What does the future hold for Gaza's youth?

Monday, March 07, 2011

  • RS3260_gaza11jeffrey-204025-scr.jpgChildren play football along the beach in Gaza. Although the Palestinian territory fronts the sea, Gazans are not allowed to venture more than two kilometers from shore without coming under fire from Israeli gunboats.
  • RS3263_gaza11jeffrey-204030-scr.jpgA boy kicks the ball over his head as children play football along the beach in Gaza. Although the Palestinian territory fronts the sea, Gazans are not allowed to venture more than two kilometers from shore without coming under fire from Israeli gunboats.
  • RS3265_gaza11jeffrey-205135-scr.jpgAdham Khalil, a youth activist, walks along a street in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
  • RS3267_gaza11jeffrey-205142-scr.jpgYoung women in Gaza participate in a group activity at the Alassria Cultural Center in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The center is supported by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organisation from the United States.
  • RS3269_gaza11jeffrey-205150-scr.jpgAdham Khalil, a youth activist, talks with a group of young people at the Alassria Cultural Center in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The center is supported by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization from the United States.
  • RS3273_gaza11jeffrey-205169-scr.jpgYoung women in Gaza participate in a group discussion at the Alassria Cultural Center in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The center is supported by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organisation from the United States.
  • RS3274_gaza11jeffrey-205173-scr.jpgSarah Al Salibi, 19, is a university student, studying English literature, and lives in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. She is an active participant in the Alassria Cultural Center (or Al-Asryia), which is supported by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organisation from the United States.
  • RS3280_gaza11jeffrey-2080496-scr.jpgTawfiq Al-Sagyer (left) and Mahmoud El-Farul (right), both 20 years old, work on an electrical motor in a vocational training center in al-Qarara, in the Gaza Strip. Sponsored by the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, part of the ACT Alliance, the center trains youth in residential and industrial electrical work.
  • RS3283_gaza11jeffrey-2080559-scr.jpgParticipants in the electrical course at a vocational training center in al-Qarara, in the Gaza Strip. Sponsored by the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, part of the ACT Alliance, the center trains youth in residential and industrial electrical work.
  • RS3284_gaza11jeffrey-2080562-scr.jpgMahmoud Mohel Abu-Lebda teaches at a vocational training center in al-Qarara, in the Gaza Strip. Sponsored by the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, part of the ACT Alliance, the center trains youth in residential and industrial electrical work.
  • RS3288_gaza11jeffrey-2081294-scr.jpgYoung men work on electrical wiring in a vocational training center in al-Qarara, in the Gaza Strip. Sponsored by the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, part of the ACT Alliance, the center trains youth in residential and industrial electrical work.

By Phoebe Greenwood, journalist

"This generation faces challenges that didn’t exist in all of our history. No Palestinian child before this generation has lived through this kind of war, which used a very strange and destructive kind of weapon. No generation has seen this level of poverty… It marks them. It affects their imaginations, their dreams, their personalities.” Hiba Bakheet, 28, psychosocial support leader at the Darraj Family Centre, Gaza City.

At least 780,000 children in Gaza are under the age of 18. This is a generation that has grown up in one of the most turbulent, bloody and poverty-ridden periods in Gaza’s history.

Anyone younger than 20 will have vivid recollections of the second intifada, a bloody period of violent resistance from 2000 to 2005 in which 6500 Palestinians and more than 1100 Israelis were killed. They will have witnessed the rise of Islamic extremists Hamas to power in Gaza in 2006, followed shortly by a violent separation between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas that divided Gaza from the West Bank. In June 2007, when Hamas tried to eject Fatah officials from Gaza, many people were killed and injured in a week of intense fighting.

Shortly after this violent upheaval, Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza, imposing tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza. This blockade is still in place and 1.5 million Gazans remain trapped.

In late 2008, Israel launched its most recent and deadliest incursion into Gaza – Operation Cast Lead. In this three-week offensive, 1400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children were killed, more than 4000 buildings, including 18 schools, were destroyed. Many still haven’t been repaired or rebuilt.

The attack on December 27 was launched during school hours, when many students were sitting down to exams. Others were either on their way to school for the afternoon shift, or returning home. The United Nations has warned repeatedly that the psychological impact of this conflict will scar a generation.

