South of Jerusalem and nestled in the Khalil Hills lies Hebron, a Palestinian city that has a thriving history and a riveting present. As a flashpoint for violence under the Israeli occupation, Hebron is the only Palestinian city where Israeli settlers live within the borders of the city among Palestinians. And with such a tense political climate, