Project Hope was founded in the West Bank city of Nablus during the height of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Second Intifada. The conditions were harsh, unstable and extremely dangerous, characterised by frequent clashes between armed Palestinians and the Israeli military, 24 hour curfews enforced by snipers and tanks, and a siege preventing movement in and out of the city. Yet these very conditions are what necessitated the foundation of Project Hope to help address the needs of thousands of Palestinian children crowded into their homes cut-off from education, freedom and hope.
By Jeremy Wildeman, Project Hope Co-founder
In 2002, the West Bank city of Nablus was caught in the midst of what would turn into a nearly ten year long siege, with all movement in and out of this ancient valley community severely restricted by the Israeli military. Its economy collapsed, because there was no freedom of movement and no security. Villagers could not take their produce to market, students could not attend university and pregnant mothers were too often prevented from reaching a hospital. The city itself was wracked by near constant violence, with daily invasions by the Israeli military and nightly raids in search of wanted men. Death and destruction were the norm, and whenever a Palestinian attack was carried out against Israel, the reaction was swift and retaliation severe, inflicted upon entire cities where the entire population was presumed guilty for the actions of a few.
That mass punishment was put most horrifically on display with a 24 hour curfew imposed on the city for more than 100 consecutive days in 2002, enforced by snipers, jeeps and tanks. During the day markets were closed and all public services restricted; if you wandered out after dark, there was a very high chance that you would be caught by a sniper’s bullet. Nablus could not have been a more unsafe place to live, and a living nightmare for children to grow up in.
This curfew cut across the entire summer into the new autumn school year of 2002. With large families often of 5-7 children living in small crowded flats; the children could not stay imprisoned in their homes forever as their lives slipped away. More than anything, those children and their mothers wanted to reclaim their right to education and a future, and forced open the schools again in spite of the curfew. They had no choice but to go out, where they would be exposed to the violence that ruled their streets and sometimes spilled into their homes.
When I volunteered in Nablus at An Najah University during in 2002, I could not be but more shocked when confronted first-hand by the brutal realities of war, and a harsh occupation I had only read about. The streets were dangerous, made that way by a foreign military. Nearly daily those streets would fill up with bored and miserable children, who would throw stones at the jeeps and tanks until they were shot at. Every day children just trying to return home or escaping from their home imprisonment would run into that army and be exposed to extreme danger. Every night some of their homes would be violently invaded by soldiers, and because of this many could not sleep at night for fear those soldiers might come to take away a family member at 3am. When these children painted, they drew pictures of death and war, or of miniature-sized parents who could not protect them. When they played, they acted out conflict and funeral marches, even torture. This became the upbringing of an entire generation of Palestinian children.
With several colleagues, we responded to these conditions by founding an organisation dedicated to making the lives of those children better by focusing on the education that had become so hard for them to take part in, yet is so vital to their future. And not just their future, but their present, with activities that contribute positively toward their sanity, security, a sense of belonging, a break from the conflict, a chance at some normal childhood development, fun … and hope.
In spite of the enormous challenges that came with building a sustained an initiative under these perilous conditions, and with no funding at start-up, the principles we built Project Hope (projecthope.ps) on were sound, and the ideas we fuelled it with took hold and propelled us forward.
Since that time, tens of thousands of young Palestinians have participated in Project Hope activities ranging from English and French, to Computer Training, Graphic Novels, and an incredible number of different art projects, theatre and sports. Project Hope has become an intrinsic and well-respected part of the social fabric in Nablus, working with dozens of community organisations that range from small societies in refugee camps (which are barely able to afford tables or chairs) to major institutions such as An Najah University and our neighbour the French Cultural Centre, a quasi-diplomatic French representation. Project Hope has achieved this while inviting over 1000 volunteers from around the world to teach and to learn with Palestinian kids, becoming the biggest and best volunteer organisation of its kind in the Occupied Territories.
Perhaps precisely because Palestinians are cut-off from the world, they have a voracious appetite for international connections, and Project Hope is the premier provider meeting this demand. This is particularly valuable for young Palestinians who crave the chance to escape from their isolation, and who get the chance to practice English, French, and other skills they learn with Project Hope’s foreign volunteers. More than anything, this cross-cultural interaction represents an opportunity for us to overcome the boundaries of conflict, humanising the dehumanised and creating a connectedness that helps people to fight for their rights and to resist further conflict based on principles of peace and mutual tolerance.
Project Hope has been no small achievement after ten consecutive years of operations. Great praise should be given to my co-founders Samah Atout, Salem Hantoli and Abdulhakim Sabbah for making this initiative work, without forgetting the vital contributions of the many Palestinian youth volunteers (and staff) and international volunteers such as Bill Foote, Sandy Marshall and Jenny Gaiawyn without whom Project Hope could not have worked. Nor would this have been possible without crucial early funding out of Canada by the people at Zatoun and the Canadian Auto Workers union (now UNIFOR) for providing timely donations and confidence in our work, as well as the late James Graff of NECEF who gave much needed advice for setting up the organisation.
Jeremy Wildeman (BA Saskatchewan, MA McMaster) is a PhD candidate (Exeter) conducting research into the construction and development of international aid for Palestinians since the 1993 Oslo Accord. Previously he was a CEO-Cofounder of Project Hope (projecthope.ps), providing learning and arts opportunities for Palestinian youth in the West Bank. He has been a Guest Writer for the Palestinian Policy Network Al-Shabaka (al-shabaka.org).