Promoting confidence and dignity amongst East Jerusalem’s youth

Growing up in occupied East Jerusalem does not allow a chance at a ‘normal’ childhood. The constant presence of an occupying military force means that young Palestinians are exposed daily to the threat of violence and arrest, harassment, and even the seizure or destruction of their homes.

Last year, these daily challenges to the psychological wellbeing and basic rights and dignity of Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem only increased. More demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures in East Jerusalem were recorded in 2019 than in any other year in the last 15 years. Violent clashes over the summer resulted in 138 Palestinians being injured and one killed by Israeli security forces between June and August in the community of Al ‘Isawiya alone, amid what Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem called “daily law enforcement and collective punishment raids. ” Terrifying armed raids on homes – usually in the middle of the night – often result in the arrest and interrogation of young people and children, in some case enduring physical and verbal threats and abuse.

More widely, restrictions on Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem imposed by the Israeli authorities erodes the Palestinian social and cultural fabric of the city, while the Separation Wall built around it fractures ties with residents of the rest of the West Bank. In the Old City of East Jerusalem too, home seizures and harassment by settlers create a tense environment for young people.

Surrounded by these threats and tensions, it is essential that Palestinian youth have safe spaces where they can express themselves, grow their confidence, and release stress. Thorough our partnership with Al Saraya Centre, MAP is providing just that.

The Saraya Centre, nestled in the heart of the Old City, provides a range of activities for Palestinian children from East Jerusalem, from ages 6 to 17.

These activities aim to help young people develop life skills, safely discuss the daily challenges they face, and learn about Palestinian culture and heritage in a safe and welcoming environment. The Centre’s Director, Hiyam Elayan, told us about their work.

“Here in the centre we work with between 50 and 80 children every day. We divide them into different age groups and run activities to support their creativity and to help them to develop essential life skills. We work in a fun way, which the children enjoy. They play, read and discuss stories, create music, dance – there is always something new for them to try.”

“Importantly the centre is a safe place for the children. We support them to come together to meet and talk through their problems.”

“It is hard for many of the children to truly understand themselves and their heritage because of the situation of occupation. For instance, talking about Palestinian history in schools in East Jerusalem is not allowed, and this greatly effects children’s self-esteem, particularly teenagers.”

“Each year we run summer camps. We focus on giving the children new experiences. Last summer, the children visited different professions to help inspire their ambitions for the future. They went to a bakery, tried making mosaics and Palestinian sweets, practiced photography skills and attended writing courses. They also visited different Palestinian industries in the West Bank, to learn about other job opportunities after school, and to encourage them to be really proud of their Palestinian identity and to better understand the situation of Palestinians outside of East Jerusalem. We also ran dabke dancing workshops, drama activities, made handicrafts and went on a swimming trip. They had many experiences they don’t get in schools, like taking part in a chemistry experiment they hadn’t seen before. The children have a lot of fun during the month-long summer camps. We make sure every day there is something new for them to experience and try.”

“Part of our work is also in schools to help tackle the extremely high dropout rates of students in East Jerusalem, which has reached more than 40% and sometimes is as high as 50%.”

“One issue we help to address is that a lot of students don’t know how to read and write. By working on education, we’re helping to keep children in schools.”

“I’m really proud of our centre’s work. We see our older children making a lot of initiatives, both inside schools and in their community, to help support other children. It’s great to see that after spending time here, the children become more aware of what they want to do to help others.”

Through our partnership with the Saraya Centre, MAP is helping to support the psychological wellbeing and dignity of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem, encouraging them to develop a sense of confidence and pride as individuals, respect and support for each other, and a sense of belonging as members of the Palestinian community.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of our supporter magazine, Witness.

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