A New Park in Palestine Builds a Healthy Community
Anera recently built a modern and accessible park for Um Salamuna, a community of 1,100.
Um Salamuna is home to around 1,100 Palestinians, and like many communities in the West Bank, it struggles with unemployment, poverty, and political marginalization. Among the village's many needs was a park for families and children that would allow for quality playtime in a safe environment. Residents had to travel some twelve kilometers to Bethlehem where the nearest park was located. But in this community, making that commute was a financial burden for many families and something they could not afford. Inevitably, most children spent their free time playing in the streets.
To help the struggling community, Anera built the first ever public park in the village. With a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and olive trees, the park contains a playground with some fitness equipment, a large multipurpose room, a small amphitheater, handicap-accessible bathrooms and ramps, Braille signage, family seating areas, a canteen, and colorful murals with uplifting, positive messages.
Making New Friends at Um Salamuna Park
On a beautiful summer day, 10-year-old Ruwaidah suddenly stops playing on the seesaw and decides to tell us about her new best friend. With a smile on her young face, she introduces us to 9-year-old Ahlam. The two met at the park earlier this summer – a park Ruwaidah describes as “pretty, colorful, and, most importantly, clean!”
Now, standing by the slide, Ruwaidah tells us that she would often get bored playing alone or with her siblings on the road in front of her home. “My parents would always worry about me and my siblings.” Ruwaidah giggles as she tells us her parents’ favorite, stern quote, “The streets aren’t for children to play on; the streets are for cars!”
Ahlam lives on the other side of the village, but is still within walking distance of the new park. “I knew of Ahlam before, but we weren’t really friends until I actually met her here and we started playing together.” Not only has Ruwaidah made new friends, but her mother has as well, becoming friends with Ahlam’s mother. “This has been the best summer of my life!” Ruwaidah shouts just before she pushes herself down the bright blue slide.
Building Family Ties in Palestine
Before the ‘magical day’ came, fifty-nine-year old Suleiman struggled to find places to take his family for fun. This was a regular dilemma for most of the residents, but it was not acceptable to someone like Suleiman. “When you’re the village’s Mukhtar (tribal chief) and a senior member of the village council, everybody expects you to have all the answers, but I certainly didn’t,” Suleiman explains.
One of the most common complaints he heard from parents was the lack of space for kids to express themselves and have fun. Many parents worried that their children spent too much time in the streets, especially during the summer holidays. Although the city of Bethlehem is twelve kilometers southwest of Um Salamuna, Suleiman stresses that “the financial burden of paying for taxi fares or fuel adds up, especially when there is no income. Many residents are barely making ends meet.”
Suleiman was no stranger to the grievances of his fellow villagers. He is the father of 10 children and grandfather to 30. “I am a family man, and I love spending quality time with all my children. But unfortunately I was not able to spend as much time with my older children as I do now with my younger ones, like Ameer here, because there was nowhere to take them until this magical day came.”
The new park created a safe and healthy environment for the children. “It’s a magical day because one day it was quiet and then suddenly there were activities and it was like the people were asleep and just woke up. You saw more people spending time with their children and neighbors. Travel to Bethlehem for recreation is no longer required,” Suleiman says, adding that he, like most of the villagers, used to drive more than thirty minutes to find a park in Bethlehem or surrounding villages.
Suleiman is trying to make up for the lost time with his older children by playing with his grandchildren. When we met him, he and his wife, Anaya, and their son, Ameer, were making their daily outing to the park. Before the park opened, Suleiman and Anaya described their son, Ameer, as shy. After spending more quality time with him, Anaya says her son became happier and more socially active.
Job Creation in a Struggling Palestinian Community
Um Salamuna has big plans for a healthier community, and is slowly working towards increasing the sense of ownership and commitment to the park – an important first step for the village. The park charges a symbolic entrance fee and residents sometimes pay small fees for performances. This money goes towards operating the park and keeping it clean. Most of the villagers say it is a small price to pay for a state of bliss!
Furthermore, the establishment of the new park has created a number of job opportunities. Immediately after it opened, a guard, a canteen person, and a maintenance person were hired on a full time basis by the village council. It may not seem like much, but for a village with over 35% unemployment, this was a significant addition for the community.
The Park for Social Inclusion & Personal Development
Featuring a large meeting room with chairs, tables, A/C and a white board, the park can be used by residents of the village for workshops, trainings, meetings, and other social activities. Every so often, the village council provides necessary trainings and workshops to keep the residents engaged on various communal issues which in turn foster a sense commitment and ownership. The village council attributes Ameer’s change in behavior, and that of many other children, to the many activities held at the park, such as summer camps and nature walks.
Educational classes, workshops, and trainings have been arranged for various age groups. For example, the village council took advantage of the summer break to organize Tawjihi prep classes in the park’s meeting room to help graduating high school students prepare for the mandatory exam.
The village council also brought the community together by screening the 2018 World Cup soccer games. This park is also fully handicap-accessible, ensuring that children and adults with disabilities can join in the fun along with everybody else.