Capacity building

mum smilingI spoke to my husband on the phone last night and we talked about what we’re going to do when I get back. I said I want to go and see my Mum on Sunday. He’s a wise soul my hubby and said: Well, let’s see shall we? I’m expecting you to have a bit of a boo and fall apart a bit on Sunday.

He’s probably not wrong. It does feel like I’m keep a lot at bay at the moment, inevitably when you’ve seen and heard things and been to places that are so desperate and upsetting. Things that make you so angry you want to tear your own hair out.

But my colleague Neil and I were discussing how we both feel like the ping ponging around the region, moving from the West Bank and Jerusalem, to Galilee to Gaza then back to Jerusalem has been hard going but the contrasts have helped us not become too overwhelmed in one place. Before we know it we’re in another area so different it makes it feel like the previous location was another world. It all adds to my sense of dislocation and distance from the time and place. I was in Gaza the day before yesterday but it seems like weeks ago.

But sadly they’re not another world.  I’ve been in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank and I’ve been in plush restaurants and shopping precincts in Israel. I’ve seen fear and trepidation on a young IDF soldier’s face. I’ve been taken to a rather nice fish restaurant in Gaza. It’s a mass of contradiction. It’s a mess of corruption and occupation.

But nothing is simple. My reaction to it isn’t simple.

let all you doI spent yesterday meeting people at two different projects Embrace funds. The first is the Princess Basma Rehabilitation Centre in East Jerusalem, a highly esteemed facility for Palestinians, specifically disabled children and their families. Disabilities exist in high numbers in the region for many reasons including lack of education about inter-marriage. Small farming communities still promote the marriage of close cousins to ensure land stays in the family. Stigma is also still there – the disabled aren’t disabled but lazy, the parents are the cause of the disability. But the Centre is doing amazing work to help those with disabilities, their families and is equipping parents, especially mums to go back to their communities and change the way people see their children. They’re hoping to extend their capacity by building relationships with community based organisations who can deliver similar programmes in their own areas – which would be extremely helpful given the restrictions on movement for many Palestinians. There’s also a school and a vocational training facility – a sheltered workshop where the participants make the most beautiful furniture I have ever seen.

Then, I met an 11 year old girl who is supported to attend a school in the Old City through the Embrace education fund. We spent time with her at school, met her little sister in the kindergarten then went back to her home to meet her Dad, brother and see how and where they live. The young girl is shy, until we ask her what she would like to do in her future: “I want to be an actor” she says, throwing her hands in the air. Where would you live if you could live anywherewall? “America” she says again! I ask her to show me how she spends her free time – a concept she doesn’t really understand. She goes to school, she does her homework, and she works in the house then goes to bed. But she does show me how she likes to watch videos on her dad’s ancient computer so she can learn how to act.

The family told us long stories of how the conflict impacts their lives. We talked about their hope for the future and once again I was sad, but not in the least surprised to hear that the hope they have is in being able to leave the region at some point.

Seeing these things and meeting people, hearing their stories is so important. I feel I will be a better communications officer now I have visited and can even more honestly talk about the things I need to communicate. We talk a lot at work about working with our partners to increase their capacity to serve the people here. This has been capacity building for me.

Life in unspeakably hard here for so many. Many people on all sides of this conflict live in fear, not that I feel comfortable calling them sides, so complex and varied are the positions and feelings I have heard expressed.

I am also very aware this is my first time here and I am bound to have a visceral reaction. I’m not a glass half empty person but I have found myself feeling the despair more than the hope. Because there is hope here, in places. The priest who sat and cried with us also smiled and laughed and cared very, very deeply about his people. “In Jesus Christ we have hope.” I’m left dazed.

