Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Children in Silwan “forced to grow up very quickly”

By Marta Feirra - February 23, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Silwan]

Photos by Marta Feirra.

It is early in the afternoon and children start coming to the Madaa Youth Centre, in Silwan, East Jerusalem. They play with dolls they made themselves, and run around the centre. But their carefree play is short-lived, as children start arriving to the centre with a concerned expression on their faces. They point outside. “Soldiers,” they mutter.

Heavily armed border police officers stand just a few meters from the youth centre, surrounding a nearby beauty salon. Some police officers stand outside, holding their rifles to their chests, while others search the salon. They are looking for “weapons and drugs,” says one of the officers.

But in Madaa, a grassroots organisation created by local residents in 2007, children continue with their activities. Silwan is a highly militarized area due to the presence of Jewish settlements in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood, where around 500 settlers live among 45 000 Palestinians.

“Life changed in the 90s when the settlers started coming,” says Sahar Abbasy, deputy director of Maada Centre and a resident of Silwan. “They came to the neighbourhood with the idea that they have more right to be here than us. The presence of settlers and the military creates a lot of tensions,” she adds.

Located outside the walls of the Old City, Silwan is believed to contain the archaeological site of ancient Jerusalem, making it one of the most disputed areas in East Jerusalem. Based on the assertion that it is the site of Biblical King David, Jewish settlers claim their right to move into the neighbourhood and to reinstall a Jewish presence in the neighbourhood.

According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, the settlements “infringe the right of the local Palestinians to freedom of movement, privacy and security.” The constant presence of security forces “intimidate the residents” and limit their movements, “even of children wanting to play near their homes.”

Israeli Border Police officers in Silwan.

“What kind of life can children have here?”

More than half of the population of Silwan is under 18, and around 75 percent of the children live under the poverty line, according to statistics from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

“What kind of life can children have here?,” asks Sahar. In the last months, with an increase in violence, more children are being arrested and interrogated under conditions that violate both international conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Israel’s laws on the rights of minors.

According to the organisation Defence for Children International (DCI), arrests of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem have increased markedly in the last months. In the highly militarized neighbourhood of Silwan, “children are exposed to various forms of violence,” says Bashar Jamal, advocacy officer for DCI. Moreover, “the possibility of children getting arrested by Israeli police is very high,” he adds.

DCI reports find that 80 percent of the children detained in East Jerusalem have been physically ill-treated during arrest, while 75 percent were interrogated in the absence of a family member. According to Bashar, the practice of child arrest by Israeli police systematically violates Israeli civil law.

In Silwan, children are frequently taken from their beds in the middle of the night, interrogated without the presence of lawyers or family members and subjected to physical or psychological abuse during arrest and questioning. According to Madaa reports, most of them are arrested under the charges of throwing stones.

“My children didn’t have the same chances I had. They are forced to grow up very quickly”, laments Sahar. “We tell them: you are not fighters. You have other means to resist, you don’t need stones.”

Sahar explains Madaa’s activities are aimed at releasing emotions, and providing children with educational and recreational activities. “Our activities are not political, but everything ends up being political here. If we ask children to draw something they will draw a soldier shooting or a bulldozer.”

Inside Madaa centre, 13 year-old Tala Shalodi mentions the armed officers surrounding the neighbourhood. “Life here is very difficult. Over the last three months there have been many problems at school. There were many clashes close to it, so classes were interrupted often,” she says.

She likes to study languages and wants to be a journalist when she grows up. “My dream is to change things in Silwan through my writing. I want to talk about the crimes that happen here, about our life under occupation,” she tells the Palestine Monitor.

Recreational activities at the Madaa center.


No space for dreams

Yara Dowani, youth coordinator at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), says most young people in East Jerusalem face the same problems. Besides the psychological toll of fear and anxiety caused by the daily military presence, there are concerns with the lack of space and with a very high drop-out rate among high school students.

“There are no safe spaces for children to play,” says Yara. “It’s hard for them, they have no hopes for their future, little hopes for a career. Many prefer to work in restaurants in Israel because they need to support their families,” she adds.

According the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the drop-out rate among senior high school students in East Jerusalem is 40 percent, while almost 20 percent of all students between grades 7 to 12 discontinue their studies.

Across the street from the beauty salon being searched by Israeli forces, a group of teenage boys plays football in a field which also belongs to the Madaa Community Centre. They seem used to the presence of armed officers and the large Israeli flags fluttering on top of the nearby settlement.

The football field was established in a local family’s yard as a solution to the lack of parks and playgrounds for Palestinian residents in Silwan. The lands that used to be open to the residents have been fenced and locked by the City of David, the national park run by the settler organisation Elad, which aims at obtaining homes in Silwan to, “strengthen the Jewish presence” in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood.

“Five years ago I decided to make a football field in my yard for the children who live in Silwan. There is no land for children to play here,” says Amin Siyam.

Amin’s brother, Jawad Siyam, founded the Madaa Centre with the support of the family. It was created as a place for the people of Silwan to come together, and as an alternative for children. Instead of stones, they carry pencils and watercolours.

The football field in Siyam's yard.



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