FEATURE: Resilience of Gaza's people lifts spirits of UN aid worker

UN aid worker Johanne van Dijk chats with a participant at the Gaza Summer Games

17 August 2009 – The recent sight of thousands of kites in the clear summer Gaza sky, setting a new world record, is one of the many pockets of unexpected joy that propels the work of Johanne van Dijk, a United Nations aid worker in the area.

During the Summer Games, organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for the past three years, the record for the greatest number of kites flown simultaneously was shattered when thousands of Gazan children gathered to hoist almost 4,000 kites in the air late last month.

Seeing the young people of Gaza, which was rocked by conflict earlier this year, so happy has “affected me quite a bit,” said Ms. van Dijk, 34, who has served with UNRWA for nearly five years. “It's just amazing how they're able to move on, not to forget, but somehow to move on.”

Ms. van Dijk, who pursued Middle Eastern studies at university in her native Netherlands, paid tribute to “the incredible resilience of people, sometimes against all else, who still maintain that very remarkable and admirable spirit to go on and to try to provide a decent life for their children.”

Speaking to the UN News Centre on the eve of the first annual World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, she added that “the sense of humour that people have here has been quite exemplary for me to understand what it's like to grow up in a situation that's at time seems very hopeless, to maintain hope for better times.”

As an analysis and evaluation officer with UNRWA, which is mandated to assist over 1 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza and educates 200,000 Gazan children, Ms. van Dijk's work focuses on children with special needs and on boosting education standards in the area as part of a scheme known as the Schools of Excellence programme.

That initiative, launched in 2006, seeks to improve educational levels, which have sharply declined following years of occupation and the closure of crossing points.

Based on discussions with teachers, students and others, UNRWA has implemented remedial summer programmes and is also tackling the system of automatically upgrading students, many of whom were unable to attend school due to conflict, to the next level, regardless of their academic progress.

Ms. van Dijsaid the crossing closures have “touched every segment of society in Gaza ” and triggered increased poverty. The rise in unemployment meant that “kids would come to school hungry, and that's why a school feeding programme was very important because they obviously couldn't concentrate in the classrooms any more.”

“There is a generation obviously that is growing up right now that has had no contact with their neighbours, the Israelis, whatsoever, from both sides,” Ms. van Dijk explained, adding that although previous generations of Gazans had business contacts and friendships with Israelis, the closures have brought an end to that.

“So it's very unfortunate that you have people who are growing up from both sides with prejudices, not knowing each other, [without]communication at a very basic and important level.”

Her work takes her into the field, either into schools or into refugee camps, on a daily basis, and she is “always welcomed very, very warmly by both my colleagues in schools and the students,” the relief officer said.

Ms. van Dijk voiced pride in the work of UNRWA, which next month will mark its 60th anniversary, saying the agency “is often seen as a sort of beacon of stability.” The more than 10,000 national staff and handful of international personnel in UNRWA “have made really tried to make a difference.”

Israel's military offensive targeting Hamas militants on the tiny strip of land earlier this year killed over 1,400 people and injured 5,000 others, also reducing homes, schools, hospitals and marketplaces to rubble.

“That was one of the worst times that I've seen in Gaza , the extent of the violence, the not knowing where the next bomb would fall,” Ms. van Dijk said. “I think that's something that has terribly, terribly affected the kids.”

UNRWA reopened its schools – some of which, housing 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), were bombed – shortly after the end of the ceasefire was declared.

That move was “the only way to get kids back into a certain sense of normalization after what they've all been through because during the war,” Ms. van Dijk said.

Through such activities as the Summer Games, the UN agency is seeking to ensure that the children of Gaza “maintain an open mindset,” the aid worker said.

“These are just the things that make you feel happy on a daily basis to see that and to be able in that concrete sense to help out,” she highlighted.

Almost nearing her five-year mark in Gaza, Ms. van Dijk is excited about the challenges that lay ahead of her, seeking to return to Europe soon to possibly attain a higher degree in child protection, education in emergencies or a similar field.

“I hope that I have given to Gaza what I could,” she said. “Certainly, Gaza has given me a lot.”


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