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Self Help In East Jerusalem

Manal Badrin


East Jerusalem's Arab community of 177,000 residents is about 30% of the total population of' the city, spread over a wide geographical area, with little public transportation. Physical infrastructure and public services are poor or non-existent.

Residents in East Jerusalem suffer from severe hardships. They have a high birth-rate and thus large families - 50% of East Jerusalem residents are under 18. There is high unemployment and 50% of the population live below the poverty line. Many families have members who suffer from some form of' disability and there is a high percentage of rejected, neglected or abused children. East Jerusalem residents have limited knowledge about their civil rights and ways to avail themselves of their rights. The residential status of many is not clear, and hence their entitlement to rights is unclear.

The family structure is traditional and patriarchal. Girls sometimes marry as young as 15. The issue of' children's rights' is not developed as in modern societies: physical punishment is considered an acceptable form of parental authority. Child labor is normative, and considered youngster's contribution to the family's maintenance.

East Jerusalem residents with Palestinian political identities do not identity with Israeli institutions values or laws. They feel alienated and foreign, rejected by the establishment This identity was strengthened during the 'intifada'

The Arab population of East Jerusalem has been undergoing extensive change, which peaked during the intifada resulting in a weakening of' traditional social mechanisms and networks. These changes have fostered new social problems and a wider recognition of' existing ones: family violence, substance abuse, youth in distress and children at risk. This resulted in seeking more professional assistance from municipal and other government organizations.

The Social Services Bureau in Fast Jerusalem is the primary agency for the treatment of family and community problems. The Bureau deals with approximately 7,900 families each year. The needs of these families are great and there is often a wide gap between their needs and the resources given to the families In recent years, the Social Services Department of the Municipality of' Jerusalem has made a great effort to close the gap in the level of' services between East anti West Jerusalem, maximize effectiveness of' existing services and develop new ones that are culturally appropriate to the needs of the East Jerusalem population.

History of Self Help Groups in East Jerusalem

The idea of' establishing self help groups in East Jerusalem started in 1989. A patient undergoing dialysis told the East Jerusalem Social Services Bureau about the language problem Arab patients had in Israeli hospitals which hindered communication with medical staff', and resulted in their not understanding their rights. This concerned patient began to act as a facilitator between Arab and Hebrew speakers in hospitals and became a catalyst for change. The number of patients requiring his service grew and he was unable to help everyone. East Jerusalem Social Service Bureau discussed the problem and decided to appoint a social worker to establish and facilitate the first self help groups. A coordinator was hired to set up additional self help groups and provide advice and supervision to group leaders and members.

Self Help Groups in East Jerusalem

At present, there are three groups for the elderly, three groups for divorced or widowed women, three groups for families with children with special needs, a physical fitness group and a maternity group. There are also other groups: for dialysis patients, for people suffering from Thalassemia (a blood disease), for unemployed, for wives of drug addicts and for persons suffering from chronic illnesses.


The goals of' self help groups in East Jerusalem resemble those in other populations: to disseminate information about their problems, to help group members know and obtain their rights and to improve members' awareness of' available public services. We try to develop leadership skills and help people cope with stigma.


Operating self help groups in East Jerusalem has been a very rewarding experience for group members and for me personally, but there were also difficulties:

. Lack of awareness among East Jerusalem institutions and individuals regarding the self help approach.

. lack of permanent facilities for our activities.

. Patriarchal domination: nuclear families are unable to make decisions without referring to the extended family. This affects leaders of self help groups who often feel uncomfortable with their role and rely on the professional coordinator to solve problems which they should be solving.

. Difficulty in implementing the self help concept in East Jerusalem stems from the traditional and closed nature of' Arab society. Self Help is a Western notion, not always compatible with Arab culture.

. Difficulty in developing lay leadership needed to run groups the purpose of' volunteering is still unclear to many people, many of' whom are burdened with the hardships of daily existence and making ends meet and cannot afford to work without remuneration.

Future Prospects

We firmly believe that the concept of self Help can flourish in East Jerusalem, if we make the following efforts:

. Increase public awareness about the value of the self help concept.

. Increase cooperation and coordination between government, public bodies and self-help groups.

. Continue efforts in strengthening the umbrella organization for self help groups in Fast Jerusalem.

. Strengthen existing and develop new leadership in self help groups.

. Increase independence of self help groups reduce their dependence on professional coordinators.

We have come a long way. We have learned that the processes that accompany the formation of self help groups can vary from one culture to another.

The challenge is great and we look forward to good results in the future.

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