According to a survey conducted by the Department of Psychology at Gaza’s Islamic University, presented at a World Health Organisation conference in November 2008, the blockade has also had a significant affect on the psychological wellbeing of children in Gaza.

It found that 51% of the children surveyed do not have the desire to participate in activities, while 47% of them are no longer able to work properly at home or at school. Another 41% complained of aches and pains while 48% were suffering from lower energy and malnutrition, 43% of children had difficult sleeping and about 63% complained of anxiety.

It is undeniable that has been little hope, safety or freedom afforded to Gaza’s youth. Their future is precarious. Since Israel announced its "ease" on restrictions in late 2010, UN figures show that unemployment in Gaza actually rose from 44.3 percent to 45.4 percent.

Mohamed Tayeh, director of the East Jerusalem YMCA branch in Gaza City, an ACT Alliance member, predicts the suffering of this generation will have a lasting impact on the region:

“The youth in Gaza are suffering hugely from the political situation here. Such a big number of graduates are unemployed. There are no jobs, no houses… they are angry. They spend most of the night awake and most of the day sleeping because they are unemployed. This is the normal routine for youth here. They don’t have anywhere to go nowadays, only the YMCA Gaza.

“It’s not a matter of parties or factions here - it’s about the suffering of ordinary people. We have a gleam of hope when you see in Tunisia what the youth have done and in Egypt. If there will be any change here, it will be led by our youth and the change will come out of frustration, not a peaceful life.”

ACT at the coalface in Gaza

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), an ACT partner, funds psychosocial support for children and their parents at MECC family health centres, including the Darraj Family Service Centre. MECC provides vocational training in carpentry, electrics, secretarial skills and dress making at centres across Gaza. Quaker Palestine Youth Program, an ACT member. runs a popular achievement programme in Gaza enabling young people to campaign for change in their communities.

At the Darraj Family Service Centre, MECC's Hiba Bakheet, 28, leads the psychosocial support groups. She tells journalist Phoebe Greenwood about the challenges of supporting children traumatised by fighting and poverty.

"The girls here today are from the neighbourhood, their families come to the clinic. They haven’t been identified as needing special help, they’ve just come to play. But I find maybe two to three in every group that needs psychological support.

We take a different theme and use different activities in every session but I always talk with the girls about their problems at school, at home and how they are feeling about those problems.

I observe the girls as they play and make a case study for each child to discover if each one has a social or psychological problem. Once I’ve identified those girls, I work alone with them in interviews and personal sessions. I try to help them with these problems and then see how well they integrate back with the group.

The most common problems are fear and poverty. The children are afraid of the war, they feel like anything could happen. It’s very clear that Palestinian children’s speech depends on what they hear from the media and from their family, both of who are saying another war could happen.

And poverty is behind almost all of the other problem behaviour in children face, lying, stealing, hyperactivity… I work with them on all these problems to try and improve their behaviour. Poverty is the root problem that causes all others.

When a father doesn’t earn any money to meet the needs of his family he become anxious, he maybe beats the mother in front of their children, who in turns hits the children who then hit each other. There is a cycle of domestic violence in Gaza that stems from poverty.

This generation faces challenges that didn’t exist in all of our history. No Palestinian child before this generation has lived through this kind of war, which used a very strange and destructive kind of weapon. No generation has see this level of poverty.

When I was a child, the border with Israel was open. Now these children ask me, what does ‘mountain’ mean? They haven’t seen a desert; they haven’t even seen trees. They live in these three or four streets, between their home, their school and this centre. It marks them. It affects their imaginations, their dreams, their personalities.

I want at least a wider space for the children to play in, with green areas and fresh air. Not inside this medical centre."

Happy just to play

Hadil Hamada, 10, and Jomanah Hamada, 9, are cousins. They have been coming to Darraj Family Service Centre play group every Friday for two years.

Hadil: I come here because I feel happy here. I can play.

Jumane: I come here to play. We don’t play the sort of games we play here at home.

Hadil: At home I help my mother with the housework but most of the time we’re told to sit and be quiet.

Hadil: My dad used to be an accountant but now he’s unemployed.

Jumane: My dad was employed by Palestinian Television here in Gaza but because of the situation he can’t work anymore.

Hadil: We have a small piece of land by our house and my dad spends most of his time there growing vegetables.

