Report on Christian institutions in Gaza


A two-day visit to Gaza in late August marked my third visit in six months. I was accompanied on this last visit by two staff members from our office in Jerusalem, Gabi Kando, who has made frequent visits to Gaza prior to the last war of December 2008, and Abeer Atallah, who made her first visit ever. I was happy to have company with me on this trip since I thought they can be a bit more objective in their assessment and we can reflect more clearly on what we observe. After a brief and courteous encounter at Erez on the Israeli side and by Hamas on the Palestinian side, we were off to fulfill a rather ambitious schedule to visit as many Christian institutions as possible. In a marathon visit we were able to make 11 site visits, mostly to Christian institutions, listen to their concerns, ambitions, and plans for the future, and try to be as supportive as possible.

Near East Council of Churches (NECC)

A strong partnership ties NECC with Pontifical Mission that dates back over 15 years. Last year in particular, that partnership grew stronger given the blockade and the travel restrictions, our staff could not enter the Gaza Strip for a long time. When the war ended in January 2009, it was not before March 2010 that I was able to make my first visit to Gaza. During that critical period when we needed a partner to implement critical emergency interventions, we counted on NECC to be that solid reliable and accountable partner. A meeting with the members of the executive board was necessary to thank our partners on behalf of our donors for a job well done. The results and impact of our intervention in Gaza after the war — primarily through the NECC — are evident to all. Thus, this was our opportunity to sit face-to-face and evaluate the work that was completed and to project ahead ways to meet the continuing challenges of the coming period. A strategic discussion took place that helped us focus on what needs continue to be unmet and how we can plan ahead for the next 2-3 years to help alleviate the suffering and meet some of those needs. A plan of action was agreed to build on the successes, especially in continuing the “cash assistance program for needy families” as well as embark upon a job creation project for recent university and vocational centers graduates. This will not only put people to work, but also assist institutions to hire new graduates and expand their services. Hopefully, these programs will start in the early part of 2011.

NECC Clinic at Darraj Neighborhood, Gaza City

NECC Darraj Clinic is one of the subsidized clinics of Pontifical Mission, meaning that we provide an annual subsidy toward their operating costs. The clinic was very crowded at the time of our arrival and it is no wonder since it serves a densely populated neighborhood (75,000 residents in a 6 area). There are a number of specialized units within the clinic such as prenatal and antenatal care, baby wellness and child care, fertility awareness, general clinic, malnutrition unit, as well as a psychosocial program that assists people who are still coping with the aftermath of the war. Not all units operate every day given the small size of the clinic, but a complex schedule ensures that all specialties are offered every week.

The clinic reported that over the past several months, and given the hottest month of August on record, there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases relating to skin disease and chronic diarrhea. Compounding the problem for residents of Al-Darraj as well as most of the Gaza Strip are the electricity outages that reaches some 8 hours per day, the lack of proper water and sanitation treatment facilities and garbage collection — all that have lead to very poor sanitary conditions.

Electricity outages are the clinic’s main concern as it damages medical equipment and refrigerated medicines. At the present time, the clinic purchased a heavy duty generator that will ensure it has uninterrupted power supply during hours of operation. We were told that a purchase order was issued for the power generator and also for a dental unit that should be installed in the next few weeks…

NECC Clinic at Shajaia Neighborhood, Gaza City

Shija’ia Clinic is the second of three clinics that we subsidize through the NECC. This particular one has a special place in our hearts since the Pontifical Mission — with the generosity of many donors — helped rebuild, refurbish and equip it after being completely destroyed by an Israeli missile attack in January 2009. This clinic currently serves some 85,000 residents of Shija’ia neighborhood, providing similar services to those at Darraj Clinic, except that Shija’ia’s facilities are newer and more advanced. Over the next few weeks, it is expected that a power generator and a new dental unit will also be supplied which will further enhance the services at this clinic.

In a casual discussion with the pharmacist on site, he explained that in normal circumstances, they used to have a complete supply of medicines for one full year; now their supply is down to two months, which surprisingly seemed to satisfy him given that there were times when the supply was down to one week.

