How an NGO in Gaza Transformed a Centuries Old Historic Site

Before and after restoration: the Saint George Monastery in Deir Albalah, Palestine.

By Dorgham Abusalim

After decades of neglect, archaeological sites in the Gaza Strip are finally receiving needed attention. The ancient Saint George Monastery, locally known as Maqam Al-Khidir (sometimes Al-Khudr), is now open to the public following extensive restoration by a local NGO in Deir Al-Balah, NAWA for Culture and Arts, an organization that provides pyschosocial support for children.

While historical information about the site are scarce, the Survey of Western Palestine, carried out by the British Corps of Royal Engineers in 1872, suggests that the ancient Greek inscriptions found at the monastery reveal it was built during the late sixth century. The site has long been revered for spiritual and meditation purposes by both Muslims and Christians. Over the centuries, however, it fell into ruins and lost its significance. Situated in the city of Deir Al-Balah, Arabic for “Monastery of the Palms,” the site extends across an area of 200 square meters. Three domes top the monastery, which is surrounded by stonewalls. The main chapel is located underground, ten paces down a small flight of stairs to an area that houses three apses, where an historic water well was once used for drinking and baptism. In addition to two ancient Greek inscriptions, a stone tomb has also been found.

Reem Abu Jaber, Executive Director of NAWA for Culture and Arts.
Reem Abu Jaber, Executive Director of NAWA for Culture and Arts.

Reem Abu Jaber, Executive Director of NAWA, said the site restoration idea came about almost unintentionally. Her organization, which was founded in the Spring of 2014 by a group of young people, %80 of whom are female, works to provide psychosocial support for the city’s children through a wide range of cultural activities. Once the organization received proper accreditation, “I shared a post on Facebook inviting people to donate books to establish a small reading place in the area,” Abu Jaber explained. At the height of school vacation season, NAWA received 200 children within the first week.

Following the Israeli offensive in the summer of 2014, NAWA’s role became more critical. However, with limited space to accommodate the growing number of children in need, Abu Jaber and her colleagues worked to find a larger venue. The Saint George Monastery wasn’t an obvious choice. Initially, a local youth group suggested restoring the site and turning it into a youth center. Considering the possible reservations of neighborhood residents, Abu Jaber suggested that a children’s library would be more suitable.

The Saint George Monastery before restoration.
The Saint George Monastery before restoration.

Although she was born and raised in Deir Al-Balah, Abu Jaber has spent most of her professional life in Gaza City and abroad in the non-profit sector. “I didn’t have a penny, and wanted to take-on a historic site restoration,” she recalled. Her first instinct was to share the idea with as many people as possible. “It first began with an individual campaign, which garnered a lot of interest, because it’s both a Christian and Muslim site. It’s a wonderful message,” she said. Through her initial campaign e-mails, she managed to raise approximately 57,000 USD. The next step was to find the institutional and technical support needed to restore an historic treasure. Abu Jaber proposed the project to UNESCO in 2015, and the world cultural body agreed to work with NAWA through RIWAQ and IWAN Center, two renowned Palestinian organizations that work to preserve archaeological heritage.

Having secured the initial financial and technical support, site-restoration work began in early 2016. Neighborhood residents were wary of the project, however, and feared it would negatively impact their livelihood. “People were asking me ‘are you turning this place into an expensive venture?’,” Abu Jaber said. With repeated wars, rampant poverty, and skyrocketing unemployment across the Gaza Strip, most people have become frustrated with NGO work; they no longer trust NGOs because too many swoop-in during the height of conflict, begin projects, and then move on to the next “hot” issue. This behavior has caused public mistrust and indignation at NGOs. “Some people feel that their stories, suffering, and lives are being exploited,” Abu Jaber explained.

To overcome this challenge, Abu Jaber held community meetings and encouraged neighborhood residents and business owners to take part in the project. “I wanted them to feel that they own and would benefit from the project through their own contributions,” she explained. Gradually, many from the community and beyond began to participate. “I was overwhelmed by the support,” she said. Neighbors contributed their skills without charge beautifying the street that leads to Monastery, the Swiss foundation Drosos agreed to cover operational costs for three years, the British consulate provided more furniture, and many people donated books to the library.

Located at the “crossroads of cultures” at the intersection of Asia and Africa, the Gaza region was always a key geostrategic prize for consecutive empires and civilizations, such as the Assyrian, Pharaonic, Byzantine, Persian, Greek, Roman, Crusaders, and Muslim rulers. This history of blending and cross-fertilization has made Gaza rich in historical sites and antiquities, but only a very few have been excavated and properly preserved, while many others have been looted or destroyed over time. Compounding this archaeological tragedy is the problem of limited public awareness. The fate of Tal al-Ajul in southern Gaza is illustrative. It was the site of an ancient commercial port during the Iron Age. In 1999, Swedish archaeologists attempted to excavate the site but their work came to a halt when the Second Intifada broke out a year later. Ten years later, they learned that the land was purchased by a local family who built a three-story building where the historical site once stood.

For Abu Jaber, these issues are a personal passion. “I grew up in a traditionally designed home, with many features reflecting our archaeological heritage like apses and domes,” she described her grandparent’s home while lamenting the steady loss of Palestine’s archaeological heritage. The Saint George Monastery restoration is “a triple blessing,” she said, because it preserves a historic site and helps children overcome trauma through introducing them to their culture and heritage, especially because many of them are born into refugee camps defined by cement blocks and zinc roofs.

With the library now hosting programs for children, NAWA is working to provide an immersive psychosocial support experience. “We rarely use technology at the library,” Abu Jaber said. Most of the children have been severely traumatized, affecting their social interaction abilities. “We are providing a human interactive experience through developmental techniques that emphasize imagination to foster creative and analytical skills,” she explained. Story-readings and art projects are two examples of the activities children participate in at the library.

Abu Jaber is looking ahead with excitement to continuing NAWA’s work, which has so far included constructing recreational parks for children in the city, hosting a recurring science exhibition at the library, and opening a kindergarten.

Children participate in an outdoor story-reading activity at Alhakura recreational park, a project of NAWA.
Children participate in an outdoor story-reading activity at Alhakura recreational park, a project of NAWA.