By Claus Grue*
Operating in an area where the needs for humanitarian assistance are enormous and where 43 percent of the population is unemployed – of which 80 percent are youth – has its challenges.
Thousands of destroyed homes, a damaged infrastructure, frequent power cuts and a continued blockade don’t make life easy for the 1.8 million inhabitants in tiny Gaza - one of the most densely populated self-governing territories in the world.
"We suffer daily, but we never lose hope,” says Dr Issa Tarazi, executive director of Near East Council of Churches (NECC), part of the Department of Services to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR), which in turn is a department within the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). Around 100 staff are engaged in NECC’s activities.
"The main obstacle here is of course operating under occupation and siege,” he adds.
The constant unpredictability and fear permeating daily life in Gaza takes its toll on the population.
"The war in 2014 was devastating and worsened the situation. Health clinics were destroyed and 75,000 people still remain displaced,” Tarazi continues.
After more than 60 years in service, NECC has developed a strong base in Gaza and has become one of its main providers of primary health care.
Health program coordinator Dr Wafa Kanan administers a comprehensive operation with 25,000 individual beneficiaries annually.
"We provide access to doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, psychosocial workers, dentists and dermatologists at primary health care centres across the region. Our work is integrated with hospitals and we are well-coordinated with other non-government organisations, as well as with the Ministry of Health,” she explains.
Nevertheless, increasing demands and budget limitations require priorities. Mother and childcare is given special attention with focus on both medical issues and psycho-social support for children and mothers. A screening programme has discovered that a staggering 30 percent of children under school age are anaemic and 10 percent suffer from malnutrition.
"Health education, family planning and home visits to investigate why people are not coming to appointments with doctors are other measures designed to improve this situation," says Kanan.
A growing number of patients has increased the workload of NECC's 35 health workers. Thanks to a digitally managed health information system, valuable time is saved and easy access to reliable medical data secured, according to Kanan.
Due to a continuously unpredictable situation in Gaza, a six-month strategic stock of medication is necessary.
NECC recognizes that long-term sustainable development largely relies on education and employment. Consequently, an important part of its work focuses on economic development. The Technical Vocational and Educational Training program (TVET) provides three-year vocational training in carpentry/furniture making and welding/metal work, two-year training in electricity and motor rewinding and one-year training in dress making and secretarial duties. Two hundred students are currently enrolled in these programs.
"Seventy percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza is 14 - 30 years of age. Education is a key factor for a prosperous future,” says TVET program coordinator Mahmoud Al - Halimi.
To fulfill that dream, students are actively promoted to finish their education and 100 additional students are targeted to enroll on a yearly basis.
"We offer heavily subsidized student fees of $100 US, compared to the real cost of $2,000, which few students would be able to afford. We are networking with players in the economic sector, as well as international non-government organizations, to support educational programs and the employment opportunities that follow,” explains Al - Halimi.
Around 1,200 Christians reside in Gaza - a tiny minority in a population reaching two million. The Catholic and the Orthodox Church run four Christian schools in the area.
The overwhelmingly Muslim majority is similarly reflected in the NECC staff.
"In line with our Christian values, we employ people and provide services solely on the basis of needs, regardless of race, color, gender or political affiliation," says Tarazi.
Along with his Palestinian colleagues, he wishes for permanent peace more than anything else.
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant at the WCC.