Having been at the clinic twice before, I desperately needed some affirmation from my colleagues about my earlier assessments of the clinics. When I saw Abeer sitting on the floor coloring with several children who were involved in the clinic’s psychosocial therapy sessions, I realized that our job in reestablishing the clinic was complete, and we can walk out the door knowing that 85,000 residents are well served because of our emergency intervention. Gabi on the other hand could only feel sorry for all the workers and patients in the clinic for what he termed “noise pollution” or the loud noise from the makeshift, primitive generator that was running while we were there. Hopefully in a few weeks, the new generators equipped with noise insulation will be installed.

NECC’s Qarrarah Vocational Training Center (VTC) in Khan Younis

Through one of our labor intensive grants, we assisted NECC’s Qarrarah Vocational Training Center in Khan Younis by constructing an additional training room that helped enhance facilities and will allow more students to study disciplines that are in high demand, such as electrical engineering. Our brief visit entailed the inspection of the work and a meeting with director of the VTC to discuss future plans as a result of this expansion. He was happy to report that the VTC can now admit more students starting this coming fall that will help meet the growing demand for electricians in the Gaza Strip.

In addition to this vocational training center, NECC operates another two vocational training centers in Gaza that also offer a wide variety of programs including carpentry, blacksmith/ aluminum works, tailoring and sewing and an executive secretarial program. The demand on these various programs is quite high though the current job opportunities in some of these disciplines are in question given the continuing blockade. However, many feel that once building supplies are allowed back into Gaza and the long awaited building boom starts, these trainees will be in high demand and will have a profession in hand.

Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, Gaza City

This hospital was built in 1907 by the Anglican Church, which continues to operate it. The hospital has a total of 80 beds, only 50 of which are used at the present time given the financial difficulties. Hospital staff report that the electric generator works non-stop 18 hours per day, which is wearing it down dramatically given the heaviest duty generators are not made for long-term use. The cost of running the generator to ensure uninterrupted power supply, especially to a hospital that has surgical theaters, is $18,000 per month!

Despite the difficulties, this hospital offers a varied number of services through its maternity, outpatient clinics, emergency rooms, including intensive care, gynecology, pediatrics, ENT and general surgery in addition to physiotherapy departments.

Another major component of the hospital’s work is its involvement with the community through its community outreach program, supporting the elderly, women and children in marginalized neighborhoods. Screening and transportation are provided in their early diagnostic prevention program in a variety of fields including breast cancer. For example, if a patient is unable to come to the hospital, a team of medical staff will visit the patient at their home providing diagnostic tests and treatment when necessary. Most of the services are free, but in some cases for a minimal fee. In fact, I was shocked to hear that a delivery including a three-day mandatory stay at the newly opened maternity ward, including a newborn wellness program, costs a mere NIS 200 (approximately $50). Needless to say, many cannot even afford to pay this negligible fee. We toured all the wards in this spotless hospital and discussed some of the emerging needs in operating support, equipment, program costs and moved on without a concrete plan, but we have many ideas.

Myrrh Bearers Greek Orthodox Society

This voluntary women’s group works under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church. The society claims the Greek Orthodox Church has the largest concentration of Christians in Gaza.
Official statistics put the number of Christians at about 3,000 in a population of some 1.5 million.
However, a recent unofficial survey by the society puts the number at about half the official statistics at 1,500. Regardless of the number, the strength of the Christian community lies in its institutions and its services whether in education, health or social fields, serving all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

An interesting project the society would like to embark upon is a small business in dressmaking, tailoring all uniforms in collaboration with local Christian schools, hospitals and clinics. This will not only create jobs but also help Christian families depend less on charity, restoring dignity and taking charge of their lives again. We congratulated the Myrrh Bearers Greek Orthodox Society for their efforts and informed them that their proposal has been submitted to a number of donor agencies in hopes that some funding will be generated to jump-start their project.

Young Men Christian Association (YMCA)

In a discussion with the director of the YMCA, it was evident to me that this Y is like no other as its services adapt to the current realities and needs of Gaza. Started in 1952 on land donated by the Egyptian governor of Gaza at that time, the Y now offers a wide variety of services including operating a kindergarten, a strong athletics program in all major sports, leading training and community works management programs and a children’s human rights program. In addition, it organized a fine arts program until two years ago. During the war, the staff of the Y shifted to provide emergency aid and relief to alleviate the suffering of the displaced.

