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Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
19 June 2012

For impoverished adolescents in East Jerusalem, a safe place to play and learn

By Catherine Weibel

EAST JERUSALEM, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 18 June 2012 -- Few of the tourists who visit Jerusalem’s walled Old City know that meters from its iconic holy places, past a maze of narrow stone alleys and hidden stairways, thousands of children live in deep poverty.

Moussa, his wife and their four children live crowded in a dark, domed room that they have divided in two with a wardrobe. They share the kitchen and the bathroom with relatives living in separate rooms.

“I was born in the Old City and I am proud of it, but I would move out of the Walls tomorrow if I could afford to,” Moussa said, reflecting an opinion shared by most of the families we met, who said they stayed because of low-rent housing.

The sole breadwinner of the family, Moussa earns 4,300 shekels a month (about US$1,100), which barely makes ends meet. During his teenage years, he dropped out of school and took drugs, and hopes his children will not do the same. “I want them to live their childhood, but the Old City is not a friendly place for children,” he said. “They have no safe place to play, the schools are overcrowded and drugs are sold at every corner.”

Moussa’s 9-year-old son Mohammed shows the sofa he sleeps on at night, among his brothers and sisters. “My dream is to have my own bedroom and some space,” he said.

Poverty amid Old City splendor

The family lives in the Muslim Quarter, the most populated of all four quarters in Jerusalem’s Old City. More than 20,000 Palestinians live crowded in the Quarter’s centuries-old stone buildings.

A few blocks away, Miassar and her three children also yearn for privacy. The damp room they live in has only one window facing a wall, and their small kitchen and bathroom are shared with the neighbours. They have lived in deep poverty since Miassar’s husband became addicted to drugs and stopped working.

“I rely on relatives to help me feed my children,” she said. “Several times, my husband promised to stop taking drugs and find a job, but each time he relapsed.”

As she spoke, Miassar helped her 9-year-old son Mohammed use an inhaler to relieve his asthma, which was aggravated by the unventilated, damp room. Meanwhile, her 12-year-old daughter Lujayn tried to study. “To memorize, I read my lessons aloud in the room, but it disturbs my brothers and it makes my father angry,” Lujayn said softly.

Adolescent-friendly spaces

In the Old City’s jumble of stone, there are few open spaces where these children can find some measure of privacy, and release their youthful energy. The only escape from their cloistered life is Abna-Al-Quds, one of two UNICEF-supported adolescent-friendly spaces in the Old City, operated with funding from the European Commission.

Reached after walking through labyrinthine alleys, Abna-Al-Quds offers a surprisingly broad open space stretched along the Old City Wall. Entering the space is like arriving in a child’s dream: In every corner, boys and girls run around, giggling as they play football, basketball or ping-pong on the lawn. The adolescent-friendly space also provides advice about healthy lifestyle choices and drug prevention.

“When I see my children running around, it gives me hope,” said Moussa. “It’s a taste of normal life within the Walls.”

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