Greening up their act

Local educators and a handful of NGOs fill the vacuum left by a lack of grassroots environmental initiatives in east Jerusalem.

east jerusalem kids 88 (photo credit: )
east jerusalem kids 88
(photo credit: )
'In my parents' view, I'm stupid," says Sami Backleh, an articulate 28-year-old with two science degrees under his belt who spends most of his time working pro bono. "The mission is really hard, but it's important and I have to work at it. If I don't do it, then no one else will do it," he adds with a determined smile. The arduous task that Backleh has set himself is to green east Jerusalem, a mission he deems far more important than earning the kind of living that his family had hoped he would. Backleh knows very well that he has his work cut out in a community where awareness of environmental issues is very low, often slipping unnoticed beneath other, more pressing concerns facing Jerusalem's Arab residents. "The environment is a new field in our community and it is not a priority for many people," acknowledges the freelance environmental consultant as he sits in his father's gift shop near Salah-A-Din Street where he works part-time to make ends meet. As we sip Arabic coffee, plastic teddy bears, heart-shaped pillow cases and other synthetic toys shiver in the breeze of the electricity-guzzling fan, fighting a losing battle to keep the midsummer heat at bay. "It's not an easy task," he says. Environmental issues have become increasingly fashionable in Jerusalem's Jewish community in recent years, with an explosion of local initiatives including community gardens, composting workshops, an "ecological" yeshiva and a number of candidates running for "green" seats in the upcoming municipal elections. Nevertheless, awareness is still yet to take off among Jerusalem's 200,000 Arab residents, for whom environmental awareness is thin on the ground. A scan of the Jerusalem Green Map, an online guide to all things environmental in the city, reveals virtually no initiatives in Arab neighborhoods. Filling the gap are local activists and teachers like Backleh, as well as a handful of NGOs, mainly in the nearby Bethlehem area, working hard to educate, raise awareness and change attitudes among Arab Jerusalemites. "It's a process of building. If you came here three or four years ago, you wouldn't have seen anything in terms of activities or awareness," says Backleh, who also works part-time for North American NGO the Quebec-Labrador Foundation. "Now there are [environmental] ideas in the Palestinian curriculum, more people are interested in birdwatching and going hiking to see wildlife and plants." Hussam Watad of the Beit Hanina Community Center says he isn't aware of any environmental initiatives in his neighborhood. "Other issues are much more important, like education and housing," he says, adding that it is hard to establish projects due to the lack of privately owned land. Buthina Hanunneh, an educator at the Environmental Education Center (EEC), disagrees that the environment should be relegated to the bottom of their list of priorities. "The environment is the most important issue, it's where you live. If you don't have pure water or clean air, how will you live?" she asks. The center in Beit Jala, a largely Christian suburb of Bethlehem, offers an ideal setting for ecological inspiration. Located on the campus of the Talitha Kumi School, affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Palestinians who come to study here from east Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and elsewhere are treated to a stunning westward view of the rolling Jerusalem hills. The campus itself is home to 40 dunams of botanical gardens, including native species such as olive and carob trees and the endangered Syrian pear, small-scale agriculture, as well as an environmental art exhibition and a natural history museum. Hanunneh is also well aware that the environment is still a marginal issue within her community, so she engages people by explaining how nature is part of their culture. "Everybody knows that we have mosques and the Church of the Nativity, but they don't know about the native trees or endangered species." THE EEC'S small team works with thousands of people from Bethlehem and east Jerusalem each year, including a number of schools and surrounding villages such as Hizme. Activities include tree-planting campaigns, olive-picking, leadership training, workshops for women and events to coincide with global initiatives like World Clean-Up Day and World Environment Day. "People thought we were strange at first," admits Imad Atrash, executive director of the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWS), a conservation research and advocacy organization based in Beit Sahur, a western suburb of Bethlehem. He recalls the bemusement of his peers when he and his colleagues began going out into the field to birdwatch. Since the PWS's founding in 1999, its work has become incorporated