I asked Neil, who lived in East Jerusalem for 3 and a half years, if it is just because we’re here for the first time and asking them questions that all people want to talk to us about is the conflict. He says no, it is always in conversation because it is always in their lives. For the Palestinians especially whose freedom of movement, access to education, healthcare, family is limited, of course it is always there. I think back to the young woman I met in Gaza who I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “You might be alive, but you’re never safe.”

view east to wallI sit here typing away and I desperately want to finish with some happy memories. We fly home tomorrow and the day is mostly traveling and most likely having a long chat with the border guards at Ben Gurion so this will probably be my last blog from the region. Until next time. But I am very ready to go home – as I give this blog one last read over before posting, I’m already having a bit of a boo.

  • The one thing you don’t have to press people to talk about is their kids. They ask me and Neil if either of us have children. When Neil tells of his nearly 4 and nearly 2 year old the immediate reactions is “God bless them” and he replies “and yours.” I have never heard anyone ask about another person’s children without them asking God to bless them.
  • The smiles of mothers when asked if I could photograph their babies at the Well Baby Clinic in Gaza. They are incredibly proud of their children.
  • Every child wants their photo taken. The kids in Jabalia Camp in Gaza loved looking at their images on the view screen more than most.
  • Being high-5’d by a toddler in Jabalia.
  • Bethlehem – how very glad people were that we were staying there and for 6 nights.
  • “Hello, welcome!”
  • The warmth of the limestone that so many houses here are built from, glowing in the setting sun. It reminds me of the city of Bath and how we build our houses on and of the same stuff.
  • How much women are valued by so many of our partners. I think every single partner talked about empowering women, equipping them, loving them. The one time I have allowed myself to cry these past two weeks was hearing about a women’s education group in a West Bank refugee camp.
  • Our Encounter tour – a fantastic group of people. Betty’s laugh which meant you knew where she was at all times, and the yell of “cows!” every time we spotted one out of the coach window.
  • The call to prayer echoing across whatever place I’ve been in. It still sounds exotic to my ears so I know I need to spend more time here. I want to be familiar, not a visitor.
  • Felafel!
  • Makloubeh!
  • Arabic coffee!
  • All the people I have met, every single one has taught me something and I am grateful and humbled. I come away from this experience, one I never imagined I’d have, knowing that I know next to nothing and never will know enough, feeling my privilege heavy on my shoulders.
  • The peace and beauty of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth – I was all churched out but it was beautiful. So lovely I forgot to take lots of photos which says something.
  • Being able to put locations and distances on places I have read about my whole life has been very special. I have walked from the Mount of Olives via the Garden of Gethsemane into Jerusalem and along the Via Dolorosa. I have traveled through the Judean Hills. I have seen the pass from Nazareth to Galilee and seen places Jesus very probably walked and lived. Whether you believe in His divinity or not, Jesus was an incredibly influential historical figure and being here has turned what can often be words on a page into a 3D world. For that alone I’d recommend a trip!
  • “Yalla, yalla!” (Hurry up!)
  • One of those ‘coincidences’ when on our last day in Galilee we were meant to have a communion service at Magdala but because of the gender of our leader, we weren’t allowed. Another British female church leader had passed through earlier in the day and had left her card, which we were duly given and we ended up celebrating in her church in Tiberias.
  • Spring has sprung while I’ve been here. The odd bit of oil seed rape was out two weeks ago, now there are pink and red and purple and yellow wild flowers everywhere.
  • The view of the Jordan Valley from Jerusalem. Not one of my photos does it justice, I’m not sure it is one of those views that can ever be represented through a camera lens, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at it.

Gaza: Contrast

passportI’m sat in the shade of an olive tree in the café gardens at the Lutheran World Federation guesthouse that is my home for the last three nights of my stay. I have some cheesecake and a glass of apple juice cold from the fridge. There are children playing in the garden, chasing the multitude of cats. I can hear Arabic, German and English speakers, the last in a variety of accents including Canadian. I can hear the drums of Ultravox’s Vienna coming from a window in the compound.

Clearly it is a stark contrast from this morning.

