Muntaser Dkaide, the director of Burj Al Luqluq Social Center Society Image Credit: Rafique Gangat

Just when I believed I had seen all that the old city of Occupied Jerusalem has to offer, I discover in the Bab Hutta neighbourhood the Burj Al Luqluq Social Center Society.

Meeting with the director Muntaser Dkaidek, who had just returned after an absence of a week and who was multi-tasking with his dedicated band of colleagues, I learn it was established in 1991 and has been serving the old city ever since. It was named after the governor Luqluq from the Mamluk period, and it is built on almost nine acres of land owned by two Palestinian families.

Dkaidek relates the history.

“In 1991, this area was threatened by Israeli presence with their desire to build a settlement [colony] on the site, part of the Zionist demographic campaign against the Palestinians in the old city,” he says. “This is the biggest open space after the Al Aqsa compound.”

The inhabitants of the old city, supported by the late Faizal Husseini, were determined to keep the land although the Israeli colonisers brought in huge containers as the first step to usurp it.

“This was the only open space inside the old city which was safe for children and adults,” Dkaidek tells the Weekend Review. “Fighting took place between the inhabitants and settlers [colonisers] for four days, the containers were eventually destroyed and then Prime Minister took a decision to curtail the envisaged settlement [colony].”

A creative and legal means was then employed to hold on to the land when the residents formed a committee that declared the area as a sports and social club upon which activities began immediately. It still took about seven years to register it in order to legalise it. Today it is registered as a non-governmental organisation with the Palestinian Authority as well as with the Israelis, both with the Jerusalem municipality and the Union of Charitable Organisations in Jerusalem, as Dkaidek points out it is an organisation working in occupied Jerusalem.

“We have created a safe and healthy environment for the children and youth of the old city; adults have a breathing space from their small and overcrowded housing units; educational, cultural, psychological, health, sport and entertainment programmes have been developed for the residents of the old city; and most importantly, we are here to protect the land from any kind of future settlement [colonisation] or confiscation and to ensure it remains open and accessible to all old city residents,” Dkaidek says.

So what exactly do they do?

“We work in five sectors and our sustainability is due to local and international donors as well as partners who fund our programmes in these sectors — women, youth, sports, education, drugs and social cycle.

“With women, we are focused on empowerment, by providing them a kitchen wherein they cook and sell their food, a greenhouse for small plants that they sell in exhibitions, a pottery workshop where they craft on orders and we also provide awareness sessions and various courses to enhance their skills. Our youth project focuses on community initiatives, improving the Palestinian identity and we also provide them life skills,” Dkaidek says.

“The sports project is very successful — we have 200 boys playing football, 50 girls engaged in basketball, 20 boys are playing handball, 60 boys take taekwondo [classes] and 60 boys and girls are into parkour, 20 are participating in judo and 15 play chess. And then everyone is free to play table tennis, at any time.”

Dkaidek, I learn, is a qualified sports journalist and educationist, passionate about various sports activities the centre provides and contributing personally to them.

“In education, we have a kindergarten with 40 children from the old city enrolled. With Al Quds University, we have 86 students in our sports education programme, and in our after-school programme, we provide tutoring in Arabic, English and math,” he says.

How do they deal with the drug problem in the old city?

“We successfully completed two projects,” he explains, revealing that the centre ran ‘Drugs in the eyes of children’ and ‘Drugs in the eyes of women’ programmes recently. “We made a difference, before three-in-five were into drugs, today it’s one-in-five or none.”

“Lastly, we have our social cycle programme,” he says. “The children in the old city suffer many psychological problems and we have university students in their final year of study, helping out with three-month programmes.”

Right now, there’s a 28 per cent dropout rate from schools, 78 per cent of the old city inhabitants live below the poverty line and 18 per are unemployed.

In 2012, the centre won an award from the Welfare Association for being the best organisation in occupied Jerusalem; in 2015 Stars Foundation Impact Award recognised the change it has made in the lives of children in the old city; in 2013 they won an award for organising most activities in Jerusalem; and last year the Burj Al Luqluq Social Center Society was ranked No 5 on Facebook in Palestine and recognised as an organisation making a change in the country.

The centre is also proactive and uses social media as a means to fend off the rapid Judaisation of the occupied Old City. They have created Jerusalem Virtual Tours, an application developed for tourists that narrates the story of historical and archaeological sites located inside the old city of Jerusalem from an Arab-Palestinian perspective as a countermeasure to the pro-Israel narrative that neglects Palestinian history or culture and forces them into assimilation.

“We provide information about the landmarks of the city in five languages and the application presents this information using four methods,” Dkaidek explains. “First, by providing information in a list containing four Jerusalemite paths and tracks, which include historical, religious and other important landmarks; second, information provided when the visitor takes a picture of each landmark; the third method enables visitors to tour the city using a map and 360-degree pictures of Jerusalem; and fourth is nearby sites, through which visitors will be informed of important sites surrounding them.”

As I take his leave, Dkaidek proudly acclaims: “We have kept the land, we have served the people of the old city, we have changed the place with all our projects and today we work with 53 schools in sports development in Jerusalem.”

Experiencing it firsthand, I cannot argue with success — they are contributing to strengthening the resilience of the residents of Bab Hutta and preserving the Palestinian character of the old city in more ways than one. In short — a gem of resistance, transformed into a social centre.

Rafique Gangat, author of Bending the Rules, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.