On each visit we make to Gaza, we go to some of the vocational training centres run by the Near East Council of Churches. This time, we went to the Gaza and Qarara centres to learn more about the work they do.
The Gaza Vocational Training Centre trains 14-17 year old boys, many of whom are school dropouts. It offers places to 25 boys a year to learn trades such as carpentry and metal-work. 75% of the boys being trained are from poor families in marginalised areas around Gaza City, and some of them walk up to 4km from their homes to the training centre because they cannot afford the shekel or two ($0.25-0.50) for transportation.
They study six days a week from 7.30am until 2pm, and in addition to the trade, they also learn communication skills in order to be able to enter the workforce fully prepared to interact professionally with both employers and clients.
We visited at midday, and at 12.20, the electricity went off, casting the workshop into darkness. Less than a minute later, lights flickered on again, and work resumed. We walked upstairs to a classroom where twenty or so boys were sitting at desks, straining to hear the teacher over the noise of the generator sitting below the window, now powering the facility.
In another workshop, a group of boys were working on air-conditioning units, learning how to assemble and install them on site because there is no factory in Gaza. A classroom down the hall was filled with computers and new office equipment, still covered in plastic wrapping and recently donated. There the boys will learn computer skills and engineering CAD programmes.
We asked how difficult it was to import some of the materials for the centre, aware that Israel often places a restriction on anything that can be considered ‘dual use’, potentially used for the construction of tunnels or arms manufacturing. We heard that despite the recent ‘March of Return’ protests which have been taking place at the border regularly since March, it has been easier to import aluminium through Israel. (Though at the family health clinics, we learned that iron supplements have been delayed in the past because they contain glycerin, an ingredient that can be used to make explosives.)
The Qarara VTC focuses on electrical training, from wiring to aerial cabling to solar panel installation. Each year, it receives 300 applications for the 35 places it offers. The students pay 600NIS ($160) a year, and the cost of the programme per student is $2000; the difference is subsidised by the NECC and its funding organisations.
The employment rate for those who have completed a training programme through the NECC Vocational Training Centres is over 75%, which is impressive in a context where unemployment stands at a staggering 60-65% for those aged between 15 and 29.
Alongside the training, the boys are also offered psychosocial support. Posters hang in the hallway raising awareness of the signs of domestic violence, and the psychosocial counsellor works with the boys on anger management and non-violent communication as well as trauma counselling. It is hoped that this combined with the relatively high rate of employment will reduce the gender based violence so prevalent in Gaza. As one of the NECC workers explained: ‘Imagine being a father who has no work, who feels worthless because he cannot support his family. And then to have his child or his wife ask for something, maybe something so basic — money for a small toy or for food — and he cannot provide it. The anger the men feel against themselves they then take out on the wife and children.’
Over and over we heard from our partners how they were trying to address the complex needs of their communities holistically, and I was deeply moved by their ability to do this with compassion and hope, despite their extremely limited resources in such a challenging context. Merely providing food or medicines or clothing would be a temporary relief but would not be a sustainable long-term solution. Because our partners are Gazans themselves, they can see clearly the way in which issues of health, sanitation, poverty, transportation, unemployment and violence intersect and intertwine.
Of course, many of these needs would be alleviated if there were radical change to the political situation, if borders were opened and both trade and people allowed to enter and exit more freely. Qatari aid and Egyptian negotiations are easing some of the pressure for now, but a more lasting solution must be found. The long-term tensions on the border between Gaza and Israel have made both sides feel vulnerable, and both wariness and weariness are now entrenched.
Nevertheless, our partners persevere, doing what they can in the circumstances, and doing so with kindness, honesty, and a deep love for the people they live amongst and place they live in. The support of the Church of Scotland (through both the Middle East Committee and congregations) may seem but a small contribution, but we saw firsthand the good stewardship of our offering and the tangible ways it helps our partners and friends do their invaluable work in their communities.