Gaza’s Orphans, Palestinian Civil Society and U.S. Philanthropy

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An independent NGO in Palestine called the Welfare Association, not affiliated with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, has created a special campaign and program to assist the thousands of orphans in the isolated, blockaded, and now devastated Gaza territory after last year’s invasion by the Israel Defense Force. The program and the fundraising technique are unusual for getting outside money, notably from individual American donors, deployed to help children in Gaza. With thousands of children orphaned by successive wars, the need is overwhelming. What the Welfare Association is doing in Gaza, given the devastation of the area, is quite remarkable, but the story isn’t just about one charitable organization in Palestine, but the efforts of Palestinian-Americans to spark a charitable movement among people of Palestinian origin to connect to and support civil society in Palestine through effective charitable giving in the U.S.

It may be difficult to imagine, but between the last three wars, from Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 to Operation Protective Edge in 2014, some 6,500 children in Gaza have lost one or both parents and are classified as orphans. In Gaza, orphans have lost parents in violent ways—bombs, missiles, building collapses—and seen the dead or dying bodies of members of their families or of their neighbors in the streets. No less than for combatants, the children who survive are often “shell-shocked,” the old term now supplanted by “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). The UNICEF field office in Gaza estimates that 373,000 children in Gaza need some sort of psychosocial support, over one-third of all children in the area. A good number aren’t getting any of that help.

Some 551 children, nearly 70 percent 12 or younger, died in the 2014 war. Save the Children estimates 1,500 became orphans in the most recent war, other sources putting the number much higher. In some cases, they have lost parents and older siblings, with tragic consequences. “Eighty-nine of parents report that their children suffer constant feelings of fear, and more than 70 percent of children say they are worried about another war. Seven out of 10 children interviewed now suffer regular nightmares,” writes Peter Beaumont for The Guardian. “What is also clear is that the loss of older teenagers…has affected younger siblings and parents, compounding a deepening sense of fatalism and hopelessness in a Gaza where the promised reconstruction has barely happened and whose outlook, Palestinians say, seems bleaker than at any time in recent memory.” Of the more than 3,400 kids who were injured in the warfare, several reports indicate that around 1,000 have been left with permanent physical disabilities. Some of those children may well have lost their parents in the war.

The Palestine Welfare Association has been responding to the needs of orphans since the previous Gaza war, and with conditions in Gaza worse than ever and little reconstruction occurring due to the Israeli boycott and blockade, the “powder keg,” according to Isaac Herzog, the head of Israel’s Labor Party, could “explode at any minute.” NGOs in Gaza could turn to pledges of international aid, but according to William Booth in the Washington Post, just about nothing has reached Gaza from the $5.4 billion for reconstruction pledged by several governments last October. Many people in Gaza are dependent on international aid from private donors, as the economy is not really functioning due to the Israeli blockade. (Unemployment in Gaza is huge, around 43 percent—according to the World Bank, the highest in the world.)

Responding to this dynamic has been a distinctive partnership between the Welfare Association and the Center for Arab American Philanthropy. The Fostering Leadership for Young Palestinians Fund (FLYP Fund) at the Center aimed to raise $200,000, relying on a $100,000 matching grant commitment from philanthropists Abbas and Samar Zuaiter of 50 cents for every dollar received from U.S. donors. The FLYP program would help orphans from the 2014 war, providing long-term, comprehensive support and counseling to 2,500 orphans ranging in age from infancy to age 22.

The fundraising strategy as envisioned by Maha Freij, the deputy executive director and CFO of CAAP, also served as a demonstration program to connect donors to an independent, secular, professionally managed organization providing assistance to civilians in Gaza providing desperately needed services. It isn’t hard to imagine that fundraising for Palestinian causes in general and for programs in Hamas-controlled Gaza is a hard sell. Working with the Welfare Association and having a matching grant commitment from the Zuaiters is as much a strategy of connecting donors to Palestinian issues and opportunities as it is raising money for the specific needs of the 2,500 children orphaned in 2014. As Freij explained to the Cohen Report, CAAP’s process of vetting and monitoring the Welfare Association creates a safe environment for donors potentially concerned about U.S. government restrictions on giving to charities in the Middle East. By connecting through CAAP and the Zuaiters’ matching grant commitment, CAAP not only helps the Welfare Association access donations that it might not otherwise get, but connects those donors through CAAP to other possibilities of providing support in Palestine.

