited the Red Crescent Society and the Palestinian Union for the Disabled.
A meeting with the administration of the NECC was also uplifting. We were briefed on the other projects supported — including the psychosocial program at the three clinics and the procurement of electric generators, an ultrasound machine and other equipment for the clinics, as well as support for the antenatal program. where hundreds of children are served.
Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)
Along with some of the YMCA board members, we visited Al-Mashtal Sports Club, where a friendly soccer match was in progress between their team and that of the YMCA, which is sponsored through our three-year youth support program. It was exciting to see these young players in action and to see the results of their rigorous training. Over 110 kids (5 teams) are part of the program.
A field visit to the YMCA premises was conducted where the final stages of the renovation program funded by USAID through ANERA was in progress. Once finished, the YMCA will have a soccer field equipped with natural grass and bleachers, changing rooms and restrooms. Also the cafeteria and other facilities will be completely renovated. This is a major expansion and improvement of facilities that will undoubtedly expand their services.
A briefing was given by the Chair on projects funded by other donors, which means that the YMCA has really come a long way from its relatively “sleepy” status of just a few years ago. Their involvement with the community at large is a very positive development. YMCA Football Team is supported by a CNEWA-PMP three-year youth project.
Holy Family Latin Parish
Father Mario da Silva gave us a briefing regarding the continuing challenges facing the Christian community in Gaza.
A meeting with 4 of the 5 participants in the Latin Parish 2-year job creation program was most encouraging. The employment project has turned their lives around and given them a new lease on life.
A field visit of the Latin convent premises followed, where a major restoration project is ongoing. The Parish Hall renovated and equipped by CNEWA — Pontifical Mission includes a library, a gymnasium, and a kitchen to support the activities of the parish.
Rosary Sisters School
The security system has been installed to provide a safer environment for the students and teachers, and to protect the complex.
The administration gave a briefing about the progress of the school which is continuously expanding, now reaching close to 900 students.
Women’s Graduates Society
The administration briefed us about the psychosocial project that was just completed which lasted for one year after the war. Tens of schools and kindergartens were involved, and thousands of students were served during the year, while dozens of women graduates were employed and earned a dignified income.
Renovations and re-equipping this park at Shate’ Refugee Camp — a park established by the Doty Family in the U.S., which is continuously supporting its upkeep — is underway and is expected to be completed in about two months.
Meeting with the Catholic School Principals
A joint meeting took place with the three Catholic school principals (Holy Family School, Latin Patriarchate School, and the Rosary Sisters School) to discuss how to support the local community in Gaza through the schools. After lengthy discussions, we agreed that we will concentrate our efforts in the coming year in three major areas:
- Establish a Tawjihi literary stream at one or more of the Catholic Schools, hopefully starting in September 2016.
- Support the development of a training program for the teachers of the catechism classes to develop their skills.
- Work through the parish to strengthen the Sunday school program and expand the catechism program, targeting those Christian students who are enrolled in non-Christian schools in Gaza.
Meeting with the Scholarship Program Students
The Christian student’s scholarship program which started in 2010 has been expanded to provide 22 scholarships starting in the Fall 2015. A meeting took place where 20 of the students were in attendance, along with some of their parents. An open exchange took place about life in the Christian community in Gaza, focusing on their aspirations and ongoing challenges. While there was general agreement that life in Gaza is very difficult indeed, these brave souls were looking for ways to enhance their lives. A critical and urgent priority is the need to support job creation programs or income generation projects. Thus job creation projects for young Christians should continue to be on top of our priority list into the near future. On a very positive note, eight of the students from this scholarship program have already graduated; seven of them remained and are all working — some through our job creation initiatives — while one emigrated. This has been an excellent track record so far.
This truly has been one of the most uplifting visits to Gaza in a very long time. In terms of the Christian institutions, many continue to expand their premises or renovate existing space in order to enhance their services. As I said on many occasions before, these are thriving institutions with big plans for the future. They are there to stay.
As far as the Christian community is concerned, I came back with mixed feelings. There continues to be a number of Christians (and many Muslims) who do not see much hope for a better life in Gaza in the foreseeable future and continue to talk about emigration. However, there are also strong voices — especially among youth — saying that if the tools of survival are provided, then there is no reason to leave. They are proud to call themselves Palestinian and Christian and genuinely wish to remain. Our challenge is not to disappoint them, and work to provide them with support to ensure that they stay. Thus, programs like supporting the Christian institutions, scholarship support, and job creation programs are a must for our future planning.
In conclusion, I cannot be happier than the results of our work in Gaza for the past few years. Christian service institutions are working more closely than at any other time in the past. The Christian institutions are also expanding and offering better services and programs that aim to integrate the Christian community into the society. Despite all the odds and challenges, these are very encouraging signs for the future.
Let us all collectively continue to support Gaza and its people — and more importantly keep them in our prayers so that they do not lose their faith and hope.