Interview: How violence and discrimination in East Jerusalem is impacting vital youth psychosocial services

Ongoing Palestinian protests against forced displacements and systematic discrimination in occupied East Jerusalem have been met with excessive force and mass arrests, including against children. This has compounded the stresses and insecurity faced by young Palestinians growing up in the context of Israel’s military occupation and annexation.

Medical Aid for Palestinians supports Al Saraya Centre, in the heart of the Old City of East Jerusalem, to provide psychosocial support services and empowerment activities for Palestinian youth. We spoke to Nida'a Dweik, Resource Development and PR Officer at Al Saraya, to hear how the current violence is affecting their work and the young people they serve.

Can you describe the current situation in East Jerusalem?

It is very stressful. Jerusalem is becoming a military base more than ever before. Since Ramadan, we have not had a peaceful night. Settlers are roaming around the streets safely while Palestinians are constantly provoked and attacked. We are witnessing an increased wave of discriminatory policies and excessive use of force against women, children, and youth.

How has the current violence affected your work?

We are worried and living in constant fear. All our staff members and people we work with feel unsafe. Even before the escalation of attacks and violence against Palestinian protesters recently, the situation in the Old City of Jerusalem was woeful and distressing. Israel is constantly working on erasing our presence in the Old City and erasing our identity, culture, and heritage.

The aim of Al Saraya Centre is to build a safe place for Palestinian children, youth, and their parents. The location of the centre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, is at the heart of a constant conflict which makes our work more challenging yet very essential for every Jerusalemite. We have been providing psychosocial support to Jerusalemites who have been subjected to oppression, violence, and injustice for more than 30 years.

Most of the people we work with grew up in the Old City and witnessed the expansion of settlers’ domination and the increased presence of the military. They are threatening our existence, presence, and identity.

Since the start of the recent events across the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), which were sparked by Israel's decision to close off the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem – another public place which Israeli forces are trying to dominate and control – our activities at Al Saraya Centre were affected and halted. We were only able to return to work at the centre recently.

The current situation in Jerusalem required us to build a proper emergency plan to serve the needs of our beneficiaries. We paused all of our activities to respond to the needs of the people in the Old City of Jerusalem. We have provided legal aid and assistance for the detained children and their families. We have also provided mental health and social support for the youth and their parents. We have built a needs assessment survey for the parents so we can respectively respond to their needs.

"The reality that they are living today continues to deprive them of their childhood. Children in the Old City have not felt safe to go to their schools in the past month, and this has had a tremendous impact on their educational development." 
How has the situation impacted the lives of the children and young people who come to the centre?

Unfortunately, in the first weeks of the violence, we were not able to assess the impact of the events on the children we work with because the centre was closed. However, the current situation has had a tremendous impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of everyone living in Jerusalem.

This week, throughout our discussions and activities, some of the children and the youth have shared with us their experiences after being attacked by settlers and Israeli forces in the Old City. Some were beaten and attacked in front of their family members or their friends. They have reported feelings of frustration, fear and insecurity in their own neighborhood. Al Saraya team was able to see the physical and mental bruises on the children and the youth.

We were worried about the safety of the children and the youth on their way to the centre, therefore we have not been doing any activities for the past month, but we have been in direct contact with the children we work with. Seven boys aged 13 and 16 were recently arrested and we have employed lawyers to defend them. The children who were detained were under administrative detention and not even their lawyers knew what their charges were. The Israeli judicial system doesn’t see Palestinian children as children, but rather as criminals who need to be punished.

Most of the young people we work with have participated in the protests. They felt it was their duty to protect the Old City. I feel like their childhood has been stolen as they are reclaiming and protecting their space in the city. From following the videos on social media, you can see how fearless they are in front of armed soldiers, but also their frustration during the current situation.

The reality that they are living today continues to deprive them of their childhood. Children in the Old City have not felt safe to go to their schools in the past month, and this has had a tremendous impact on their educational development. Moreover, Israel is revoking the health insurance of those who participated in demonstrations as a tool to deter them and prevent them from demonstrating.

What is your message to the international community?

I do not really have a message to the international community. Palestinians in Jerusalem feel alone more than ever before. The international community has followed the violations of Palestinians’ rights silently, without any meaningful action defending our rights and presence. I hope that the international community will take action to stop the ongoing injustice and violence that we are experiencing and has become part of our daily life. Living in Jerusalem has become unbearable, and the international community can play a vital role in stopping these violations and holding Israel accountable.

I am happy to see scenes of the unity of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Palestinian citizens of Israel. We are hoping to see more scenes of unity and solidarity from all over the world with the Palestinian cause.

I only wish that our children and youth will be able to grow up in peace and pursue their dreams. At Al Saraya Centre we will continue to empower and protect our children and youth by providing our psychosocial support in these difficult times.

Photo: A child with a social worker from Al Saraya Centre in Jerusalem's Old City.

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