The vetting of grant recipients in an unstable conflict zone like Gaza is important. Freij points out that part of the vetting of the Welfare Association is through the funding it has already received from other—and usually much larger—philanthropic institutions in the U.S. Among the Welfare Association’s funders have been the King Baudouin Foundation United States (with grants of $137,035 in 2013 and $233,474 in 2014) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (with $2 million for building libraries in the West Bank, Gaza, and in refugee camps in Lebanon). CAAP’s promotion of the Fund and the program of the Welfare Association draws in part on making it known to individual donors that these large foundations with extensive due diligence processes have weighed in to support the organization.

Beyond that, however, is CAAP’s own due diligence. Freij says that CAAP’s vetting is “to make sure the organization is good at what they do.” Freij visited the Welfare Association in Ramallah, and the CEO of the Welfare Association, Dr. Tafeeda Jarbawi, came to CAAP in Michigan, evidence that much of the vetting occurred through in-the-field investigation and one-on-one conversations to guarantee that the Welfare Association really knew its grantees on the ground and had an effective program design.

Notwithstanding the diligence of CAAP and the track record of the Welfare Association, what motivates a donor like Abbas Zuaiter to put up $100,000 to stimulate giving to the orphans program? A longtime investor and banker, including a 10-year stint as chief operating officer of Soros Fund Management LLC, Zuaiter was looking to get more people in the U.S. to see and appreciate the needs of Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere. As he told the Cohen Report, he felt that the example of a concrete, sustainable program would be a vehicle to spark the empathy of American donors, keyed to a credible organization—the Welfare Association—and with Maha Freij and CAAP, done in a transparent and accountable way. Working with CAAP in town hall meetings in Michigan and New Jersey, Zuaiter worked to educate donors about the program and the need, stressing the non-political dynamics of the Welfare Association. Freij described the orphans program and the Welfare Association’s capacities, and representatives of the Institute for Middle East Understanding addressed the factual dimensions of need in Gaza.

But Zuaiter added another element of the story that goes beyond the orphans program. He compared the giving of the Armenian and Jewish communities in the U.S. with that of Palestinians, noting that the “Palestinian diaspora” has a long way to go toward creating a more “organized approach to reinvesting in their own country and culture.” He explained that Palestinian-Americans are not less generous, but they may not have tangible connections to charities in Gaza and the West Bank because much of Palestine is an “occupied country.” Organizing giving for the Welfare Association’s orphans program is meant to show Palestinian Americans how to better leverage their giving for charities in Gaza and the West Bank.

Zuaiter’s new charitable giving plans are already taking shape beyond the orphans program. As the executive producer of the well-received 2013 film Omar, in which his brother Waleed played a leading role, Zuaiter is extremely interested in cultural issues and mentioned to the Cohen Report ideas for establishing and raising funding for a Palestinian museum in Palestine. A self-described “beneficiary of democracy,” Zuaiter has a strong appreciation of the importance of telling stories about life in Palestine in a credible way, reflected in the movie, in the idea for a museum, and in the competence of the Welfare Association’s program for vulnerable Gazan orphans. Strengthening mechanisms for the charitable engagement of the Palestinian diaspora is clearly part of Zuaiter’s agenda—and CAAP’s.

While it is admirable what the Welfare Association is trying to do with the help of donors like the Zuaiters and intermediaries such as the Center for Arab American Philanthropy, it is hard to imagine that within these conditions, anyone could effectively and comprehensively respond to the myriad challenges to the health and well-being of children in Gaza, much less children who have lost their parents and witnessed other family members and neighbors hurt or killed in warfare. Save the Children’s recent report, “A Living Nightmare: Gaza One Year On,” looked at the impact of the warfare on children based on a survey of 413 children and 352 mothers living in the parts of Gaza that suffered most in the “Protective Edge” battles. Indications of “severe emotional distress and trauma” suffered by Gaza children ages 6-15 include the following: around seven out of ten children having regular nightmares; 75 percent of children experiencing regular bedwetting; almost 90 percent fearing the prospect of more warfare; half of the children afraid to go to school; and behaviors such as listlessness, withdrawal, and isolation.

