On Wednesday 19 May 2021, our YMCA colleagues and partners from East Jerusalem, Gaza, West Jerusalem and Bethlehem shared online their experiences, frustrations and hopes about the ongoing violence in their region. More than 130 participants attended the event, gaining more insights into a seemingly endless tragedy which particularly affects young people. The purpose of the event was ‘to listen, to understand, and to share’.
“We are human beings: we just want justice, we just want to live.” Hani Alfred Farah, General Secretary of YMCA Gaza, set the tone. Moving his camera around his living room – without windows, all blown out by the bombing – he shared how his past few days have been: “We face constant bombings. I have to move my family every evening, trying to find a secure place for the night. At the moment, we don’t have a place to live. We don’t know where to be safe.”
Listening to the stories
Beyond the daily news and the official World YMCA statement of 12 May 2021 calling for an end to the violence, this was a chance to hear from YMCA colleagues who juggle managing their offices, supporting their local communities, and protecting their families.
Opening the discussion, World YMCA Secretary General Carlos Sanvee said: “Today is about standing in solidarity with members of our global YMCA family, as they tell their stories. We all care about what is going on in Palestine and in Israel – and we are all affected”.
World YMCA President Patricia Pelton moderated the conversation, encouraging everyone to “stand by our values of dignity, equity and compassion”.
Peter Nasir, General Secretary of YMCA East Jerusalem, gave an overview of the tensions in Jerusalem: “What we have seen is that peaceful demonstrations are sadly not noticed, but violent ones are. Why does it have to reach the point of war to make people look at what to do to fix the problem? It’s about having the will to change the reality”.
Rana Fahoum, CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA, shared how the Arab citizens of Israel face discrimination and intimidation. “At the YMCA”, she said, “we live in a bubble. We serve all the communities of Jerusalem, religious and non-religious people. We do have our tensions, but we believe in shared living and our members accept and respect that. This gives us a little bit of hope. However, we acknowledge this is a bubble and this is not reflected outside”.
Understanding the context
For those trying to understand the situation from afar, the situation appears complex. “We make it complex if we don’t want to solve it,” said Rev. Prof. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Founder and President of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, as he drew the big lines: “If we want to understand the context, we need a real diagnosis of what has been happening here over the last decades. Describing it as a ‘conflict’ implies two equal sides and ignores the asymmetry and systemic oppression. What we face is settler colonialism. And how do you respond if the native people of a place are pushed off the land, and have no rights? This is called apartheid”.
Sharing the despair and the hopes
So what’s next? Dr Raheb was asked how can we play our part as “peacemakers and not as peace talkers”. “The work of the YMCA in the region is important, especially at times like this”, he said. “The YMCA, with its vast network, has an important role to play in advocating for a just peace in our region, for peoples living together as equals and in dignity, and for a different future where Israelis, Palestinians, Christians, Jews and Muslims live together in a beautiful mosaic of culture, faith and language.”
Rana Fahoum added: “On the ground, we are witnessing many initiatives of activists and civil society organisations which are trying to calm things down and to find a way out of this very bad situation. We need the voices of YMCA to be heard at a global level to advocate for justice”.
Hani Alfred Farah gave an update about the YMCA premises in Gaza: “A building near our offices has been hit, and we can’t access the site to see the damage. At the moment, all our activities have stopped”. He spoke about their recurrent challenges: “Even before these events, we didn’t have electricity every day, we didn’t have water every day. YMCA Gaza keeps calling for help and support from our partners and from the YMCA movement. We will continue our work. We will not lose hope”. YMCA Gaza has over 2000 members and runs a host of community and sports programmes.
Peter Nasir confirmed: “It’s time to put an end to all this. There is no magic formula. People need to know more about what is happening in Palestine. The best way is to visit us: come and witness what is going on here. Youth will change the future, and we are trying to influence these young people and to empower them to make that change. Visiting the Holy Land should be a mandatory stop in all YMCA programmes. You should come and see how this place has moved away from being such a holy place, into a place full of hate. We shouldn’t be quiet about this.”