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From Humble Beginnings… The East Jerusalem YMCA

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.05.2008:

By Michel W. Asfour

The East Jerusalem YMCA (EJ-YMCA) is known as the warm and friendly place for Palestinian sports and youth work in the West Bank. Many sports leaders, players, and sports fans often used to stop at the YMCA before or after visiting the holy places or their families and friends, when access to Jerusalem was permitted. Even with today’s reality, the YMCA remains Jerusalem’s community centre for sports, social, cultural, educational, and recreational programmes and events.

The East Jerusalem YMCA’s history goes back to the Nakba

It all started when five young men from the Jerusalem, Palestine Y.M.C.A. – who were among the vast number of refugees that was to swell to a million before the summer of 1948 was over – set to work to meet a daunting challenge. They were not frightened by the catastrophe created by the Partition of Palestine. They were an unusual team for the work: a waiter, a janitor, a gardener, a swimming instructor, and an accountant who had been the business secretary of the Y.M.C.A. for some years (Labib B. Nasir). As they met to decide what to do, they realised that any plans had to be tentative, for they fully expected to be able to return to their former posts in the existing Y.M.C.A. in Jerusalem at any time.

Labib Nasir knew that to start a Y.M.C.A. programme in the midst of the misery, fear, and uncertainty of the Jerusalem of 1948 was out of the question and, quite wisely, the group did not attempt it but turned instead to the very pressing immediate needs of the uprooted thousands who had crowded into the hill country about Jerusalem. The services of the team were accepted by the International Red Cross, which went to Jericho to set up camps. The relief agencies could provide food, shelter, and medical care for the refugees, but it soon became evident to the leaders of the Y.M.C.A. that something more was needed for the young people. The team began to realise that the first challenge was to try to begin a programme of recreation and education. As they met in a tent – which held the office and residence of the general secretary – they decided that opening a school seemed to be a logical beginning. Thus it was that from this tent a significant programme developed – a programme that was to grow to provide a remarkable service to refugees.

In 1950, when some tools were offered to them by the World Alliance of YMCAs, the team soon found some men among the refugees who had skills and were eager to use them. Thus began a small vocational school project in carpentry and wrought-iron work. This project, which started so simply in a tent, became the East Jerusalem YMCA Vocational Training Center in Jericho.

Today, the YMCA operates a variety of programmes and activities consistent with its vision for holistic youth development. These programmes respond directly to the needs of people within all sectors of Palestinian society without discrimination. Special emphasis is given to young men and women.

In addition to the Vocational Training Center in Jericho, the YMCA also operates a programme department in Jerusalem, a rehabilitation programme and advocacy desk in Beit Sahour, and an extension services unit and women’s training programme in Ramallah.

In 1950 the YMCA began to provide services to the community in Jerusalem in a small building that houses the British Council today. The building included a guest house and an evening school to teach languages and accounting, and a games room. In the backyard of the building, Issa Al Tams offered training in weight lifting and body building and Nadi Khoury coached gymnastics, basketball, and tennis at the St. George’s School sports field across the street from the YMCA.

In 1965, the new YMCA facilities at 29 Nablus Road were built. The building consisted of a hotel, an auditorium, and the physical department, which housed the first indoor swimming pool and the first squash court in Palestine, besides an indoor volleyball court, a basketball half-court, a weight room, and a youth lobby for table tennis and indoor games. The outdoor playgrounds at St. George’s School were the foundations of a professional sports infrastructure for the Palestinian community.

In 1966 Prince Ra’ed Ben Zeid opened the EJ-YMCA sports facilities, and in 1966 and 1967, the YMCA organised and hosted the basketball championship games for the Jordanian teams.

In 1967, and directly after the hostilities stopped, the YMCA opened it facilities to the community at large to assist them in overcoming their frustration with the realities of an ugly occupation and to protect youth from the dangers of unstructured and unsupervised free time. In fact, the YMCA took on the role of a national ministry for youth and sports.

In 1968 the EJ-YMCA grew rapidly and began to hold training courses in swimming, gymnastics, squash, track and field, judo, wrestling, boxing, aerobics, and general fitness. Sports teams for all ages were formed for basketball, volleyball, handball, football, and table tennis. Women’s sports were encouraged as well by the formation of girls’ basketball and handball teams. In addition, social, recreational, cultural, and music programmes were also offered.