Jumane: My father used to check what we needed in the house, in the kitchen, then would go to the market and bring it back.

Hadil: It was much better at home when dad was working. I don’t like him to stay around the house like a mother. When he’s at home, I don’t have the space or time to play.

Jumane: My dad is more strict.

Hadil: When I can, I like to play to relax. And read books. I like to read information books especially about historical people. I like to read about prophet Mohammed best.

If the situation in Gaza improved and it became more civilised here, I’d like to be a doctor when I grow up. But if it doesn’t, I suppose I’ll be a teacher.

It’s not civilised now here. To be civilised you need to be able to travel abroad and to learn. We can’t do that. You need to bring equipment to the hospitals and the schools. These things aren’t here now.

Hadil: My life has changed a lot since the war. There are lots of people from the neighbourhood who aren’t around anymore. They died.

Jumane: During the war, our old house was bombed on the roof and bullets came through the sides. Now we’ve moved to a new house that feels safer because it’s covered in concrete. Our old house had metal sheets on the roof.

Hadil: I saw a lot of dead bodies during the war. Some were without heads and some had parts cut off from their bodies. They were full of blood. I still dream about them.

I haven’t spoken to anyone about what I saw. I don’t tell my mum about my nightmares because even she is still scared.

Jumane: I’m afraid there will be a war again. I don’t want to leave my house again. I don’t want to go and live with my grandfather like we did last time or go and shelter in the school.

Hadil: I hope Gaza will be more civilised one day.

Pushing for change, peacefully

Adham Khalim, 25, social worker, and Sarah Al Salibi, 19, English literature student, are both trainers on the Quaker’s Popular Achievement Programme talk about the struggle for a peaceful revolution.

Adham: The popular achievement programme is different. It allows young people to choose a problem they see in their society, then create an initiative to solve this problem. We train youth about everything from civic engagement projects to writing their CV. It’s not just about letting the youth having a voice it’s about planting seeds of hope. The most important thing is that we believe in peaceful way of change.

Last summer, I was detained by Hamas. I had been sitting with my friend on the beach. She wasn’t wearing a scarf and I was laughing and singing and there is no legal relationship between us- she is neither my wife or my sister. They accused us of not respecting Islamic rules. After that I signed a promise to the government to respect the traditions and the rules. I respect Islam of course but this is a social and political situation.

I wrote an article recently about what is right and what is wrong – our culture or the culture of Jack and Rose from the movie Titanic. We see scenes of romance and love in Western movies and we fall in love with their heroes. But after the film finishes we are back again in this situation. We love the way of the heroes and it’s the opposite to our culture and the Islamic way.

I believe in using Facebook as a way for change. I write about everything on my Facebook status - what’s happening in Tunisia, in Egypt, about Hamas. I think Facebook is a good thing but at the same time it has side affects.  After the revolutions in the Arab world we are more aware about Facebook as means of social change.

During Cast Lead and ever since, people here use Facebook in a different way – not just for entertainment. If we have problems with the division between Palestinian factions [Hamas and Fatah], corruption or if someone has their freedom of expression violated, we talk about it on Facebook.

We have universities, we have restaurants, we have culture we have everything here. We don’t need just humanitarian aid and money. Sometimes it makes me angry when I’m talking on the Internet and people say “Adham, do you have internet there?” I’m like yes I have Internet. I have a laptop. I don’t live in a tent.

But life here is very hard. Maybe I have more of a chance more than others. I have a job, I have my friends I can feel comfortable with and talk to. If you have a good family, good health and good friends, then you can have a life in Gaza. But if you don’t have even one of those things, then God help you.

I think the people who will ultimately lose their and their peace as a result of the blockade will actually be the Israelis. The blockade in Gaza is generating extremist youth. In the future, there will be no chance for discussion with these people. The blockade is killing the faces of hope now.

I personally believe in a peaceful struggle against the Israeli occupation. But I don’t guarantee I will keep thinking like this if Israel continues its blockade. Maybe I will move to the other side. Not because I believe in the militant way but because I can no longer justify believing in peace when Israel continues with this policy. It is killing the people who believe in this peace. It is giving a cake to the extremists.

Our generation has already seen a rise in extremism. Where else do they have to go? Our options here are Hamas or Islamic Jihad. That is no choice.

