With 30,000 residents, overburdened educational and welfare services, and an average of six or more people living in each family’s small home, the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the most overcrowded and poverty-stricken areas in the capital.
Suheil Omari, general director of Abna Al-Quds Community Center, founded in 1976 next to the quarter’s Herod’s Gate, says aid from the Jerusalem Foundation has helped a largely overlooked and at-risk population improve the quality of their lives.
The center works with women, men, children and adolescents on critical issues involving violence, drug abuse, arranged marriages and heath care, he said.
"We have all types of activities – from lectures on many subjects, to raising awareness of health issues, societal issues, early marriages, domestic violence, drug addiction, courses on Hebrew and computer skills, sports, ethnic dancing, and so on,” said Omari.
Since its inception in 1966, the Jerusalem Foundation – in coordination with the Jerusalem Municipality – has spent millions of shekels to support and promote cultural, artistic, educational, and health activities via community centers for Arab residents living in the capital.
At the facility’s parenting center, several mothers’ groups gather weekly for a total of 24 meetings.
“The mothers’ groups consist of lectures and workshops on parenting and intra-family communication, personal empowerment workshops, individual consultation when necessary, adult education enrichment courses and activities,” according to the foundation.
“There are also activities for young children during the meetings, and for fathers and the rest of the family, so that the whole family can be enriched by this process.”
Additionally, a women’s empowerment instructor interviews each woman to determine her short- and long-term goals for the program.
“This includes personal-empowerment workshops; vocational training; creation of comprehensive support networks to empower participants, such as community-based programming; long-term programs; one-off lectures and special events; sports activities; health programs, and parenting classes,” says the foundation.
The center also offers programs for their children, with a focus on girls, to improve academic performance, enhance intra-family relations, improve health and nutrition, and strengthen peer relationships.
According to Omari, thousands of Palestinians from numerous demographics have been aided by the Abna Al-Quds Community Center over the years.
“We have helped people with literacy skills, Hebrew, and to raise awareness of important issues within the community,” he says. “We are really helping them take care of their well-being, especially the elderly, who are neglected or living by themselves.”
Omari says he takes particular pride in the center’s aid to two groups of 132 elderly male and female east Jerusalem residents, who regularly find solace in its new community garden, and understanding within its doors.
While many of the center’s programs are divided based on age and gender, Omari says the expansive 5,000 sq.m. grounds offer activities for all segments of the population.
“We have a basketball court and a football field, a community garden for the elderly, and a playground for the children,” he says. “So there are activities for everyone.”
The center is operated by a group of roughly 20 full-time and hourly employees who manage the various programs, while a few volunteer doctors and nurses help monitor the health of all members.
“We have a small staff of paid social workers, youth trainers, physical education instructors, a pre-school teacher who works with the kids, and an arts-and-crafts teacher,” he said. “The social workers and doctors regularly meet with all elderly members to check their blood pressure, diagnose illnesses, and make referrals for procedures.”
Omari said each day is divided into various morning, afternoon and evening activities for some 500 people every week.
“In the morning, beginning at 8:15 a.m., we generally work with married women, and we have arts and crafts, a drama teacher, sports, lectures and seminars,” he said. “Once a week we also work with a special group of women who dropped out of school or got divorces. And every morning, we work with the elderly, who have different activities.”
The afternoon programs, he says, which take place from 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., are primarily geared toward helping children between the ages of 6 to 13 with homework and other mentoring activities after school.
“When the children come during the afternoon sessions, the elderly go to the community garden,” Omari explains.
After 5:30 p.m., an array of lectures and workshops about life skills and education are offered.
Omari says the center most helps improve the surrounding community by dually serving as a safe refuge in a frequently violent, densely populated area, and by offering important services to improve each member’s general quality of life.
“The Old City is very crowded, so one of the major benefits is that people can have a comfortable place where they can spend their time,” he said. “Mostly, the help comes from raising awareness about things that make life very hard for people – such as violence, drugs and early marriages.”