Approximately 25 percent of the recipients of the Y’s services are Christians of various ages. The premise was full of energy upon our arrival as children, youth, men and women as well as a few elderly members were actively engaged in various athletic and recreational activities. This is the only place in Gaza that provides recreation in a “mixed” environment and certainly a great asset to the families who live in prison-like conditions. Recently, the Y’s facilities were attacked in separate incidents by extremists with a clear message: there should not be interaction between the sexes with an expectation that activities are segregated — a move that will not materialize at this Y. We discussed ways in which we can be of assistance, especially in rehabilitating the children’s playground, the damaged library, as well as possible support for youth activities.

Holy Family School

The Latin Patriarchate operates two mixed schools in the Gaza Strip, one at the location of the Holy Family Church in the Zeitoun neighborhood and another, newer school at the upscale Remal neighborhood. Between the two schools, over 1,000 boys and girls (a mere 5 percent of whom are Christian) receive a fine education. There are major renovation and construction projects going on at both schools. Fr. George Hernandes, parish priest and director of the schools, highlighted some of the needs of the school. Our discussion concluded a number of ways in which we can be of assistance in the church’s programs, especially supporting youth activities and cultural activities, scout troop formation, and sports teams for the Christian youth.

Brotherhood Park, Shate’ Refugee Camp, Gaza City

Brotherhood Park serves one of the largest refugee camps in Gaza: Shate’ (Beach) refugee camp which was established on land donated by the municipality in 2000 to the Pontifical Mission with generous funding from the Doty Family Foundation. In my previous visits, I witnessed the effects of the war as well as the normal wear and tear on this park. A report and proposal was submitted shortly thereafter to the Doty Foundation, who in turn agreed to fund renovation and refurbishment of the park. This visit entailed the inspection of the work in progress: the installation of new playground equipment, restrooms, snack booth and park benches in addition to major restoration work to all of the picnic tables and flower beds, revamping the cafeteria and the basketball courts including fresh paint as well as fixing damaged doors and windows. The few children that were on site — given it was mid-day during the month of Ramadan — were clearly happy about the changes to the park. Additional work in progress was pointed out by the contractor who also took the opportunity to share with us his frustrations during the implementation of the project. Due to the fact that there are few parks in Gaza and so many people utilize Brotherhood Park, the municipality actually forbade the contractor to close the park during the project period, which meant that at times, he was working to lay concrete and tile among hundreds of children who continued to use the park’s facilities.

Gaza Municipality

A hastily arranged meeting at the municipality took place upon the insistence of the mayor who learned we were in Gaza to inspect the works. He wanted to meet with us in person to present a small token of appreciation for doing the restoration work at Brotherhood Park. Additionally, the mayor offered a 10 dunum plot of municipal land for the purpose of converting it into another park that will serve all of the people of Gaza. He acknowledged that there is a grave shortage of parks in Gaza and 1.5 million of its residents living in the most densely populated place on earth have little or no access to any green space. He pleaded with us to try to find a donor to help alleviate the daily pressures experienced by people of all ages so that they too have access to a safe, clean recreational place.

Rosary Sisters School

In previous visits, I was unsuccessful in meeting with Sr. Davida Twal, Director of the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza. We were all so glad to finally have a chance to meet this energetic dedicated educator. She shared with us many stories, some disturbing ones of the difficulties of running a Catholic “mixed” school in a predominately conservative Muslim environment. The school is built on land donated by the late President Arafat, who personally inaugurated it when it was opened along with his wife Suha. The kindergarten was later named after his only daughter, Zahwa, who attended the kindergarten in her tender years. Currently the school runs through the 10th grade and includes 600 boys and girls — only 50 are Christian. We discussed with her the needs of the school, which includes a long-term expansion project to bring the school eventually to the 12th grade (Phase one would include building a multipurpose hall for various activities on school property located adjacent to the school). We asked Sr. Davida to provide us with tentative plans and cost estimates for phase one so that we try to match her needs with potential donors.

Greek Orthodox Cultural Center and Scout Troop

Our last stop was the Greek Orthodox Cultural
Center and Scout Troop, where the society’s summer camp was held in an unfinished building that they hope one day will be a vibrant cultural center serving all Gazans. The organizers of the scout troop discussed their needs, especially the need for new scout equipment, tools and tents in order to hold scout activities throughout the year. Given that Pontifical Mission has a long history of supporting youth and scout movements, we pledged to be of assistance in the very near future.

