GAZA – The situation in Gaza Strip has worsened since the start of the “Great March of Return” and clashes at the border have killed more than 120 and injured thousands of Palestinians. Mr. Sami El-Yousef, Chief Executive Officer of the Latin Patriarchate, just came back from one of his bimonthly visits to Gaza. He sheds light upon the role played by the Church there and provides us with reasons to have hope.
A humanitarian crisis
“Little things you take for granted become huge challenges” Mr. El-Yousef noticed about the daily life of Gazans and said that he was struck by the deterioration of the humanitarian situation since his last visit. In Gaza, electricity runs for only three hours per day while hygienic situation is catastrophic and only 5% of the houses have access to running water. You sometimes have to wait half an hour for the water pump to restart to rinse your hair. As for watching a football match in one go, it is like reaching for the stars. Furthermore, the traces of Israeli bombing in summer 2014 are still present: many infrastructures were not rebuilt.
For some time now, the situation has worsened even more. Residents are running out of money because neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas are paying wages – or only part of it – for their lack of cash. Hospitals such as Al Ahli Arab Hospital are overwhelmed by the armed repression of demonstrations at the border: since the beginning of the “Great March of Return”, there has been more than a thousand Palestinian amputee cases. Israelis are reinforcing the blockade, banning the entry of new goods. In this desperate situation, tensions grow quickly, so does insecurity. Indeed, the lack of ability to make plans for the future leads to rising tensions. What will be the future? A brutal war, the continuation of the blockade or a slow deterioration of the situation? Unemployment also continues to rise. Affecting 55% of working people in the Strip and 70% of the young people, it is a social scourge that prevents young people from building their lives and starting a family that they will have to take care of. Christians, who endures the economic situation and the Gaza siege just as much as their fellow Muslims, also suffer from this blight.
Young, Christian and Gazan: it makes a lot
If there is indeed less and less Christians in Gaza – 138 Catholics out of 1000 Christians –, Graduates or even many young Christians are determined to stay with their families on their land. For them, the priority is economic stability and development. Qualified or even overqualified, after having graduated from prestigious universities, they struggle to find work in their field – increasing unemployment is the direct repercussion of the blockade. While many scholarships have enabled the emergence of a young skilled and educated generation, 90% of young people do not find a first job after leaving university. Furthermore, their condition as a Christian does not help them, quite the reverse.
This is why the Church decided to tackle the problem of unemployment. Great ills require great remedies. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is intending to provide young people the chance to engage in dignified and productive works through offering temporary job placements for one year in the non-governmental and private sectors of Gaza. The goal is to have these young people hired in for positions that match their qualifications. So, a person will be working at the Bank of Palestine, a teacher in a school, etc. Their wages will be paid by the Latin Patriarchate for one year. This whole year shall help young people gain work experiences and life skills that will allow them to stand out for future potential employers when the program ends. Funded by the German Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, the program can be renewed according to the funds available. Yet, the new program will widen the range of opportunities and include all private and non-governmental sectors like hospitals, banks, schools, engineering firms and various institutions in Gaza. Among the requirements, each youth must provide one hour of volunteer work for the church to encourage them to involve themselves in the parishes. As for the companies, they shall pay for youth transportation allowances in order to show commitment; moreover, they can choose to employ them at their own expenses for an additional period.
To fight the plague of unemployment, Fr. Mario da Silva, the Parish priest of the Holy Family Church, will open a Christian educational training center to help them gain self-confidence and develop their skills to enter more easily on the job market. They shall focus on the English language, IT and computer as well as leadership and staff management. This program provides young people the capacity building and wider work experience as an integral approach for preparing them for professional growth and development in the future.
Glimmers of hope in the chaos
The Christian presence somewhat softens the bitter reality. Although many Christians emigrated from the Strip, the Christian institutions remain. There are five Christian schools in the Gaza Strip, including three Catholic, that host 3000 students, including 170 Christians. The Missionaries of Charity serve the weakest, especially the disabled. The Latin Patriarchate keeps building and renovating in order to make the future possible. In the Latin School of the Holy Family, the inner courtyard and the playground are being renovated; the construction of a courtyard to shade the courtyard is forthcoming. The Missionaries of Charity have built a new building for elderly people and the Sisters of the Rosary are also expanding their premises.
The Latin parish is also in a turmoil of activities. After having successfully completed a summer camp of two hundred young people, the tireless Fr. Mario da Silva organizes sessions every afternoon for each age group: study of the Bible, meeting of young people, sport practices. This Christian presence is appreciated and its value recognized – as in the war of 2014 when people in danger had found shelter in schools and churches buildings. It helps to foster the resilience (soumoud) that characterizes Palestinians. Then Christians are indeed “the salt of the earth”.