I woke early this morning and could hear the cleaners out in the hall. I thought one of them kicked the door but the windows rattled too. I figured if it was anything untoward the host or Neil would come banging on the door. No one did. I checked Twitter and found reports of a Hamas rocket test in west Gaza City, which is where we are staying.

Ten minutes later the reports on Twitter changed and said it wasn’t an explosion but a sonic boom caused by Israeli fighters buzzing the coast. It seems they’ve been doing it the rest of the day.

I wasn’t frightened because I thought the noise and vibrations were a wayward cleaner. Even knowing where I am, having an app that alerts us to any incident across the region, having had lots of training, it just didn’t occur to me to think that what I heard and felt was anything to worry about.

But I thought of the people who have talked of the terror they experienced during the wars and how these things must be terrifying in their own right but the memories they must bring back.

I thought of a girl I spoke to who said “we’re alive, but we’re never safe.”

I thought of the high percentage of people, of all ages, who have PTSD, anxiety and depression and what their days must be like when they were woken by an explosion.

Life goes on but this constant pressure is tangible. It is very, very real.

We talked with a Palestinian Christian this morning. He is married with three children under seven. He spoke about the occupation, the unemployment, the infighting, the low wages and high food prices, the lack of homes. He said “Gaza will soon explode.”

We asked him if he could leave, would he? “Yes, of course,” he said without hesitation. “I would stay, but I must leave for my children. For their future, always, I think about their future. But I can’t leave.”

He has family all over the world, in Germany, Canada, Finland. But he has a Gaza ID card and is around 30 so will not be going anywhere.


The wall separating Gaza and Israel at the Erez crossing from the Israeli side.

The wall separating Gaza and Israel at the Erez crossing from the Israeli side.

We walk through the kilometre long cage-tunnel towards Israel. There are sheep accompanying us on the walk, albeit on the outside of the cage.

There are a couple of groups of young men with wheelbarrows and handcarts scavenging in what is essentially no man’s land up to the wall. They’re picking up bricks and pieces of metal. I fear for them as I’ve heard so many reports of people being killed when venturing too near the wall.

The crossing out of Gaza was as smooth as we could have hoped. There are a series of checks, our luggage is well rummaged and x-rayed. Our bodies are scanned. We are herded through a series of scanners and pens; you must wait for the light to go green before proceeding.

A row IDF personnel peer out of windows high above the processing area, watching us. Neil is asked questions ahead of me by a border control guard: Who are we, who do we work for, what were we doing, who did we visit, when did we enter, where are we going next, when do we leave the country?

I’m asked for my father’s first name. My face is scrutinised; I let my hair down before I entered the booth because I might look more like my passport photo. I know this sounds silly but I don’t think I look like my photo, especially today as I have a rotten cold and my sinuses are swollen, changing the shape of my face. She looks at me for a long time, then stamps my passport.

We pop into West Jerusalem to a café just outside Jaffa Gate for some lunch. It’s a whole grain sandwich with falafel, pickles, harissa, boiled egg and is possibly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

We have a couple of hours to spare and thought about walking in to the Old City but there have been some more incidents, this time at Herod’s Gate where were just last week. Instead we head to the guesthouse after eating lunch. On the way I nip into a pharmacy to grab some lozenges for my throat.

It’s all so easy.

augusta victoria

Augusta Victoria hospital

We arrived in Jerusalem and drove onto the Lutheran World Federation compound and past the entrance of the gates of the Augusta Victoria Hospital. This is the facility we heard about yesterday in Gaza at Al Alhi hospital. We were told that this is where Palestinians from Gaza would come for cancer treatment, if they were able. A handful of permits to travel are given to those needing treatment, but more often than not they aren’t issued at all. Or they aren’t issued until it is too late. I heard about a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy but couldn’t access chemo or radiotherapy and waited a year for a permit. She died while she was still waiting.

It took me less than 3 hours to exit Gaza and drive to the front door of the hospital.

