If you saw a picture of Dura you might think it is an easygoing town. Situated on a hillside with olive orchards nearby it has a pastoral Mediterranean look. But come to visit and stay a few days, and you may find a very different reality. On the ground, Israeli military regularly patrol the streets carrying assault rifles ready to fire; rounds of tear gas are shot off, sometimes on “school hill” when the primary girls’ and boys’ schools are in full session; and loud explosions frequently rock the city.
Located in the heart of the West Bank, the children of Dura have grown up afraid to dream, while their parents have struggled to earn a basic living. The unresolved political stalemate over Palestinian statehood between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, perhaps best symbolized by the Israeli construction of the controversial Wall, has had the effect of disabling all normal social and economic life for the people of Dura.
“The occupation has closed our minds,” says Ayatt a 16-year old schoolgirl in Dura. “All we see and hear is about the blood, the fighting. This is all we have known.”
It is here that Mercy Corps’ Job Opportunities through Basic Services (JOBS) program is based. With funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Mercy Corps is constructing schools throughout Dura district’s sprawling villages and hamlets to promote employment opportunities and provide improved educational facilities and more classrooms to the overcrowded educational system. When completed later this year, the program will result in 89 new classrooms and benefit over 3360 students.
One of the major projects is the construction of a girls’ vocational school. Although most Palestinians recognize the need for women to work in order to increase family income, many rural families are reluctant or financially unable to send young women away for the necessary schooling. As a result, less than two percent of young women receive any kind of education higher than Basic School. This vocational school will be the first training school for young women (ages 16 – 20 years) in South Hebron and will aim to address the need for young women to receive a good education and increase their future employment opportunities.
“I have many hopes but my family cannot financially cover my hopes to make them a reality. I have eight brothers and sisters. My father sells fruits and vegetables. How can he afford to pay for higher education?” asks Ayatt. “With the new vocational school I will have a chance to study something interesting and create a better future. It gives me hope.”
In addition to providing opportunities and hope for many young women in Dura, Mercy Corps’ JOBS program also addresses the massive problem of unemployment and economic despair that face the general population. Over the past three years, Palestinian economic and social support systems have been severely damaged as Palestinians have endured the longest and harshest economic blockage in their history. Checkpoints, blockades and closures between villages, cities and regions have prevented laborers and farmers from manufacturing, producing, and marketing their products. Palestinian jobs in Israel and the settlements have been cut off, while severe losses to the tourist industry have forced thousands more out of work.
Since the JOBS program was started in November of 2002 it has made a significant contribution to easing the economic conditions in Dura District. By the time the construction work is completed in November of 2004, the program will have provided over 40,000 days of labor and put USD $1.2 million through the purchase of materials into the local economy. In addition, the new schools and educational facilities will provide long-term employment for over 150 teachers and administrators.
“Before we had empty time and empty pockets,” says Hamed, a construction worker at the girls’ vocational school. “This school construction project has given us the opportunity to support our families and regain our sense of self-respect.”