into the Palestinian school curriculum, and the organization even serves as a point of reference for the Palestinian Authority. In addition to working on research and advocacy throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the PWS works to raise environmental awareness in several Arab schools in and around Jerusalem's Old City, including the Schmidt Girl's College on Nablus Road, as well as the Martin Luther School, College Des Freres and Terra Sancta High School in the Christian Quarter. Amid the Old City's maze of courtyards, churches and dwellings, the Terra Sancta Latin Convent, just a few meters from the New Gate, seems like an unlikely place to be spearheading environmental learning. In fact, the only green that can be seen from the Terra Sancta High School is the row of palm trees on the other side of the Old City's ramparts, the tops of which can be seen from some of the classrooms. "There is an Arabic saying that goes: 'Cleanliness is faith,'" says the school's deputy head, Joseph Nasrawi. "If you are pious and you want to serve God and be good to your neighbors, you have to be clean and also to clean the environment. "When you know your religion correctly, you have to love people. This applies to nature too, to respect the beauty that God has given you," adds Nasrawi, sitting in his office opposite the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with volumes in Arabic, English and Italian including Flora Palestina, Pictorial Encyclopedia of Insects and Medicinal Plants. "But it's not just religion, it comes from the love of your country too - you have to keep it clean." As well as bringing in lecturers from the PWS to discuss wildlife and environmental problems in the Holy Land, the school also recruits children from the eighth to 10th grades to clean streets in the area. "Nobody obliges us. If we don't provoke them in their studies, then they would be careless. We try to do our best with the children but the level of success is not always as we wish. If it is 60 percent, then I will be thankful," says Nasrawi. One person who appears to have understood the school's message is Hind, 16, one of the school's 400 Christian and Muslim students. "We have to live in a clean environment; people shouldn't throw rubbish on the ground," she says. "There are lots of things people can do about global warming, but one person is not enough. Everybody must help." THE MODERN environmental crisis that manifests itself in so many ways, from the melting of the polar ice caps to the rising cost of refueling a car, can be such an overwhelming prospect that it is easier to bury one's head in the sand than tackle it head-on. The environmental issues on the minds of Arab Jerusalemites tend to be local ones - for example, garbage collection and overcrowding. "The most [important] environmental problem that faces Palestinians in east Jerusalem is the arbitrary urbanization," says Prof. Mutaz Al-Qutob, head of Al-Quds University's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. "Land in Jerusalem is so expensive and Arabs have limited access to empty spaces, most of which are considered 'green areas' under Israeli law. The eastern part is so crowded. Arbitrary rooms and additions can be noticed in many places. You can see that an old garage or basement has become a separate apartment." Although access to water, an acute problem for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is not an issue in east Jerusalem, the same cannot be said for biodiversity, says Al-Qutob. "There is a real biodiversity problem in east Jerusalem," he says, citing the Mount of Olives as a prime example. "How many olive trees still exist there? "It [east Jerusalem] is so crowded with very limited green parts between the houses. Many other locations in east Jerusalem still bear the name of a tree that does not exist [anymore]." While the EEC runs workshops on global issues like climate change, it's the local issues that take priority for most. "Water is the biggest conflict between us and the Israelis. There won't be any left in 20 years time, so [people think] why should they think about global warming?" says Hanunneh. "We teach people not to fill up their bathtubs but to take a shower instead, not to leave the tap running and to wash their cars with a bucket instead of a hose. People listen. Even if they don't care about water, they care about their bill." A consistent view from Arabs interviewed was that the multitude of other issues on their plate, whether the current political situation or simply earning a living, often eclipse ecological concerns. "In general, all environmental issues, whether local or international, are less important for Palestinians. Politics, the separation wall and checkpoints are priorities," explains Al-Qutob. Backleh adds: "People are busy with other aspects of their lives: occupation, restriction of movement or health. It is inhibiting the environment to flourish." "The first priority is to put bread on