Interview with Sami El-Yousef

JERUSALEM (CNS) — After a year that included dealing with the fallout of the Israeli-Gaza war, Sami El-Yousef is ready to begin focusing efforts on projects aimed at helping Palestinians take charge of their lives.

El-Yousef has spent nearly a year as regional director of the Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem field office.

“I see our role as (helping) get people back in charge of their own affairs and getting on the right track. We are starting to think what’s next, what’s the next phase,” said the Jerusalem native and former vice president for finances and planning at Bethlehem University.

With the almost-constant cycle of violence and crisis in the area, it has been a challenge for the mission to move forward with society-building projects, he said.

“We were starting to think of income-generating projects, youth projects that would put these people on their feet, and then the war (happened) and our attention (went) back to the war and emergency aid and rebuilding … going back to the charity mentality,” he said.

Now, he added, as things have stabilized to a certain extent, he would like to see projects implemented that will help the Palestinians control their own lives.

“They don’t want handouts; they say they are losing their dignity and it is not good for the spirit of (their) children,” said El-Yousef, who received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and his master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Pope Pius XII created the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in 1949 as a temporary mission to aid the Palestinian people, but 61 years later the mission is still providing subsidies and other aid for Palestinians. The mission, which falls under the direction of the Vatican’s Catholic Near East Welfare Association, has regional offices in Jerusalem, Beirut and Amman, Jordan.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, with the blessing of Pope Paul VI, the Pontifical Mission began to build and support a network of institutions, including Christian Brothers-run Bethlehem University, the Pope Paul VI Ephpheta Institute for the deaf and the Near East Council of Churches’ mother and child clinics in the Gaza Strip.

El-Yousef said his office is considering a proposal to help young Palestinian college graduates by helping them find jobs at public or private institutions for a specific period while the Pontifical Mission subsidizes their salaries.

He foresees a job-creation program that includes a microcredit component to also help people start their own businesses. One aspect of the project would include training courses so such businesses are sustainable into the future, he said.

A new housing project managed by the Pontifical Mission is another way to ensure people begin to take charge of their own affairs rather than wait for charity assistance, he said. The skeleton of the first 40 units of the new apartment project in East Jerusalem is expected to be complete by August. The new apartment owners have taken out mortgages, which were facilitated by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and will be responsible for paying off their own debts to the bank — an opportunity that normally does not exist within the Palestinian economy.

“This is getting people away from the charity mentality. This is not the church giving them houses,” said El-Yousef.

He said the key word for all these projects is systematic. Mortgages for the apartments have been given out systematically by the bank, loans for the small-business project will be given out systematically, as will be the training — thereby, El-Yousef believes, improving the chances of success.

Noting that youth development is of vital importance for the future of Palestinian leadership, he said he would also like to broaden youth development projects such as those involving the Christian Scouts, helping them realize their international connection with the international Scouting movement. In 2009, the Pontifical Mission helped with some 112 youth projects, including summer camps, sport programs and donations to youth centers.

El-Yousef said he anticipated the completion in the next few months of an assessment of the Christian community to determine its needs and the best way to provide services to avoid duplicate projects by Christian aid groups.

In addition, he said the year 2011 will see more Pontifical Mission involvement in assisting Christians living in Israel.

About 150,000 Christians live in Israel, mostly in the Galilee, while there are some 45,000 Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza, he said.

“The Christian community in Israel has their needs and if we neglect them, there is fear that they will begin to emigrate, and in 40 to 50 years we will see the same situation that happened to the Christians in Palestine,” said El-Yousef.

He said he was pleased to see at a recent Rome meeting of a special group of donor agencies, known by the Italian acronym ROACO, that much of his thinking is in line with the perspective of international aid agencies that provide assistance in the region and with the document for October Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.

He said he is specifically satisfied with the document’s entreaties to local Christians to integrate themselves into the communities in which they live, noting that in recent years the Palestinian Christian community has become more insular.

“Christians should not look at themselves as a minority with their history. They should see themselves as an integral part of society rather than becoming enclosed on themselves. We are trying to strengthen the Christian presence and strengthen Christian institutions … fully realizing that the beneficiaries are the Palestinian people at large,” he said.

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