The building’s skeleton and infrastructure including the basement and the first two floors: a gymnasium, indoor athletic rooms, a large kitchen and cafeteria, an amphitheater, meeting rooms and other facilities is already standing tall. The huge structure was the dream of the largest denomination of Christians in Gaza. Once the financial resources were no longer available, the project was put on hold until the situation improves and additional funding is secured to complete this cultural center with a hotel on top to ensure self sustenance in the future! The society needs some $1.7 million to complete the building, finish the work as well as furnish and equip it. Those in charge of the project have no doubt it will be completed one day, a truly Christian Gazan spirit!

Final Observations and Thoughts

This third visit may have been the most difficult for me given that we had more time than previous visits. This allowed me to observe and discuss with a wider constituency. I was very proud of the quality services that are provided by the church-affiliated institutions to the people of Gaza without consideration to creed, gender or age. Men and women, boys and girls, youth and seniors, Christians and Muslims, refugee camp and city dwellers all benefited from these institutions’ services. All I could think of is how we can strengthen these institutions and ensure they remain solid pillars of the health, education and social service horizon of Gaza. Through them, we also need to strengthen the indigenous Christian presence to ensure these institutions stay open and stay strong.

Life in Gaza is not easy. While the government there tolerates Christian institutions and the Christian presence, it is clear that adopting a more conservative Islamic way of life does conflict at times with the more open society these Christian institutions and individuals are accustomed to.

There is an uneasy balance that seems to be maintained and holding thus far. It is certainly not easy for a teenage girl who follows a literary Tawjihi stream and finishes tenth grade and has no option but to complete her high school education in the public school system and finds herself being veiled to go to school. Neither it is easy for college-age females who are locked up in Gaza due to the blockade and want to get a college education and have no choice other than the Gazan universities and again must be veiled to go to classes. This also applies to men and women, boys and girls engaged in joint sports activities at the local YMCA who feel that they are under the watchful eye of a conservative class that does not approve of gender integrated activities.

There are other trivial matters that affect Christians, too, such as the Muslim ban on the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. These may be little inconveniences and some of them actually may be good for you, but these are additional restrictions Christians have to deal with on top of the pressures and restrictions of the occupation and the blockade. There are no easy answers, but one needs to be aware of the difficulties of daily life in Gaza, especially to the Christian community, and to appreciate the need to strengthen the Christian institutions and the Christian presence. There are many possibilities for assistance, and we hope to be able to fundraise and implement some of the projects in the near future.

After all, Christian institutions promote Christian values of worship, love, respect, honesty, humility, hope, forgiveness, compassion, integrity and self discipline among others. Gaza can only be a better place if these values are ingrained in society, and what better way to do this other than to strengthen the Christian institutions and empower them to continue to provide their services to all Palestinians alike with these values in mind.

If you would like to contribute to any of the institutions mentioned in the above document which is also listed below, you can contact the Pontifical Mission-Jerusalem for further information and/or requests for concrete proposals.

Institution:Proposed project:
Near East Council of Churches (NECC)a. Support the cash assistance program for needy Gaza families
b. Support the vocational training program and temporary employment opportunities for 50 VTC students
c. Support the vocational training program and 50 ex-university graduates
Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, Gaza CityHire local medical personnel to increase the services at the hospital and reach its full capacity
Myrrh Bearers Greek Orthodox SocietySupport the society’s dressmaking project that supports Christian institutions in Gaza
YMCAHelp rehabilitate the children’s playground, re-establish the damaged library or support youth activities
Holy Family SchoolHelp support youth activities and cultural activities, scout troop formation, and sports teams for Christian youth.
Gaza MunicipalityHelp establish a municipal public park for the people of Gaza
Rosary Sisters SchoolHelp the school build a multipurpose hall for various activities on school property located adjacent to the school, which will help bring the school closer to establishing the 11th and 12th grade levels.
Greek Orthodox Cultural Center and Scout TroopHelp the Greek Orthodox society establish a cultural center to complete the construction work as well as furnish and equip the center.

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