Although a coastal city, Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip is known as an agricultural area. Today, with all export opportunities shut down and borders closed, the agricultural industry has suffered hugely. Deir al-Balah now has some of the highest unemployment levels and poverty rates in all of Gaza. For children, the town's strip of beach in front of Deir al-Balah refugee camp represents one of the very few places of recreation in the area.
To address this lack of opportunity, a local grassroots cultural centre – Nawa Association for Culture and Arts – has been working to establish a park for the town's children and families. In late July following many months of hard work by the centre's staff and volunteers the park was finally opened with a small ceremony and its daily activity programme began.
For Nawa's Director, Reem Abu Jaber, who herself was born and raised in the area, the opening of the park was a landmark day in the area but its realisation was only possible after many hurdles had been overcome. Even sourcing the basic construction materials such as wood and cement were seemingly simple tasks that took months amidst Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza:
"When we started developing the playground the Israelis had prohibited cement and wood from entering Gaza. We had to spend a lot of time searching here and there to find any available materials. The situation changes constantly, so every morning we had to monitor the news to see if they would allow these materials in or not."
Eventually the necessary materials were secured, piece by piece, in a painstakingly slow process and the finished park is a beautiful space which offers climbing frames, swings and spaces for cultural activities and performances.
The park is known by the name 'Al-Bayara' – a little-used word in today's spoken Arabic in Palestine, but a name that is in line with Nawa's policies of celebrating Palestinian heritage according to Abu Jaber:
"'Al-Bayara' is an historic name for traditional Palestinian gardens which were usually planted with oranges. The name was selected by the Welfare Association within their program to support a series of playgrounds across Palestine. We of course liked the name as in our work we try to link the children to their identity and heritage as well as nature, and of course joy."
Throughout the long summer school holidays Deir al-Balah's 'Al-Bayara' is open daily and has a team of qualified staff running activities throughout the day for the many local children who are already flooding to the park. For the children who have lived through so much over recent years Abu Jaber is proud of this achievement, but believes there is so much work that still needs to be done for Palestinian children trapped within the besieged Gaza Strip:
"It is important to work with all children, everywhere. In Deir Al-Balah there are few positive examples or opportunities for the children as it has the highest level of poverty in Gaza. Nawa is trying to light a candle inside the children's souls. Once this candle is lit, we trust that they will know their passion and mission. I am always amazed by the way that children can learn and develop positively, despite everything that they have faced."
Along with the Welfare Association, 'Al-Bayara' was also supported by various other bodies and individuals including the Bank of Palestine, WAY, and Mona and Bassem Hishmeh.
As well as enjoying the space, children are also given responsible roles in its management that include daily cleaning and litter-picking sessions and roles as activity leaders. Nawa's team is working with the children in the belief that it is not charity that they need but rather developmental opportunities.
Once the academic terms begin again in September, Abu Jaber has plans to bring regular groups of school and kindergarten students down to the park to play their part in the development of the space and its activities. But for now, Nawa's dedicated team believe that all the hard work and challenges were more than worthwhile as they witness the ongoing progression of Deir al-Balah's children as they participate in the wide range of new activities that are offered in 'Al-Bayara'.
Exclusive images by MEMO Photographer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.