On the national level, the YMCA also played a leading role in reactivating sports in the West Bank by organizing and hosting sports tournaments and competitions at its facilities and, in 1969, gathering huge numbers of spectators in the first outdoor lighted basketball and volleyball courts in the country.

During the seventies and eighties, the YMCA sports programmes and activities were at their peak. Palestinian sports representatives and football fans remember the old good days when the EJ-YMCA hosted the first international football games: the EPA football team from Cyprus in 1969 and again in 1970, Quincy University football team in 1971, the British Airways football team in 1972, and Western Illinois University football team in 1973.

In addition to the international sports competitions, the YMCA hosted many tournaments and championships in various sports, but the Ramadan Championships were unique. Players from various Palestinian regions got together after the iftar to socialize, pray at the Dome of the Rock, or to play in various sports competitions. Hundreds of fans and spectators from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron gathered to enjoy evenings of sports and friendship in Jerusalem, their holy city.

The EJ-YMCA was an active member of the Sports Committee League for the West Bank and hosted its offices at the YMCA building from the time of its creation in 1980 until its mandate and responsibility for Palestinian sports were handed over to the PNA Ministry of Youth and Sports in 1994.

EJ-YMCA sports teams

The YMCA competitive sports teams were unique in their spirit, teamwork, commitment, and achievements. They came from and played in various towns and cities throughout Palestine.

Players were recruited and taken care of by Mr. Rimon N. Zabaneh (Abu Tareq), the physical director who, with the Sports Committee and many qualified staff and volunteers, supervised, trained, and coached different age groups and teams in football, basketball, volleyball, handball, and table tennis. Of those who contributed to YMCA sports, we should also mention the late Tony Aboud and Ali Kurdieh, Wassef Daher, Dr. Nassib Abed Al Latif, Michel Asfour, Kamal Shamshoum, Salah Abu Irmeleh, Akil Nashashibi, Khamis Abu Al Sa’ied, Hasan Al Halawani, Issam Helasey, Michel Karkar, Ouraib Al Nashashibi, Bassem Nijim, Suheil Shehadeh, Usama Kirri, Abdel Latief Geith, Ibrahim Al Atrash, Yousef Ifteha, Usama Al Sharif, and many others.

The EJ-YMCA swimming pool: 43 years of swimming and aquatics programmes

The EJ-YMCA swimming pool was the first indoor swimming pool in East Jerusalem to meets international standards. It is open daily all year round and offers swimming lessons for males and females of all ages, courses in swimming instruction, and lifeguard training in addition to free swimming and fun times for individuals and groups.

When the PNA began to build up the sports infrastructure, many YMCA-trained people joined the Palestinian Swimming Federation. Credit must be given to the following instructors and lifeguards: Raja Al Ajrab, Majdi Istambouli, Samir Habash, Suleiman Ello (Abu Esim ), Kayyed Ello, Shaher Abu Sirrieh, Labib Altawil, Adel Al Sous, Hassan Dowani, Akram Abu Rimeleh, Annie Abdallah, Ala’ Al Khawaja, and Majed Dewani.

The YMCA as the first non-conventional Palestinian sports training centre

YMCA leadership training is oriented toward young people between the ages of 14 and 25 and offers training to become youth workers and sports leaders. The aim is not only to recruit them for the YMCA, but also to prepare them to work with young people in various contexts and situations.

Between 1970 and 1980, the YMCA ran a joint annual leadership training programme and sports training programme at its Shepherds’ Field premises in Beit Sahour. The programme was sponsored by the UNRWA Headquarters in Jerusalem. The goal of this programme was to train volunteers, youth counsellors, and sports coaches from youth centres in refugee camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During this period hundreds of youth and young adults graduated from these summer courses, and many of them used their YMCA certificates as official qualifications when applying to work as sport teachers or recreational officers.

Course instructors included Rimon Zabaneh, Sami Mikawi, Talal Al Almi, Omar Musa, Ma’amar Bseiso, the late Dr. Rasem Younis and Issa Remawi, and others.

During the period 1994 to 1995 the EJ-YMCA, with the support of DanChurchAid and in coordination with the PNA Ministry of Youth and Sports, started an outreach leadership development programme and capacity-building courses for Palestinian sports club and youth centre administrative committees in each Palestinian region. The courses were led by Musa Rabadi and Issa Ghraieb.

The YMCA Sports and Community Center in Jerusalem is still an ongoing busy beehive despite the checkpoints and the Wall.

