Gaza: The Middle East Children's Alliance
Since its founding in 1988, the Middle East Children's Alliance has been working on the behalf of children in the Middle East. In the 1990s and early 2000s the organization delivered medical aid to hospitals in Iraq. It has also had a presence in Lebanon for a number of years, where it now provides humanitarian aid for refugees from Syria. But the last few years MECA has focused on Palestine, especially the Gaza Strip, where it runs a wide range of grassroots projects. Those projects help to provide clean drinking water to children in Gaza, give creative outlets to children traumatized by war, and build playgrounds and plant trees in the West Bank. MECA awards scholarships to university students, develops media and cultural centers, and supports community organizations, partnering with several other organizations along the way.
Worldpress.org Senior Editor Joshua Pringle spoke with Ziad Abbas, MECA's program manager for cross-cultural programs, about some of the work that the organization is doing, and how that work can be difficult to conduct in a theater of war.
Joshua Pringle: Gaza is experiencing a serious water crisis. In 2009 the Alliance launched the Maia Project, to bring clean drinking water to Gaza. What has this initiative been able to achieve so far?
Ziad Abbas: Between 90 and 95 percent of the water in the Gaza Strip is polluted. We have built water purification and desalination systems in U.N. schools and kindergartens in Gaza. So far we have 52 water systems, and in U.N. schools each system can cover 2,000 students. In kindergartens each system covers up to 500 children.
Israel controls the water in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Lack of access to clean water is part of the collective punishment of Palestinians. The United Nations predicts that by 2020 Gaza will be out of clean water, and Gaza will not be a viable place for a human being to grow up because of the water issue. The water project is an emergency project.
JP: I can imagine that every time Israel bombs Gaza, projects like these—not to mention the health, infrastructure and sanity of entire communities—are set back in major ways. What are the biggest obstacles you face when violence occurs?
ZA: It's a huge challenge, and a frustration, because it takes some time to collect funds and get a project underway, and not just the water project. When we build a small theater or a media center for children, this can be affected by bombing. Gaza has been attacked three times in the last six years, and in these attacks the Israelis target everything. They target hospitals, schools, mosques, homes, community centers. This is the tragedy of this war. We are not the only people working in this field. Tens of organizations support different projects in Gaza, and sometimes these projects are attacked and destroyed totally, and you have to go back and start from zero to rebuild.
In Gaza, 1.8 million people are living on just 139 square miles. According to the United Nations, 56 percent of the people living in Gaza are under 18. There is no safe place in Gaza. It's surrounded by fences and tanks. They are bombing from the sea, from the sky, from the ground, and this community has been traumatized totally. They are living in a prison, and every time there's an attack, people are traumatized, children especially.
JP: After the assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 your organization started a program called Let the Children Play and Heal, to give children who were impacted by the Israeli assaults an outlet to express themselves through art, music, dancing, theater, even puppetry. Then you relaunched the project after the attacks in 2012. Can you tell us about that program and the kind of effects you think it has had?
ZA: We try to support the hospitals with medical supplies and whatever else they need. But some children are not hurt; they are traumatized. Everything is shaking with each bomb, and the sound itself can affect children a lot. We had 480 women trained in how to deal with children traumatized by war, to try to reduce the impact from the beginning. We can't have a social worker in every house, so we trained the moms. Then later, psychologists and social workers started working with artists in the schools, delivering different programs. So we work with direct psychological support, and then we also work with art, theater, music, painting, whatever helps the children express their feelings. Our organization can't solve the problem or end the occupation, but we can help reduce the impact on children.
JP: I'd like to talk about Plant a Tree in Palestine, which is a joint project between Stop the Wall, the Palestinian Farmer's Union and your organization. Can you tell us what the goal of the project is, and also how it is meant to work in opposition to efforts by the Jewish National Fund?
ZA: This project came in response to the Zionist movement and ethnic cleansing that goes back to 1948. In addition to attacking the people and the villages, Israelis used plating trees as a way to erase the history of the Palestinian people. So this project came as a response. Part of the idea is that by planting trees in Palestinian land and supporting Palestinian farmers, it will help in one way or another to challenge Zionist propaganda. In the West Bank right now they continue building settlements and confiscating lands. The Plant a Tree in Palestine project is another way for the international community to be in solidarity with Palestine and protect the lands from being confiscated. This is the people's initiative, and we are trying to support it by collecting funds and working with Palestinian farmers to plant trees and protect these lands.
JP: In 26 years, MECA has delivered more than $20 million in humanitarian aid to Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian children. What are some of the logistical difficulties you face working in these areas?
ZA: It can be very difficult figuring out how to ship medical supplies in war zones. It can be very risky and complicated and take a long time, especially because you have to first collect the funds. It's hard to get the medicine to the right place in the time they need it. In 2008-2009, our executive director went to Egypt immediately, and she got stuck at the border, not allowed to enter. She was with a few trucks including an ambulance we bought for the hospitals in Gaza Strip. They were stuck at the border until the ceasefire. Whether in Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza, an atmosphere of war can make things very difficult. And when there is war is when people need help the most.
The website for the Middle East Children's Alliance is http://www.mecaforpeace.org/.
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