‘In the beginning, the kids who came here were violent’, says Mohammad Abu Sbitan, director of the social centre, ‘they used bad language, were rude and restless. But now we’re beginning to see results.’ His eyes light up a little over his study office desk. ‘The children are polite and at ease with themselves. Before, they could not sit and listen to a story for more than 10 minutes. Now they will sit quietly and enjoy a story all the way through.’
The social centre Abu Sbitan oversees is located in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, a district with a very high population density but disproportionately low support from the local government. Under-spending has left the streets filled with rubbish, schools drastically overcrowded, and no open spaces for local children and adults to relax and play.
Walking up to the Burj Al Luq Luq social centre, you could be forgiven for thinking you have stepped out of the slums of the Old City and into a dream. Barely had I walked into the wide compound when a boy (Mustafa, pictured) came from grooming a horse to give myself and my companions glasses of chilled mango juice. I looked about: no-one had asked him to do so. Abu Sbitan’s words about the behaviour of the children rang true.
The centre itself is something of an outcast – at least, from the perspective of the Israeli government. Established in 1991, it was built by local residents to protect the land from being razed and developed into Jewish-only settlements. Since then, it has encountered numerous challenges to its existence. For example, the centre currently boasts a large outdoor marquee which hosts weddings, funerals, and activities for children with learning difficulties. The Israeli civil service has issued two demolition orders on the marquee, and if the orders are not challenged successfully in court, the marquee will be destroyed.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem – as in much of the West Bank – face a double bind. On the one hand, any Palestinian land that is left unused for more than 6 months automatically becomes the property of the (Israeli) state, and will often be put into municipal or military use, or handed over to Jewish settlers. On the other hand, any Palestinian who wishes to use the land faces a labyrinth of bureaucratic processes to get permission, which is almost invariably denied or postponed for decades.
‘Keeping active, using the land, is part of the struggle to stop this district becoming colonised,’ Abu Sbitan explained. The centre boasts a library, kindergarten and youth sports centre, and offers workshops in first aid, life skills, hygiene, computers, drama, and special workshops for children with learning difficulties. Over 170 local children make use of the centre, and dozens of adults volunteer or take part in activities here. The centre relies on foreign agencies for 99% of its budget, as the Israeli state offers no assistance.
I asked Abu Sbitan what he saw as the most crucial work the centre offers. ‘What we’re doing is giving children here an alternative. Many of them drop out of school due to class overcrowding. The streets are cramped and unsafe. Here, children can pick up skills and continue their education. They can release their youthful energy, and be themselves.’ Such work can be seen to resist the social and cultural damage caused by Israel’s occupation. ‘Since we started in 1991,’ Abu Sbitan says, ‘I have felt a change in the atmosphere of the whole Muslim Quarter.’