Su McClellan from Embrace the Middle East is coming to speak to us on Christ the King Sunday – 20th November
It’s a beautiful balmy October evening. The sun has gone down but it’s still warm. There’s laughter, and the sounds of young men playing basketball and young women playing football float on the air. Younger children squeal in delight as they whizz down the slide or go higher and higher on the swings. This could be any outdoor play area in the Mediterranean. Only it’s not. This play area is in Gaza City and it’s part of the Gaza YMCA.
There are clues to this playground’s location. The young people are not dressed in the latest fancy sports gear. The flood lights over the sports pitches are powered by solar panels on the roof. There’s a sign by the AstroTurf football pitch acknowledging the generous support of overseas donors, including Embrace the Middle East. There’s a gap in the street where a building once stood, until it was destroyed last year in a missile blast.
Gaza is not an easy place to visit. Permission must be sought from both Israel and the Hamas government within Gaza, with forms to fill in that ask for your grandparent’s names, your level of education and your ‘position in society’. The physical process of crossing into the Strip takes time and there’s seemingly endless bureaucracy to go through. Passports are scrutinized, more questions are asked and the experience of sitting in a transit hall minus your passport is unnerving.
This is not a place you can visit as an independent traveller, and each time I go I am always so relieved to see an Embrace partner waiting to meet me. The drive from the border crossing to the centre of Gaza City is not easy to describe. Aspiration and deprivation sit side by side. Cars share the roads with donkey pulled carts. Palm trees grow between dilapidated buildings and street sellers try to scratch a meagre living by selling coffee and tissues to people who are as poor as they are.
On a good day the population gets 4 hours of electricity. Those that can afford it have installed solar panels, those that can’t go without. At night it’s strange to stare at apartment blocks where so few of the windows are lit. 78% of piped water is undrinkable and whilst a new sewage treatment plant opened last year, much of Gaza’s untreated sewage goes straight into the sea.
The population of Gaza is now 2.17 million in a piece of land the same size as the Isle of Wight. 62% of people require food assistance. Unemployment is running at 47% with that figure rising to 62.5% in the under 29s. Child malnutrition is rife, not helped by the prevalence of worms and parents feel the desperation of not being able to feed their children properly.
Living and working in the midst of this blockaded territory are 1050 Christians. They are an extraordinary community who between them run the Al Ahli General Hospital, the YMCA, vocational workshops for both young men and women, mobile health clinics and several schools. Embrace the Middle East currently supports work at Al Ahli, the YMCA, Caritas, and the Near East Council of Churches. These projects make a tangible positive difference to the lives of thousands of people, and it is testament to the Christian community’s tenacity that they keep going in such challenging circumstances.
The reasons for the blockade have been well rehearsed elsewhere, but what is often left unsaid is its impact on the ordinary civilian population. These are people like you and me. They want to live in peace, raise their families and die of old age peacefully in their beds. The Christian population of Gaza are as imprisoned as those they serve, and yet they strive to show the love and compassion of Jesus to all in need. They understand their role as one of reconcilers and peace makers and yet without the love and material support of the church outside Gaza, they have nothing to offer but their love, compassion, and skill.
As the world’s attention has moved to focus on Ukraine, the Christians in Gaza are seeing a marked reduction in donations from international partners. This has meant that they have had to reduce the services they offer. Watching the director of the Al Ahli hospital turn away a desperate mother with her malnourished child broke my heart, but there’s been no choice but to close the child nutrition programme because there isn’t enough money to keep it going. That said, thanks to the continuing generosity of Embrace’s supporters, the hospital has been able to continue running its breast clinics and its osteoporosis prevention programme. These schemes keep people healthier for longer and save lives.
Prevention is better than cure and so the sports pitches and the youth programmes run by the Gaza YMCA help to keep vulnerable families healthy. Thanks to you, our dedicated supporters, girls can now play football in Gaza. This contributes to their wellbeing, keeps them fit and gives then a break from the unrelenting challenges of growing up in Gaza. Thank you.
The Christian community of Gaza refuse to be victims. They strive to love God and neighbour and they are shining examples of the compassion of Christ. They are our sisters and brothers, living in the land that is the cradle of our faith. We with them are part of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). Thank you for standing with them.