Al-Khader Monastery: From a Byzantine monastic shrine to a library

"This shrine is the last historic building in Deir Al Balah and one of only two remaining shrines in the Gaza Strip" says Reem Abu Jaber, the executive director of Nawa for Culture and Arts Association. She further added that "the idea was to bring this place back to life by targeting the most vulnerable children and youth of Deir Al Balah.”

Stories about the site are various. Legend says that it was a refuge for monks who fled the discrimination of Roman paganism leaders in Palestine during the early centuries of Christianity.  another legend says that the site is the burial place of Saint Hilarion, the founder of Palestinian monasticism, and was transformed into a monastery by time. Others argue that it is the burial place of Saint George who is a patron to Palestinian Christians.

Regardless of its original use, the site is one of the oldest remaining historic buildings in the Gaza Strip. It dates back to the third century AD, and remnants from different historic periods are still visible there, witnessing to influences from the different eras, civilizations and occupations that left traces imprinted on its historical stones. The site is distinguished by three domed rooms surrounding an open-air outer plaza in the city center of Deir Al Balah. A flight of stairs from the ground floor level descends towards a lower level, where it is believed the tomb of Saint George is located, with Greek letters carved on the tombstone. However, by time, and as a result of the little attention given to the place, it became a landfill, imposing unhealthy environment to its surroundings.

As part of its mandate, the UNESCO Ramallah Office, and through its rehabilitation program funded by the Government of Sweden, managed to rehabilitate the site, show its splendor and bring life back to it. After renovation, the site is being managed by Nawa for Culture and Arts Association that uses it to host activities related to Nawa's projects and programs that target children, empower disadvantaged kids through extracurricular education, offer equal opportunities to all, and enhance inclusive education.

Currently, the site serves as a cultural center and a library for children. It is fully equipped, and adjusted to host everyone. "Inclusion is our aim", says Ms. Reem Abu Jaber, the executive director of the Association. "Our goal is to implement an inclusive development approach, targeting children of all ages and conditions. To achieve this, we adjusted the site to serve people with special needs and their access to the library, we provided braille books for the visually impaired people, and soon we will provide means to ease the access of people with disabilities to the basement level".

During 2018, Nawa's programs and activities managed to target around 33,000 kids from Deir AlBalah and its surroundings. Investing in Al-Khader Monastery and transferring the once-deserted historic site to a vibrant community hub, is a unique example that attests to UNESCO's goals; enhancing cultural heritage, while targeting a vulnerable social segment, and leaving a tangible positive impact on the lives of people.