I don’t have cancer. I do have a British passport and a job with an NGO.

We’re in the kitchen of the guest house now as the sun has gone down and it is cold. I’m chatting to Neil and he said it feels like we should be in a different time zone. Leaving Gaza and being back in Jerusalem feels like we have taken a long flight to a far off land rather than driven an hour up to the mountains from the coast.

I wanted to come out of Gaza focusing on the little bits of hope I found there, the inspiration from the young people I met, Father Mario. Buoyed by the dedication of the staff at NECC, Al Ahli and the YMCA. And I am, when I focus on them and think of their stories, I have hope.

But it is hard to keep focussed on that. It feels like that little bit of hope could be so easily extinguished. Can they take another war? Aren’t they always at war? Maybe if I get to return and meet some of the people I’ve met again. The conversation may not be about the war and occupation and the impact on their lives and families. Maybe it won’t – it invades everything from what I can see.

I find myself comparing the situation of the people I met in the West Bank to those in Gaza. Their struggles are different and the same and different and the same….but will the West Bank end up like Gaza when the wall is complete. God, I hope not, please.

Because my overriding feeling is that while right now the West Bank is still waiting for a solution, Gaza is waiting for the end.

I know this is a tidal wave of emotion after my first visit to this region, let alone the West Bank and Gaza. Talk about in at the deep end. On a training course before I left the UK I was told it would be like this and I should arrange to speak to someone, a counsellor maybe to help me process what I feel. I will. But I feel bad about using the word ‘I’ so much. I can’t wait to start telling the stories of the people we met.

Gaza: isolation

Family at Al Ahli hospital collecting food for their malnourished child

Family at Al Ahli hospital collecting food for their malnourished child

I’ve been in Gaza 36 hours but it feels like much longer and I am incredibly sad to be leaving tomorrow.

Yesterday I was numb I think, maybe even purposely. There are pieces of hope, but visiting families in their homes and seeing the squalor and lack was awful.

I’m not a development officer or a hardened photo journalist. I’ve not been doing this for years. I’ve never been anywhere like this before regardless of the fact there aren’t many places like this. I’m a woman who picked up a camera a few years ago, likes to mess around on the internet, likes to play with words and talk with people…and yet here I am. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to be here but I can’t shake that feeling someone is having me on.

But here I am. Today we visited Al Ahli hospital, run by Christians to serve all people, to see the Medical Mission project. The purpose of the project is to provide transport to bring people in from the refugee camps and other areas that were obliterated by the wars, especially the 2014 event and t give them a wide range of treatment and education. I haven’t been to their homes and won’t get to visit on this trip but I’ve seen pictures and spoken to people who live in what amount to shipping containers. They have no healthcare options at all in the area they live.

Again, I can’t really give away the stories of the people I met, but I am really, really proud of the difference Embrace supporters are making to these most vulnerable people.

Young teenage boy who came in to Al Ahli on the Medical Mission bus

Young teenage boy who came in to Al Ahli on the Medical Mission bus

I watched as a little boy had his burns bandages changed. I listened to a grandmother emotionally describe how her grandson really needs help because he isn’t growing; all they have to eat and drink is flatbread and tea. I listened to a mother being given advice as to how to feed one of her triplets whose health is waning. I talked to the head of the hospital about the hope they have to increase an oncology department bringing much needed education, diagnosis and treatment options to a population where breast cancer is still almost always a death sentence.

While I’m on the subject, my Embrace colleague and friend Su is running the Palestine half marathon in April to raise funds for Al Ahli. She has had treatment for breast cancer this past 12 months and is inspirational in her dedication to help others less fortunate when it comes to treatment options. Her Justgiving page is here.