“For women,” he continues, “it is mostly raising their communication skills and awareness about raising children properly, and so on. We also have regular social events, religion and art classes, a weekly meal members share together, and twice a week we have exercise classes.”
While the majority of members live in the Muslim Quarter, Omari says roughly 40% come from other Palestinian neighborhoods throughout east Jerusalem.
In terms of potential conflicts, due to being funded by the Jerusalem Foundation and municipality, Omari said no problems have surfaced.
“People know we are supported by the Jerusalem Foundation and city, and they enjoy the services,” he said.
Roughly 20 to 25% of the center’s funding comes from the municipality, while the Jerusalem Foundation has paid for 60% of activities over the years.
The remaining money, he said, comes from fund-raising campaigns, and a nominal fee for members.
Omari says however that despite external funding, the center operates at a deficit.
Omari says he views the foundation as an exceptional partner in helping the center improve the Arab community it serves.
“I’m sure that without their help, we would mostly have to stop operating,” he says, adding that the center’s association with Israeli and Jewish groups precludes it from receiving funds from the Palestinian Authority.
“We are working with the minimum to keep operations taking place, but are very grateful for that,” he said.
Several kilometers away, in east Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood, Raeda Saadeh directs the Paley Art Center, founded by the Jerusalem Foundation in 1978, dedicated to teaching residents of all ages about painting, photography and digital graphic design.
The foundation and municipality have together funded the three-story arts center, open from 8 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., via a staff of six Arab artists. The Paley Art Center has since become the preeminent cultural institution in east Jerusalem, providing artistic activities and enrichment for thousands of children, youth and adults from the city’s Arab sector.
“Art has the potential to be used as an educational tool to develop thinking processes and strengthen sense of self,” the foundation says of the center. “It is a type of spiritual therapy. Art education has two primary goals: to impart skills and knowledge, and instill avenues for self-expression.”
Every year, Saadeh says, Paley reaches several thousand residents, including 5,000 schoolchildren visiting its core exhibition, in addition to enrichment classes and camps.
“We have regular exhibitions, programs and events for local artists and visitors from east Jerusalem,” she says. “Sometimes we also have musical events, sometimes we have film screenings, and sometimes we have folk dances.”
The center works with children as young as four, to senior adults, Saadeh adds. During the morning hours, she says, the staff works with different groups who tour the Arab art exhibition.
“And then we hold an art workshop,” Saadeh says, noting that over 300 visitors come each week.
Beyond instructing numerous art and photography classes, Saadeh said the center also utilizes its 20 computers to teach graphic design, including classes on animation.
“The animation is more for the kids, who enjoy it,” she says.
Saadeh adds that the center has been instrumental in helping at-risk children and young adults to harness their creative energy, instead of treading an all-too-common path of self-destruction through violence and drugs.
“It’s like an open house for everyone, and we show them the way to go to improve their skills and study,” she said. “Every year we usually have three students enroll at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and other colleges. It’s not a huge number, but it’s still a number.”
Asked how the center has helped improve the community, Saadeh noted that promoting the arts has made it possible for many young people now to see a future in a field that once may have seemed unobtainable.
This would not be possible, she concluded, without the Jerusalem Foundation and municipality’s much-needed help.
“We have great relations, and they have helped us so much with so many things,” she said.
The Jerusalem Municipality, which has long promoted arts and culture, reasserted its commitment to the city’s Arab community.
“The municipality dedicates extensive resources and support for local community centers, which strengthens Jerusalem’s diverse populations across the city,” it said in a statement.
“The city works in close collaboration with local community leaders to provide targeted, strategic support for these essential institutions, which contribute to the capital’s vibrant communal life.”
This partnership with local leaders, the municipality added, is of particular importance in the capital’s predominantly Arab neighborhoods, where the centers engage residents in municipal decision-making.
“The city will continue to strengthen these institutions across the capital for the benefit of all residents,” it said.
The Jerusalem Foundation is making inroads into people’s lives in east Jerusalem.Click here for more information on the Jerusalem Foundation.