The sports department is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. The swimming pool and gym are busy at all times, the indoor sports hall is often used by basketball and volleyball fans, and the squash court is busy in the early mornings and evenings. Women’s sports are growing fast; many are attending the various courses in swimming, aerobics, dancing, tai chi, and yoga; men enjoy playing the new YMCA game Indiaca, a feather ball game similar to volleyball. Junior sports are swimming, football, karate, gymnastics, dabkeh, ballet, and modern dance, with practice times after school or during weekends and holidays.

Social and cultural activities such as lectures and debates, plays, musical concerts, and folklore activities are held in the auditorium for audiences of all ages. The YMCA halls and meeting rooms host many clubs, youth activities, meetings, and other events.

YMCA youth work runs parallel to other programmes and gives youth the space and opportunity to be creative. Many young men and women have been motivated and encouraged to start an activity that helped them to grow and explore their interests. Some have formed music, drama, or social youth groups, and others have become committed YMCA volunteers and are involved in community development. Through YMCA programmes youth are offered opportunities to participate in conferences, youth meetings, international exchanges, and work camps, which take place locally or internationally. Some youth have travelled to other countries to talk about the particular challenges of Palestinian youth and their hopes and dreams for a free Palestine.

Annual youth leadership training and counselling programmes provide training to high-school-age girls and boys who are planning to volunteer as youth leaders in YMCA or other children’s summer camps. Since 1966 the EJ-YMCA has run annual summer camps. More than 250 boys and girls from 5 to 12 years old come to swim, participate in sports, crafts, and music programmes, the drama club, and excursions. Children’s summer camps at the YMCA are great fun for children and a blessing for working mothers.

The EJ-YMCA continues to expand its programmes in the fields of sports and youth work through opening new community centres with local and international support.

YMCA Beit Sahour

The East Jerusalem YMCA initiated a rehabilitation programme in 1989 in Beit Sahour to extend quality rehabilitative services to the youth who were injured, as well as to those who have become handicapped and/or traumatized as a result of the political violence during the Palestinian Intifada.

In addition to the rehabilitation programme, the YMCA in Beit Sahour has hosted many youth activities, leadership training courses, and summer and scout camps at Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour. In response to changing needs and challenges, especially regarding youth, the EJ-YMCA started a new project in 2001 – a community and sports centre – in partnership with the YMCA of USA, International Division, and supported by USAID and other international and local institutions.

The centre consists of the first indoor half-Olympic-size swimming-pool in Palestine, an open gym for men and women, an aerobics hall, saunas, a youth lobby for indoor games, and outside lit playgrounds for basketball, volleyball, and football.

The facility is accessible for people with disabilities and has hosted special sports events for the disabled, in addition to the traditional YMCA programmes in sports and recreation. Although the YMCA pool in Beit Sahour is also a facility for training and hosting swimming teams in Bethlehem region and the Palestinian Swimming Federation competitions, it is presently undergoing comprehensive maintenance work but is scheduled to reopen soon.

YMCA Ramallah

In 1969 the EJ-YMCA rented a building in Ramallah, which was used at the beginning as a centre for youth leadership development, day camps, and after-school activities for children and youth. In 1992 the EJ-YMCA initiated the Extension Services Unit (ESU) to enhance the capabilities of youth graduates from vocational training centres. Within the structure of the ESU, the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) was developed to meet life challenges and secure working opportunities for youth.

In 2003 the EJ-YMCA started the construction of its Community and Sports Centre in Ramallah on an eleven-dunum plot of land donated by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in support and appreciation of the EJ-YMCA’s significant role in working with youth and sports in Palestine. This project was initiated by the EJ-YMCA in partnership with the YMCA of USA, International Division, and supported by USAID and other international and local institutions.

The multi-purpose centre will consist of two indoor swimming pools, one of which is a half-Olympic-size pool and the other will be used for teaching purposes. A third pool is outdoors and will be used for children under 12 years of age. The centre will have a professionally equipped gym, a squash court, a child-care section, a women’s sports department, coffee shops, a restaurant, an auditorium, meeting halls, a drop-in centre for retirees and youth, a space for after-school activities, and outdoor playgrounds. The opening is expected by the end of 2008.

The EJ-YMCA is committed to continuing to create and develop new sports programmes and activities, and to enhance youth work and community services through community centres and outreach programmes throughout Palestine.

Michel W. Asfour is Program Director at the East Jerusalem YMCA. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

June 2008

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