After a few much needed hours of downtime, we visited Fr Mario at the Latin patriachate. Fr Mario is a Catholic priest in Gaza. We spoke at length about the Christian population in Gaza, what it is like to be a Christian here, what his job entails and much more. I will tell his story at length another time but I had to hold back tears repeatedly as he described the very real dangers he faces, the isolation he feels and the desperate situation the Christians he serves are in.

fr mario small

Father Mario da Silva

Embrace’s mission is to support Christians in the Middle East who are serving people here who are marginalised and vulnerable. Fr Mario provides a place and a ministry for those Christians to find support and solace with their brothers and sisters in Christ. With less than 1200 Christian in Gaza, which has a population of 1.8million (probably more), feeling part of the church, locally or more is almost impossible. I feel isolation tangibly as Fr Mario talks.

Fr Mario is originally from Brazil and has been via Rome (where he worked in the parish containing Mafiosa) and is in his 3rd year in Gaza. He talked of imprisonment, arson, having drugs planted in his car and what it was like to be heading back in to Gaza in 2014 as the war started while many others fled. I was floored by his humility and selflessness as he talks about himself and the people he serves. I was struggling to comprehend how he was still standing at all, when he described how he has asked to be transferred to Aleppo but didn’t expect to be allowed to go. He shrugged and said, “we must go to the places no one else wants to go.”

A lot of people didn’t want me to go to Gaza, they were understandably concerned. But I am very glad I came and I wish I could stay longer to see more, meet more people and talk with them. I haven’t felt unsafe, I haven’t felt threatened. Everyone looks at us because it’s relatively unusual to see a couple of pasty Brits walking around with notebook and cameras not blending in in the slightest, but they all say ‘hello, welcome, why are you here?’ When we explain we’re hoping to help people in the UK and beyond hear the stories of people in Gaza and the Middle East they start to talk and don’t stop.

Tomorrow we head back to Jerusalem for a few days to meet more partners. I’m excited about that too but I really do wish we could stay here a little more.


gaza 001It turns out I’ve been wrong when I’ve described the journey I took today as ‘crossing into Gaza’. You don’t ‘enter’ Gaza but exit Israel. You exit through what is essentially a departure terminal, much like that at any international airport. It’s big, it’s a permanent structure. You walk down a kilometre long cage-tunnel through which you can see the wall, much like the separation barrier in the West Bank, with towers every 500m. It reminds me of the photos I’ve seen of Berlin when it was halved, the boundaries of concentration camps.

We are met by our host’s driver and are escorted into a suburb to meet our first partner – the Near East Council of Churches who run Well Baby clinics. I am not going to tell the stories of our partners and the beneficiaries in these blogs. It would be a bit counterproductive as I’m here to gather those stories for Embrace so I can’t give them away. There is hope in the stories I’ve heard and whatever the opposite of hope is, I’ve seen that too. Despair doesn’t go far enough. But again, people want their stories told.

Tonight I’m going to list my observations as that’s about all I can manage. Processing it, the stories I’ve heard, the tears I’ve seen, the laughing I’ve done – that’ll take a long time.

Gaza is everything I thought it would be and many times better and many times worse.

This is a war zone. Buildings are destroyed, whole neighbourhoods gone. I don’t think I’ve seen one building that isn’t damaged or pock marked by bullet and shrapnel holes; rebuilding is barely happening.

building shrapnel

Shrapnel and automatic weapon fire holes mark a building opposite the Well Baby Clinic.

The infrastructure is barely existent; it’s been torrential rain overnight and this morning – the roads, which are more holes than tarmac, are flooded. Manhole covers are up. I watch a shopkeeper use a broom to keep the waters back.

There’s streets and streets of car breakers and parts shops, oil flowing out onto the pavement and into the ground. There’s a VW garage that looks clean. I am told people use credit to keep their cars running.

There are no traffic lights because of power restrictions and damaged distribution networks so traffic that would be unruly and scary even with control is just a free for all. One lone man in a high vis jacket puts his life on the line directing traffic.

