Jerusalem -- Surrounded by drug use and poverty, peers who drop out of school or get married early, the seventeen-year-old with a shy grin has managed to turn his back on all that and concentrate on his future.
“I see what happens here, how some of the families don’t care, and I want something different for myself,” says Ahmed.
But he acknowledges he wouldn’t have done it alone. UNICEF’s Adolescent Friendly Space programme was key in convincing Ahmed to continue his education, he says. “I only decided to stay in school after the training,” he laughs. “I was going to drop out and get married.”
Now he plans to go on to higher education so that he can work at the same community center, the Burj Al-Luq Luq Social Center, where he spends so much of his time.
The life skills training that was crucial for Ahmed teaches young people how to lead and communicate effectively with others, how to handle conflict, drug prevention, HIV prevention and other usually-taboo subjects.
“The importance of this programme is that UNICEF views adolescents in their full potential,” says UNICEF Specialist Linda Sall. “They have a big role in society and are not just passive beneficiaries.”
The AFS programme is run in cooperation with 110 community-based centres (40 in Gaza and 70 in the West Bank). Nine are in Jerusalem. Burj Al-Luq Luq Social Center serves the surrounding Bab Hutta community, home to 12,000 people squeezed into Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Every month 175 adolescents participate in the AFS programme here.
“The programme is very important,” says Jamila Qwaider, Center Coordinator. “In each house here [in Bab Hutta] there might be 10 living in a small room. There are social problems, like early marriage and drug use. At 14, girls are being married off. A large portion of girls and boys smoke. The neighborhood is closed, traditional.”
Just over 65% of East Jerusalem residents, including 95,000 children, live below the poverty line, according to the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.
Adolescents in East Jerusalem face the risk of displacement, either due to demolitions of homes constructed without permits, or evictions. Burj Al-Luq Luq Social Center has a tent used for activities that has been issued with a demolition order by Israeli authorities, along with seven adjoining homes.
On the rest of the property, it runs a kindergarten, a computer centre, a sports centre, a place for adolescents and young people to learn new skills, as well as a centre for disabled adolescents.
The AFS programmes are free to students, supported by international donors. UNICEF’s programmes are funded by the Canadian international Development Agency, Swedish International Development Agency, the Italian, Norwegian and Spanish governments, and the Italian and Dutch National Committees for UNICEF.
“When you see the kids with a smile on their faces, this is a reward,” says 30-year-old Qwaider, who clearly loves her work. “Our impact isn’t seen in a day or two, but when it is, it is incredible.”
Against the Odds
Outside, in the centre’s shaded courtyard, a group of boys is hanging about. Many of them seem shy and unsure.
Ahmed is playing chess with his best friend at the center, Khaled. He knows he is an exception here. He says that of a class of 25 students, all but three or four have dropped out to become day laborers. Many of his peers he says are addicted to drugs.
“They treat me like I am not one of them,” he admits. But he seems to have no regrets.
“The pressure that is on him is very strong,” says Qwaider. “But his family is very supportive, and his confidence has increased day by day. I think he will succeed,” she says with a nod.