Sarah: The Popular Achievement Programme was a whole new experience for me. I learned so many things through it. Before I thought about democracy as a purely political practice but through the PA programme I understood it as something we should practice everyday in our lives, in our family, in our school.

The idea of volunteer work appealed to me. I really wanted to be part of my society.  I was just 14 when I took part in the programme and the only girl who took part. At the time, girls weren’t aware of the possibility of such engagement in their society. They had a very small view of life.

I think young people here are disillusioned. In my school when I was talking about the programme they were saying: “what do you do there, what is the point?”

Now, on Facebook they made many groups of Gazans supporting revolution in Tunisian and Egypt. They are against oppression and they support them [the protestors] because they want to do the same here. They want a revolution against oppression, against the political division between Fatah and Hamas.

When I write on Facebook “we want change” or “Our situation is going to change” they post comments like “don’t dream”. They think nothing is going to change. Many people are hopeless but there are some who are optimistic as well, like me.

It is a bit different here because we don’t have a united government to revolt against. We have two. Why are we revolting? Because of Hamas or Fatah? We want to revolt against them both. We want a united government. We want Gaza and West Bank to feel like one country. Anything is possible.

We can see the affect of the blockade on many young people living here. They are sick and tired of what’s going on here so many are choosing to leave. They have the that the moment you leave Gaza, a job will come to you and you’ll be a rich man and you’ll have everything. This is completely wrong. You are what you are wherever you are in the world, in Norway, in America. If you have the determination and the ability to work you have it here and you have it there.

Many are frustrated and they say that ‘Why do we live?” We know we’re not going to get a job, we know we’re not going to have a good life so they stop doing things. They stop living. I think that’s the main affect of the blockade.

Panic at the prospect of unemployment

At the MECC electrician youth training workshop in Khan Yunis, Gaza, student Hamse Abu Jajahou, 21, talks about his panic at being unemployed.

"This is my first year on the course. I graduated from high school in 2007 and in 2010 finished my diploma at Al Aqsa in information communication technology. I am a computer network programmer but there’s not so much demand for IT here. I graduated second in my year but I still couldn’t find a job when I left.

I always wanted to be a computer engineer. I tried hard for four months to get a job after university and when I saw there was nothing I applied for this course.

I knew about it from my brother who was a student here. He works at the electricity company now, in distribution.

I have five brothers and seven sisters. Of my two older brothers one is unemployed and the other works from the electricity company.

I started to panic when I couldn’t find a job. Only one out of 25 of my class at university has a job and it’s temporary, entering data for a health centre for a  year. The others are unemployed. Before the blockade, maybe 10% would have been unemployed.

I’m not frustrated because I look for solutions. But not everyone feels this way. A lot of my friends are frustrated. The biggest challenge for us here in Gaza is unemployment, the second is security and the occupation.

We can’t travel like our parents could. I’d go to any country I could find a job, even Darfur.

I enjoy installation most on this course, things like ceiling fans, it’s very easy.

I hope I will have a job when I leave here. Maybe at the electricity company or any place I can find an opportunity."

Learning a profession better than life in the tunnels

Electrician student Abdullah Nam Rooti, 21, was hugely relieved to get a place on the MECC electricians course, rather than face a future working in the deadly tunnels.

"It’s my second year here. I came directly from high school. I found out about the course from my uncle, he studied here. He has his own business now selling installations to homes.

I have five brothers and one sister. I am the fourth. One works, in a factory making wire fencing, the others are unemployed. My father is a taxi driver, sometimes he works, sometimes he doesn’t.

I live in Khan Yunis – there is less work there than in Gaza City. I was very excited to get my place on the course because there is so much competition. Most people I went to school with are unemployed.

Most who can’t find work are working in the tunnels. Israel’s recent easing measures mean that that work has slowed down too – building things are more readily available from Israel now.

Some of my friends were injured working in the tunnels. One time, a tunnel collapsed at two points and trapped three of my friends.

If I hadn’t got on this course I would have worked in the tunnels too. I would have been very scared to do this work. It’s very frustrating that this is the only work available to us.

It would be better if we could work outside. I would go any place that offered me work. It’s possible I’ll get work in Gaza when I graduate from this course. I’d prefer that, I’d prefer to live here.

I like to work rewire motors best. I’ll work with electric generators, people who need generators will need me."