I’m told the power is only on 8 hours a day. Actually they call it ‘hours minus two’ because ‘whatever the Israelis say you’re going to get, you get two less’. [ETA – I was just reading this as I edited my post and the power went off….]

Horses pulling carts are almost as numerous as cars.

Much like across the West Bank, smells envelop me and will define this place whenever I smell them again. Ancient engines, animal faeces, rotting rubbish, oil, citrus fruit, shisha, spices, sweat, sea air. One of the family homes I visited today smelled like a farmyard.

The air is thick with dust even with the high winds.  Dust lies thick on the car when we’ve only been away an hour. I wonder what this does to everyone breathing it in and getting it on their skin.

floodWe can’t drink the water. No one does. It’s not like in the West Bank where Palestinians can collect rainwater in the wetter season, because they each have a roof, or less families share buildings so it is easier. The hills in the West Bank mean they can collect the water through gravity systems. Gaza is flat. They can’t dig wells, they can’t run it off of high ground. No rivers enter Gaza. Polluted ones leave and only run in the wet season.

Some people have filters on their taps, some buy water. Many kids have yellow teeth from fluoride poisoning – too much is put in the water before it gets pumped into the Strait.

Solar power which would seem a sensible solution and could release a lot of the burdens created by the power outages but it is too expensive even for the most affluent (comparitively) residents. I’m told the battery cells that are needed to store the energy are often broken, even when bought ‘new’.

There are children falling up to their waists in the storming sea as they scour the shore for coins.

A small child, maybe 4 years old, with Downs Syndrome, sits on the pavement playing with some polystyrene.

Three teenage boys, one who looks like my nephew, wave at us in the van from a shell of a building. I lift my camera and they cover their faces and run away giggling.

No signs are in English until you get to the city centre. There’s grafitti everywhere. There are fruit stalls, men push carts around trying to sell biscuits. I see a man pushing a cart full of fresh tomatoes. I wonder if he’ll be able to sell them before they go off.

horseThere are kids everywhere. I mean everywhere. Toddlers to teenagers, walking along barefoot on their own and in groups. They sling their arms round each other’s shoulders. One little boy gives me a high five.

Kids are playing football on some grass that has sprung up where a building has fallen down (been destroyed?)

There’s a tanker driving around delivering desalinated water, I’m told it’s very salty and not good to drink.

‘Welcome’ is the word I’ve heard most often today.

A mother showed me her baby’s re-useable nappy which I think might once have been white but it now blue and grey. She asked me for pampers.

A man from one of our partners shows me photos of his kids and then of damage to his house.  He flicks onto Facebook on his phone and between the ‘family’ and ‘Christmas’ albums he has three others labelled War 2009, War 2012, War 2014. It brings tears to my eyes but I don’t let him see.

Horns are constantly blaring – they’re used to communicate anything you could possibly wish to communicate when behind the wheel – ‘I’m here’, ‘get out of the way’ ‘I’m coming through’ ‘hurry up’. We return to our hosts car this evening to be driven to the hotel and he’s blocked in, cars overlapping him two deep.

I was given strawberries and fresh orange juice on arrival at my hotel. A man carried my bags to my room.

I ate the most incredible locally caught fish twice today. Both times I was told it would have been even better had it been caught yesterday not 2 days ago but there’s a storm raging and even so, the best fish are past the 3 mile line which is as far out as the fisherman can go – if they go further they’re in ‘Israeli waters’ and put themselves in danger of being shot.

One of my new friends here told me that his family is split over 3 countries. He hasn’t been in the same place as his wife and 4 children, at the same time, in 6 years.

I visited a home today where 20 people were living in 3 rooms.

I met a boy with arthritis who sleeps on a mattress thinner than my duvet at home, on a concrete floor.

There are posters everywhere of martyrs and victims of the wars. Posters of men and posters of children.

Arafat still features strongly.

The kids I got to play with and take photos of loved seeing their image on the view screen. Of the three homes I visited, none had a mirror.