Freij is pragmatic and realistic about what it faces in Gaza. The problems are so immense in Gaza, Freij says, that CAAP doesn’t imagine that its fundraising for the Welfare Association or any other charity serving Palestinians is going to solve the problem. Working with the Welfare Association, CAAP isn’t trying to conjure a fundraising approach based on a complicated narrative about Palestine and more broadly the Middle East. Rather, connecting donors like the Zuaiters to the FLYP around orphans was a strategic decision on the part of CAAP. In her words regarding fundraising for Palestinian needs, “What is more attractive and emotional than orphans in Gaza? […] Orphans are a big deal in our culture…in Islam, God is saying you have to take care of the orphans, it is a number one priority.”

Fadi Elhindi of the Welfare Association told the Cohen Report of the organization’s commitment to “holistic intervention” with the orphans, providing services over cash assistance, especially because of the range of issues and needs of the orphans, including education, health, and, for the older orphans between the ages of 18 and 22, employment. Elhindi discussed the basic health needs of infants and the needs of disabled orphans, with costs of medications and medical treatment that require programmatic interventions beyond providing cash assistance to individual orphans. The Welfare Association has already provided assistance to orphans from the previous Gaza wars, but the numbers from the 2014 conflict are much higher. As a result, this isn’t really a new program, but the start of a seventh year of assistance to orphans capitalizing on the lessons from the early years of program implementation after the 2008–2009 war.

Elhindi, however, sees the broader context of the program, the devastation of much of the housing stock, the skyrocketing unemployment and poverty, the more than 100,000 internal displaces, the education and health systems of Gaza “near to collapse.” In addition to raising money for the Welfare Association’s orphans program, the organization has to turn to a network of partner organizations, such as the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme for both individual counseling and larger group interventions and treatment. But Elhindi noted that the trauma that affects so many of the orphans affects adults in Gaza as well. Gaza is a community in need of healing, beginning with the most vulnerable children who lost parents and other family members.

In actuality, the lifetime program costs of the orphans program is probably as much as or even more than $30 million. That’s just for the orphaned children themselves, of whom Maha Muhaisen, a WA staff person working on the program in Gaza, said, “These are not ordinary children. They have witnessed extreme violence; some of them have been witness to three wars, and it deeply impacts their psychosocial state.” But Gaza’s needs are much more overwhelming.

Notwithstanding the educational and psychological challenges facing these orphaned children, there’s also the additional, almost daunting issue of rebuilding Gaza from the cumulative devastation of successive wars. Former President Jimmy Carter recently wrote about Gaza’s rebuilding needs. Just in terms of housing, for example, Carter says that 16,000 units are needed to replace dwellings that were destroyed in the 2014 conflict, not to mention 5,000 units that remain to be rebuilt from previous wars and 80,000 more to accommodate population growth. However, Israel has restricted or closed most access points into Gaza, making access to supplies for rebuilding extraordinarily difficult. And all of that presumes that there isn’t another devastating war between Israel and Gaza, making these reconstruction numbers look small—and adding more orphans to the Welfare Association’s program responsibilities.

Freij hopes that donors who connect to Gaza through the program for orphans graduate to engaging in other issues in Gaza, for example, youth unemployment. In the West Bank, she says, half of university graduates do not have jobs. In Gaza, the conditions must be significantly worse, given the devastation of three wars and the impact of the Israeli blockade. By getting donors to experience the professionalism and reliability of the Welfare Association, both of its own programs and those of its own grantees, CAAP helps donors connect to a troubled region of the world which most donors wouldn’t connect to or know even if they were people with family roots in the Middle East, like the Palestinian-American Abbas Zuaiter.

The Zuaiter commitment to the FYLP through CAAP is really the equivalent of a donor-advised fund established at CAAP functioning as a community foundation for Palestinian causes and well-vetted, secular, non-political Palestinian charities. The strategic conception is building support for the Welfare Association while also structuring and strengthening a community foundation-like model for the support of Palestinian civil society. That may be the fundamental story behind the Welfare Association’s program for orphans, not simply delivering vital services to the most vulnerable residents of the war-ravaged area, but envisioning this important service program as a mechanism for undergirding Palestinian civil society in Gaza and for spurring a sustained organized Palestinian-American charitable connection here.