Grand Finale to the UNRWA Gaza Summer Games
Gaza, September 2007
Six thousand children and their parents line the seashore on a Saturday afternoon, watching thousands of kites being launched into the sky. A spectacular sight anywhere; more so in Gaza, a tiny strip of land from where news tends to be mostly bad news. Ordinary Gazans enjoying a day out rarely makes the headlines.
The reality in Gaza is grim, especially for the youth there. The dire economic situation and frequent disruptions to young people’s education as a result of IDF military operations and factional fighting has resulted in 1,597 teaching hours, or a total of 160 school days, being lost so far this year. A reality worsened by the lack of essential recreational facilities.
Last summer, the beaches of Gaza were empty due to the large-scale ‘Summer Rains’ IDF military operation. Riyad, 12 years old, who participated in the Summer Games environmental awareness activities puts it this way: "Last summer I sat at home doing nothing. This year, I am using skills I didn’t even know I had. My parents are so impressed they want me to teach them the things I have learned!" Amazingly, some of the participants in the beachside activities, such as 12-year-old Mohamed from Khan Younis, had never seen the sea before, despite the fact that Gaza is only 12 kilometres wide.
UNRWA’s Summer Games have provided a much needed break from the daily hardships faced by these 192,000 youngsters and their families. The two and a half months of activities, which began on 23 June, culminated in a series of Gaza-wide festivals held throughout the last two weeks of August: kite-flying, a mini marathon, showcases of traditional Palestinian dancing, singing and theatre plays, an art exhibition displaying paintings by the winners of a mural competition, sports finals including a swimming final held in one of the five purpose-built beach locations, and a ‘Young Environmentalist’ art exhibition featuring objects made from recycled materials. In addition, smaller scale festivals and celebrations were held in each of Gaza’s five governorate and local community centres.
The Summer Games have had a positive impact throughout the Gaza Strip. "Almost everyone in Gaza has been affected in a good way by the Summer Games, from the parents who send their children to the activities, to the man with the donkey cart who is transporting refreshments for the kids at the Summer Games locations," says Awni Al-Sawaferi, a local taxi driver from Gaza city. His colleague Hani Al-Masri jokes, "This summer I can drive much more safely. All the young boys who usually roam the streets blocking the road are taking part in the Summer Games. Thank you UNRWA!"
The momentum generated by the Summer Games led some of the 195 participating community centres to organize parallel initiatives. One centre, for example, organized a street art exhibition in the narrow alleyways of Beach camp, where the work of children and local artists was displayed. This was the first such event in years.
13-year-old Reham has the final word on the impact of the Summer Games in Gaza, "For the first time," she says, "I feel free. I am able to leave my home and mix with other girls. I have made new friends. I am able to laugh out loud and express myself freely." One only hopes that she has further opportunities to do so in the future.
By Saskia Marsh