January 4, 2017
“Some people feel that their stories, suffering, and lives are being exploited. I wanted them to feel that they own and would benefit from the project through their own contributions. I was overwhelmed by the support.”
— Reem Abu Jaber, Executive Director of NAWA for Culture and Arts
After decades of neglect, archaeological sites in the Gaza Strip are finally receiving needed attention. The ancient Saint George Monastery, locally known as Maqam Al-Khidir (sometimes Al-Khudr), is now open to the public following extensive restoration by a local NGO in Deir Al-Balah, NAWA for Culture and Arts, an organization that provides pyschosocial support for children.
While historical information about the site are scarce, the Survey of Western Palestine, carried out by the British Corps of Royal Engineers in 1872, suggests that the ancient Greek inscriptions found at the monastery reveal it was built during the late sixth century. The site has long been revered for spiritual and meditation purposes by both Muslims and Christians. Over the centuries, however, it fell into ruins and lost its significance. Situated in the city of Deir Al-Balah, Arabic for “Monastery of the Palms,” the site extends across an area of 200 square meters. Three domes top the monastery, which is surrounded by stonewalls. The main chapel is located underground, ten paces down a small flight of stairs to an area that houses three apses, where an historic water well was once used for drinking and baptism. In addition to two ancient Greek inscriptions, a stone tomb has also been found.
Reem Abu Jaber, Executive Director of NAWA, said the site restoration idea came about almost unintentionally. Her organization, which was founded in the Spring of 2014 by a group of young people, 80% of whom are female, works to provide psychosocial support for the city’s children through a wide range of cultural activities. Once the organization received proper accreditation, “I shared a post on Facebook inviting people to donate books to establish a small reading place in the area,” Abu Jaber explained. At the height of school vacation season, NAWA received 200 children within the first week.
Following the Israeli offensive in the summer of 2014, NAWA’s role became more critical. However, with limited space to accommodate the growing number of children in need, Abu Jaber and her colleagues worked to find a larger venue. The Saint George Monastery wasn’t an obvious choice. Initially, a local youth group suggested restoring the site and turning it into a youth center. Considering the possible reservations of neighborhood residents, Abu Jaber suggested that a children’s library would be more suitable.
Although she was born and raised in Deir Al-Balah, Abu Jaber has spent most of her professional life in Gaza City and abroad in the non-profit sector. “I didn’t have a penny, and wanted to take-on a historic site restoration,” she recalled. Her first instinct was to share the idea with as many people as possible. “It first began with an individual campaign, which garnered a lot of interest, because it’s both a Christian and Muslim site. It’s a wonderful message,” she said. Through her initial campaign emails, she managed to raise approximately 57,000 USD. The next step was to find the institutional and technical support needed to restore an historic treasure. Abu Jaber proposed the project to UNESCO in 2015, and the world cultural body agreed to work with NAWA through RIWAQ and IWAN Center, two renowned Palestinian organizations that work to preserve archaeological heritage.
Having secured the initial financial and technical support, site-restoration work began in early 2016. Neighborhood residents were wary of the project, however, and feared it would negatively impact their livelihood. “People were asking me, ‘Are you turning this place into an expensive venture?’” Abu Jaber said. With repeated wars, rampant poverty, and skyrocketing unemployment across the Gaza Strip, most people have become frustrated with NGO work; they no longer trust NGOs because too many swoop-in during the height of conflict, begin projects, and then move on to the next “hot” issue. This behavior has caused public mistrust and indignation at NGOs. “Some people feel that their stories, suffering, and lives are being exploited,” Abu Jaber explained.
To overcome this challenge, Abu Jaber held community meetings and encouraged neighborhood residents and business owners to take part in the project. “I wanted them to feel that they own and would benefit from the project through their own contributions,” she explained. Gradually, many from the community and beyond began to participate. “I was overwhelmed by the support,” she said. Neighbors contributed their skills without charge beautifying the street that leads to Monastery, the Swiss foundation Drosos agreed to cover operational costs for three years, the British consulate provided more furniture, and many people donated books to the library.