the table. It's [raising environmental awareness] harder with adults, but easier to reach the youth because it's an issue that touches them," says Samer Badawai, a community worker at the A-Tur Community Center near the Mount of Olives. The community center is one of the only Arab projects listed on the Green Map and has been running green projects for three years with young people, including environmental education and street clean-ups in the area. "We want to influence the youth because they will then influence their friends, their parents and their families," says Badawi. He admits that environmental awareness is low but argues that it is an issue that should be close to the hearts of everyone. "We need to look after the neighborhood. It is our quality of life, too." Nazeeh Ansari, manager of the A-Tur Community Center, which also covers Silwan and Abu Tor, is frustrated with the municipality for its lack of investment in Arab neighborhoods, including street maintenance and public open spaces. "We do what the municipality doesn't," he says. Hind believes that recycling is a good idea, but says she has yet to put the principle into practice. "Maybe there is more [recycling] in Israeli communities, but not so much among Palestinians." Indeed, the opportunities to recycle household waste are much greater in Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods where large green bins and cages for depositing paper and plastic bottles can be found on most street corners. Whatever the level of demand to recycle their garbage may be, Ansari believes that the virtual absence of recycling facilities in the city's Arab districts stems from politics. Aviv Recycling Ltd., a private company that collects plastic bottles in Israel and processes them into flakes to form into new products, says that they only put recycling cages where the municipality permits them to. "There were attempts by the municipality to place recycling cages for paper and bottles in the east of the city, aiming for the same level of service as in the west of the city. But there was no response from the residents to recycle and therefore the service was stopped," said the Jerusalem Municipality in a written statement. ANSARI SAYS that to date activities in A-Tur have been theoretical, focusing on lectures and classrooms, in lieu of a budget for practical exercises. "You need to take people into the field, otherwise it's like learning swimming without going to the pool." Doing just that are 100 boy scouts from the Faisal Husseini Foundation in Jerusalem, camping on the grounds of the Talitha Kumi School this month, who got their dose of environmental awareness courtesy of the EEC. They studied flora and fauna first-hand, how to dispose of garbage responsibly, as well as recycling and composting organic waste. "Because they are staying in nature, they should learn about it too," says Hanunneh. "It's a long-term process. You have to attract this generation, but not in an old-fashioned way - you have to be creative." Strategies used by the EEC for reaching younger crowds have included photography and writing competitions as well as exhibitions of artwork made from waste paper recycled by children themselves. Backleh takes a similar approach: "I'm not a teacher, I'm an educator. I try to let them [children] make up their own minds and give them the initiative and opportunity to teach themselves, for example, sampling plants and insects. It's interesting for them." Backleh agrees that contact with nature is important, particularly in densely-populated east Jerusalem where he and the PWS coordinate field trips for students at Terra Sancta and three other schools near Damascus Gate. "Living in a built-up area, you usually don't get outside so much to nature compared to people in villages. That's one reason why we don't have enough knowledge - all that is surrounding them [east Jerusalemites] is pollution, cars and buildings; they are not surrounded by life," he says. Backleh's hopes for the future include a recycling project for children living in the Shuafat refugee camp, which lies east of Shuafat and north of French Hill. Whether last week's newspapers and plastic bottles end up in a landfill site is probably not the first thing on the minds of families living in the dirty and overcrowded camp, but he maintains it will be worthwhile. "I hope it [recycling] will benefit them in the long-run. The environment is like an echo, you won't get results in the short-term. It is initiating ideas in the minds of students, they are fast learners, and it is creating a leadership of the future." But Backleh's plans for Shuafat rest on the availability of funding, the lack of which is an obstacle to environmental education in east Jerusalem, he says. "I'm doing it [raising environmental awareness] for the future," says Backleh. "It is a process, and it's hard at first and takes time. I don't know how long it will take, but every community needs people to initiate new ideas."