During this visit, we were accompanied by a senior level group from Misereor, the aid agency of the Catholic Church in Germany, which has partnered with us and our colleague, Mr. Joseph Hazboun. This was his first time to the Gaza Strip. We wanted to introduce our friends at Misereor to the institutions and people they have supported for many years so that they have an honest hands-on account of the real Gaza and its desperate situation. We also wanted to monitor and evaluate CNEWA/Pontifical Mission of Palestine’s ongoing projects, many of which are related to the emergency intervention as well as discuss with our various partners current and future needs. Finally, we hoped our presence in Gaza demonstrates our commitment to helping the people of Gaza where many continue to feel abandoned and are losing hope. I am very happy to report that the visit was a great success in meeting all its goals.
Visit with Misereor to NECC, Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, Rosary Sisters School and Shija’ia neighborhood
After the Erez clearance, we made quick visit to the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) Clinic in Shija’ia to observe a psychosocial session in progress. We were told that some of the women — whom lived in the destroyed neighborhood, had lost their loved ones or lost their homes and are now homeless, live with either family members or in makeshift ‘school shelters’ which are still open. It was amazing to see how these mothers are so resilient despite their enormous loss and have the courage to speak with our guests. A common message that was said: “Despite what you hear about us, we love life — we want to live in peace — enough is enough — help stop the wars — tell our story to the world — and thank you for being with us”. Powerful messages that truly touched our hearts!
We also headed to the NECC’s Vocational Training Center where a carpentry, blacksmithing and aluminum training workshops were already in session; over 100 young students were in class learning about the trade. If a serious reconstruction effort was launched to rebuild the roughly 100,000 structures destroyed by three wars in the past five years, these students will be immediately employed. However, the unfortunate continuation of the ‘status quo’ for Gaza, meaning that its economy will continue to be underdeveloped and youth will join the thousands upon thousands of unemployed people in the Gaza Strip who cannot find work. It must be very difficult for them not knowing what the future holds yet their spirits were high and could still joke and laugh.
Thereafter, we met with Ms. Suhaila Tarazi, director of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital to inform us on the Misereor-funded psychosocial program. We met with some of the participants — mainly women who come from various locations throughout the Gaza Strip. Their message was very similar to that of the women at the NECC clinic. Interestingly, there was a small exhibit of the drawings made by the women’s children who also attended the children’s psychosocial sessions. Most of the drawings were particularly depressing with depictions of destruction, missiles and military planes, people weeping, the use of dark colors and other negative images of war. Certainly the ugliness of war in a child’s eyes was reflected through those drawings. Yet, it was uplifting throughout our visit at the hospital to hear the message of appreciation and financial support for the patients of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. Ms. Tarazi went to great lengths to thank Misereor and all of CNEWA/PMP’s partner donors for their outstanding generosity to procure much needed medicines, medical supplies, fuel and medical coverage for the needy. Without the funds, the hospital would have simply shutdown and surely patients would have lost their lives. Ms. Tarazi stressed that these contributions made a substantial difference especially during an active war.
Next on our itinerary was the Rosary Sisters School to inspect the rehabilitation work to the school grounds completed after the war and enabled the school to open in time for the 2014-2015 academic school year but also visit the 9th and 10th grade classes whom we visited previously. For those of you who have not seen this 7 minute encounter of the 9th grade students, please take time to watch the video. It was touching to meet the students again and listen to their stories. Most touching was their appreciation for our support and solidarity which was very much appreciated.
The last place we visited for the day was the Shija’ia neighborhood which sustained large scale destruction, especially the two completely destroyed buildings of the Wafa Hospital. The scenes were beyond imagination! Not only was the hospital completely destroyed, but also the entire neighborhood surrounding it. We met some of the neighborhood residents who are still living in the remnants of their destroyed homes even in the middle of winter. In fact, we were in the midst of a sand storm which had some of the worst pollution levels in five years. The residents who we spoke with were very angry with many issues: the two political factions, Fatah and Hamas, for doing nothing to ease their suffering and for the lack of progress to reconcile; at UNRWA for not doing enough to help reconstruct; and at the international community for not denouncing war for the people of Gaza; and at Israel for destroying life in Gaza. Yet despite all the suffering and anger, there was a clear message of resilience and faith. They always concluded with a simple phrase “this is our destiny and we have to thank God for everything!!!”
As we concluded our visits with Misereor for the day, I felt very blessed to have had the chance to accompany the Misereor delegation and listen to the spiritual message of Misereor’s President Msgr. Pirmin Spiegel. Words cannot express our deepest appreciation from this humble priest who truly inspired those we met to keep their faith and hope alive!
Progress of the Emergency’s Psychosocial Intervention
After bidding farewell to our partners from Misereor, we started the second day with visits to other psychosocial programs. Throughout our visits to the psychosocial sessions, the sight of children enjoying the activities and having fun was most refreshing to see.
- The Ashtar Theater Group program has been launched at five public schools serving around 1,500 5th and 6th graders. According to Ashtar, this program was the first time Hamas’s Ministry of Education in Gaza approved a ‘drama and theatrical arts’ program in public schools. Ashtar Theater Group is hopeful that this breakthrough is only the beginning of the process to change the ‘traditional culture’ of education in Gaza. The beauty of the program is that it provides jobs for 33 young drama counselors.
