ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Oases in the Desert

New playgrounds in the Holy Land deliver happiness and hope for war-weary children and adults alike.

In a land too-long associated with destruction and death, bullets and shelling, a new type of project stands out for its unique nature and special healing abilities: a playground.

The primary victims of adult-created conflict are always children, and the children of Israel and Palestine are no exception. The escalation of violence since September 2000 has not only claimed children among its wounded and dead; it has also tragically impacted their lives, virtually destroying “normal” activities such as sports and playtime. The disappearance of youngsters’ opportunity for play, especially in open, public areas, is just part of the “collateral damage” of the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land.

Several generations of children in the Holy Land have grown up without the opportunity to enjoy the freedom of play, and they have never seen a real playground. But now that has changed. Playgrounds are up and running in conflict-scarred Ramallah, Bethlehem and Gaza. These three new playgrounds have become a dream come true all because one woman from New York visited the area and quietly observed, “But the children have no place to play.”

Determined to remedy the situation, Marie Doty and her husband, George, decided to provide CNEWA with the funds to build and equip playgrounds and related facilities in all three municipalities.

“Sometimes we are asked, ‘Why do you build parks when there is such a great need for hospitals, schools – the basics of life?’ “ says Mill Hill Missionary Father Guido Gockel, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel.

“My response is, ‘People have a soul, and the soul needs to be fed with beauty. The spirit in them needs to play in order to find joy. And joy, in turn, feeds their hope.’

“In a situation like this,” he continues, “where there is so little hope, so little joy and almost no play, this aspect of development is so important. A playground may not seem like a necessity of life, but it is a necessity for the spirit, the spirit that needs to find joy and peace.”

Both joy and peace have been in tragically short supply in the Holy Land for many years now. Since 1993, the systematic construction and encroachment of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories have meant land confiscations, destroyed homes and businesses, and the diversion of the water supply throughout the West Bank and Gaza. In the past 18 months the situation has worsened, with road closures, curfews and increased military action creating a strangle hold on daily life for the Palestinian people.

Considering the staggering poverty that chokes Palestinian communities, the playgrounds offer a small but important oasis in a desert of despair.

The playground in Ramallah, named Family Park, is run by Nahla Qourah. A librarian by profession whose love for God and children is a driving force, Nahla is not only park director but also head of the Cultural Department of Ramallah and head librarian at the Ramallah Public Library.

The park opened in 1997, and both the park and its activities are coordinated with the library and the Ramallah Child Center. Soon the center will establish mobile libraries to encourage reading habits and develop cultural awareness among children and parents alike.

The day I arrived was a special day: The center and grounds were being readied for a birthday party. Area families can reserve the center for a block of time for parties and gatherings. This gives a child the opportunity to spend his or her very own day in safety and in a colorful, clean and fun environment, far away from a dreary or even demolished home. But the parties are just a blip in the park’s busy schedule. Between the private celebrations, an estimated 400 to 600 children and parents visit Family Park daily.

Our group left Ramallah and traveled south along winding hills to Bethlehem. As we approached the grounds and handsome building made possible by the Dotys, the staff pointed out a large green area. There, against the dry and rocky land was a plateau of green grass – a real luxury in Palestine. Above it, the hillside was a mosaic of color: flowers and swings and slides, children’s school uniforms, the hijabs or headscarves of mothers.

This oasis is Marie Doty Park. The property, donated by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, comprises a steep slope with three levels. Large trees grace the slope and provide welcome shade, but also lend a natural beauty to the picnic areas on the lowest terrace.

The park has various play areas built on the multilevel terraces. They are connected by paved walkways for mothers with strollers. The upper terrace is for younger children; a lower area offers space for the livelier activities of older youngsters. In addition, the park’s building, constructed of attractive Jerusalem stone, houses a cafeteria and kitchen as well as an indoor game room and more play areas. The multipurpose building ensures that even inclement weather won’t put a damper on the children’s recreation.

Here, in the “little town” immortalized by Jesus’ birth, the families of Bethlehem now have a place to play and relax – a place where the giggles and shouts of games replace terror and despair; where ethnic background, religious affiliation and politics fade, at least for a short while, as children concentrate, rightly, on the business at hand: play.

Southwest of Bethlehem is the Gaza Strip. This is the most impoverished area of the Palestinian Territories and home to numerous refugee camps. Some of Gaza’s residents have been in this “temporary” housing since 1948 when they fled their homes or were dispossessed by the formation of the new State of Israel.

Here, poverty and despair live alongside rage and rampant unemployment. On the Gaza Strip alone, 80 percent of the residents live well below the poverty line – existing on roughly $2 per day per person – in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. More than one million residents try to survive on the 84-square-mile strip, land that lacks true roads and an adequate sewage system.

Beach Camp and its Nasser neighborhood are among dozens of Gaza Strip camps. They are crisscrossed by hundreds of narrow, sand-clogged alleys where raw sewage flows daily – the only place children have to play. The children of Beach Camp pay the price: By age 4, 85 percent of them – the highest percentage of all the Gaza camps – are infected with ascariasis, or roundworm.

In the midst of this poverty and a terribly unstable political and economic atmosphere, there is a new haven for children – and by extension, for the adults in Beach Camp as well. This is the site of the Dotys’ third playground, Brotherhood Park. Here children and adults find a safe place to call their own and an escape from the reality of life under occupation.

On the day of my visit, Brotherhood Park was a busy and popular place. Its playgrounds, clean and comfortable facilities, flowers and landscaped surroundings proved a welcome respite for grown-ups as well as children. Children ran and jumped while mothers sat on nearby benches, chatting with one another while keeping one eye on the younger set.

Like its counterpart in Bethlehem, one of the main attractions of Brotherhood Park is the expanse of green grass. At both parks, one can often see children experience the fun of sliding down the green hillside or just rolling around in the grass of the first “lawn” they have ever known.

Besides its beautiful landscaping – with flowers, trees and a picnic area – the park offers an open stage for budding actors as well as basketball, volleyball and handball courts for future athletes. It also features a full kitchen and cafeteria, and indoor game and playrooms.

According to Father Gockel, these parks provide not only a place to congregate and play; they also make their own small but significant contribution toward building peace.

“If you really believe in God, you believe in paradise – not just a paradise up above, but one that we build here on earth, too, with peace and beauty and hope,” he said.

“When we give people paradise, we help them let go of their weapons.”

With their beautiful and safe environments, the parks offer a needed escape for the families of Ramallah, Gaza and Bethlehem. These parks cannot halt the shelling or put an end to the death and destruction occurring almost daily. But they offer small rays of hope for the children – the future – of the turbulent Holy Land.

A photojournalist, Mercy Sister Christian Molidor is special assistant to CNEWA’s secretary general.

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