The Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP hosted a well-attended parliamentary event for Interpal at the end of October on “A vision for the future: meeting the special needs of Palestinian children”. Speakers included Ibrahim Hewitt, Interpal’s Chairman, Chris Gunness, Director of Advocacy and Strategic Communications at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and Tony Laurance, Chief Executive of Medical Aid for Palestinians. Palestinian Ambassador Professor Manuel Hassassian attended, as did a number of parliamentarians including Lord Raymond Hylton, Andy Slaughter MP, Mark Durkan MP and Tulip Siddiq MP.
Inevitably the meeting concentrated on the situation in Gaza and the impact of the current situation on children. As Chris Gunness pointed out, the blockade, tightened severely since June 2007, has devastated family life “and the spaces that children inhabit, both as individuals and as individuals within families and communities.” Ninety per cent of all water is undrinkable in Gaza and, he continued: “We estimate that, sometime in 2016, the water table in Gaza will be destroyed to the point of no return, so all drinking water will have to be imported. We’ve been saying this for years, but no one is really listening.”
Each household in the besieged coastal territory only has an average of eight hours electricity a day. “So in the winter you freeze, and in the summer you are stifling hot. Imagine being a child in that context,” said the UNRWA spokesman.
Unemployment stands at over 40 per cent, among the highest in the world. “Children see their parents, many productive and industrious people, going through the humiliation of unemployment and aid dependency. In 2000, 80,000 came to UNRWA for food. Today that figure is 860,000.”
Gunness shared the chilling assessment that between 70,000 and 80,000 explosive projectiles were fired by the Israeli army into Gaza last year, 10 per cent of which remain unexploded; there are possibly 8,000 items of unexploded ordnance waiting to explode or be found and defused. “The places where children play are places of death,” he suggested.
It was against this background that Interpal, to mark its 20th anniversary in 2014, committed $500,000 to fund UNRWA’s “Vision Project”, to help, as Ibrahim Hewitt explained, “some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children in Palestinian society.” The grant to UNRWA is the largest ever made by the British charity. It is a highly innovative project, designed to improve access to education and future opportunities for blind and visually-impaired children, initially in Gaza but also in the West Bank in the near future.
It was inspired by an eight year-old boy, Mohammed, who was blinded when an Israeli shell hit his home in Gaza, and then orphaned when a shell hit a mosque in which his father was praying. These tragic events were picked up by Winston Chen, inventor of the Voice Dream Reader, new technology that allows anything digitally imported onto a mobile device to be read to blind or visually-impaired users. Chen generously offered to make this technology available to Mohammed, and to other Palestinian children like him. The technology has been described as the new generation of braille.
The Vision Project will be rolled out in Gaza early in the New Year. Already the 300 iPads to be used are in Palestine and Voice Dream Reader software is being installed. UNRWA has trained the trainers, and training for teachers starts later this month.
The training is conducted mainly at Al-Nour Centre for Blind and Visually Impaired Children, and a further 160 children have been identified for training as part of UNRWA’s integration programme into the regular schooling system.
While the project is the largest ever to receive a one-off Interpal grant, the charity operates a range of projects in support of its education aid programmes, targeting children with disabilities and special needs in Gaza, the West Bank and the refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan. It is a long and never ending journey but one to which Interpal remains deeply committed.