The town of Bethlehem is located on the West Bank, in one of the world’s most contentious areas. The Palestinian Territories are on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and their precise boundaries are heavily disputed. They include parts of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Hebron, as well as other cities such as Jericho and Nablus. Population is estimated at around 2.6 in the heavily populated West Bank.
As Palestine does not have full international recognition (although one hundred countries do now recognise it as a state) its future is uncertain. This uncertainty and constant conflict means that there is a Palestinian diaspora of around six million people; most of whom make their homes in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Violence and economic instability
The Territories as a whole suffer from widespread violence and economic difficulties ranging from military attacks mounted by neighbouring Israel to blockades which make daily life very difficult. The economic blockade put in place in the Gaza Strip in 2007 led to widespread shortages, poverty and unemployment. In 2010 when the security situation changed, the economy improved and grew by about 7%. It is estimated that around 46% of the population of the West Bank live below the poverty line, and around 17% are unable to find work.
Bethlehem has a population of 30,000 and its economy is largely based on tourism and related industries. Although there is international aid, the steps taken to eradicate poverty and hunger are hindered by the lack of social and economic development.
Children exposed to political violence
The Palestinian Territories’ population is predominantly young, with 53% under the age of 18. These lives have been shaped by violence and economic insecurity. As the economic climate has worsened, there has been a marked decrease in programmes aimed at improving their employment opportunities. Investment in housing, education and healthcare is low and the number of households living in poverty is increasing. Food has become more costly and incomes are falling.
Bethlehem’s children are not protected from the high level of public violence which regularly evidences the internal and external political struggles. Many children have seen friends or family members killed or injured. The region’s political instability has inevitably had a direct effect on their physical and psychological well-being.
Education has suffered too. In 2011 it was estimated that 22% of young adults were not enrolled in secondary schools. The main reasons for this are early marriage, poor educational achievement and the constant threat of danger when moving away from home. Alongside this, the fragile state of the economy means that many young people have to work and play their part in family businesses or farms, making it difficult for them to attend school regularly.
How is SOS Children helping?
Our Children’s Village in Bethlehem was founded in 1969, close to the historical Shepherd’s Field are in the West Bank. We work with local experts to ensure that what we do and how we do it is appropriate to the local situation and opportunities.
Working with the wider community
The distressing living conditions in the area around our Children’s Village make our work particularly important. The lack of affordable medical facilities led to the creation of our permanent and mobile health centres which serve the wider community. Our primary school was opened in 1997 to meet the educational needs of the children in the area, as well as those of the children in our care, and offers quality education to over 400 pupils. Likewise, our nursery looks after the youngest children in our care and is open to children from neighbouring areas. This allows parents and other relatives to work or undertake training, while their children are safe in our care.
We work closely with local agencies to set up common goals and strategies to address key issues. We support children at risk of losing the support of their families to help stabilise the unit and, where appropriate, we provide supplies such as food or fuel. Where the needs are more complex we can provide micro funding to start a business, or by helping a community to develop processes and relationships which will enable a group of families to help each other.
Caring for children who have lost their families
Taking a child into our care is very much a last resort and is only done when the child has nowhere else to turn. In our Children’s Village, they find comfort, food and education provided for them by our loyal and hardworking mothers and other staff. Their physical and psychological medical needs are taken care of. But most of all, we offer them safety and security.
SOS Children is helping young people in Bethlehem make the best choices to build their lives in spite of the political climate.