Real Lives

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Palestinian women and children overcome distress beneath Jerusalem’s Old City Walls

By Catherine Weibel

East Jerusalem, occupied Palestinian territory, 3 April 2012 - The steep, winding lanes of Silwan sprawling beneath the Old City walls are among the most ancient and picturesque locations in Jerusalem. But they are also home to one of the most densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods in the West Bank, where poverty and violence are part of daily life.

“People literally live on top of each other, which creates a lot of friction and tension”, says Abeer Zayad, the head of Silwan and neighboring Abu Tor’s only Women’s centre. Today about 30 women and children are crowded on sofas and plastic chair in its main room. “We are crowded in our houses, we are crowded in our neighbourhood, we are crowded in our schools” says 12-year old Iman*. “In Silwan we have no library, no safe area where we could play like other children in the world”, she complains.

Muna, one of the mothers, describes the neighbourhood: “In Silwan, the trash is not collected, rats run between the houses, the streets turn into pools any time it rains and there is no parking. The only way we can fix the crumbling streets is to collect money in the neighbourhood and do it ourselves”, she says. “The Israeli authorities have not built safe play areas and because schools are not in sufficient numbers, many children, especially boys, hang out on the street where they are exposed to sexual abuse and drugs.”, she adds

The Women’s centre is part of network of 16 psycho-social groups that offer psycho-social support to help Palestinian women and children overcome anguish and stress related to experiences of violence. With support from UNICEF and the Palestinian YMCA, and with funds from the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO), their workers are trained to identify signs of trauma and stress, provide psychological support and refer cases to specialized services when needed.

“All our children experience heightened violence because of poverty, rivalries between local families, drug trafficking and Israeli settlements pressing into our dense Palestinian neighbourhood”, another mother reports.  “There is a general lack of law and order because the Israeli police does not take action against drug traffickers or criminals, they’re only interested in patrolling around settlements”, she complains.

Living under the threat of settlers and home demolitions

The development of settlements, coupled with evictions orders, has heightened tensions in Silwan. “Children are too scared to walk alone to school because of the settlers”, Muna explains. Some settlers and their armed guards are known to harass or even attack children. In 2011, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by a settler and a ten-year old boy injured. In addition, 74 children were injured by Israeli Security Forces, who accused some children of throwing stones and carried out arrests.

In the context of settlements, it has become extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building licenses from Israeli authorities in Silwan. Confronted with a serious shortage in housing, many have been left with no choice other than to build without a permit, exposing many families to the risk of demolition**. 

“Some children put toys or clothes in their school bags instead of textbooks”, says Abeer, “They say it’s in case their house be knocked down while they are at school”. The centre tries to help children overcome their anguish, and advises parents who have no idea how to prepare their children to the possibility that their home be demolished overnight. “A 9-year-old girl told her mother not to worry, that she was going to look for a tent so the family would not be left under the cold rain”, she reports.

A general climate of violence

“There is a general climate of violence in Silwan”, Abeer sums up. “Families fight each other and their children do the same at school. Most youngsters I’ve talked to think it is normal to beat up one’s wife or fight with one’s neighbors. The centre teaches them how to solve their problems without resorting to violence”.
Like many women in Silwan, Munat could not finish her studies because she married early. ““Children need to be safe, and for this their mothers need to be educated”, she says, adding that she wishes there were a place where she could resume her studies. “In the meantime, I come to the centre because I can attend lectures, share my stress and learn skills to protect my children from becoming victims like so many children before them.”

* The names have been changed



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