- The Women’s Graduate Society program is also ground breaking as psychosocial workshops are currently underway for public schools and kindergartens that are deemed by the Ministry of Education as the neediest. These programs also provide employment opportunities to about 30 unemployed women who were trained in psychosocial counseling through our 2012 emergency program. We visited Shuhada Al-Mintar School where around 300 girls were participating in an ‘open day’ — a term for outdoor competitive sports activities, games and activities. The smiles of these young girls are worth a million words, and make our intervention truly meaningful.
- YMCA — Gaza was visited when it was already after dark and all psychosocial activities for the day ended, but we had a chance to speak with YMCA members as well as staff of the kindergarten. In addition to the in-house activities, a number of ‘open days’ were arranged for families living in the destroyed neighborhoods. The members mentioned a particular ‘open day’ that was held at Zanna — a neighborhood in the southern part of the Gaza Strip near Khan Younis. The organizers expected about 150 children to attend but instead were met with over 600 children who heard about the event in addition to local authorities who wanted to thank the YMCA team for selecting their neighborhood for the event.
Update on Christian Students Scholarship Program
Besides CNEWA/PMP’s emergency intervention, we also visited other projects currently underway. One such program is the Christian Student’s Scholarship Program which has provided financial aid for needy Christian students studying at Gaza universities since 2010 and has in fact graduated seven students. During this visit, we launched the second phase with 11 needy students who are in need of financial aid. Meeting the students was again one of the highlights of the visit; to hear their stories, frustrations and aspirations especially for the eight women students who are Christian, studying in very Islamic surroundings and dealing with the effects of the Gaza blockade. These young students are also part of an age group (16-35 year olds) who are considered by Israel as a security threat and are barred from entering Israel or the West Bank.
It is never easy visiting Gaza in normal circumstances let alone after a brutal war. To hear people say that “Gaza’s situation as it stands today is worse than it was during the 51-day war in the summer” is quite a depressing statement. However, this was to be expected considering the current state of affairs:
- Gaza continues to live under a severe blockade which has not improved since the end of the war in August 2014;
- The Rafah crossing with Egypt is nearly shut-down and only allowed to open for 2-3 days every two months in order to allow the transfer of severe medical cases;
- Most, if not all tunnels with Egypt have been destroyed meaning that the only supplies going into Gaza are those supplied from Israel at Israeli prices (Egyptian fuel used to sell for about NIS 2.5 per liter while now Israeli prices prevail at about NIS 7 per liter);
- The cost of all food items and basic commodities are 3-4 times more expensive;
- No meaningful reconstruction efforts have begun and thus the economy is at near standstill with unemployment reaching 70 percent especially the younger age bracket;
- Government employee salaries of either Fatah or Hamas continue to be unpaid;
- Personal debt is at a record high causing serious social and economic problems;
- Electricity is supplied between 6-8 hours per day;
- Basic water and sewage infrastructure are still not back to pre-war levels (which was a disaster in the making before the war);
- There is a lack of basic law and order as poverty gets more rooted and petty theft and crime is on the rise;
- Islamic fanaticism and the influence from the Islamic State are of great concern to Gazans, especially for the Christian community.
I must admit that the despair and frustration level seems to be very high and is cross-cutting within all areas of society. Six months after the war, hope seems to be lost as people feel completely trapped and see ‘no light at the end of the tunnel’. Most people feel that short of a miracle, the next war is just around the corner!
The Desperate Plea — Moving Forward
During our visits in the past few months, there were three main needs repeatedly mentioned to us. The first desperate plea was an expansion and/or extension of the psychosocial intervention for children and adults. Most people we spoke with believe that the level of trauma continues to be dangerously high and there is great value in psychosocial counseling which are regarded by Gazans as extremely helpful to deal with the unrelenting, seemingly impossible situation. One official specifically told me, “If you cannot fix the physical damages, at least help our people fix the psychological damages”. Over the next few weeks, we will continue to host discussions with our various partners in Gaza to see how best to meet this particular need.
Another need which was unanimously mentioned by locals was the need for work; to develop a job creation program that generates employment opportunities and allows people to make a dignified living. Over the next few weeks, we will continue to discuss with our local partners in Gaza on how best to move forward.
As for the third need, it falls within our strategic intervention in Gaza; to help strengthen institutions of the Churches. In fact, there is a new level of community respect and appreciation for Christian institutions for their generous aid and support for the destitute during the war. Additionally, given the problems faced by Middle East Christians in general, it is also important to support the Christian institutions’ programs which indirectly encourage interfaith dialogue. In all of these critical needs stated above, we look to our generous donors who supported the emergency intervention, to help ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.
We have a grave humanitarian situation in Gaza. People are desperate to get their voices heard, calling for reconciliation, peace and justice. A declaration that there is true injustice imposed on Gaza’s population of 1.8 million people and that they deservingly need a better life.
We want our donors to know that their financial and moral support is very much appreciated by the people of Gaza. Your solidarity has helped them move forward, have faith and hope despite the misery surrounding them. Many people who spoke with me have said that they continuously pray for us and for the donors who helped them in their time of need. Likewise, let us all reciprocate and keep praying for Gaza and its people. They deserve a better life!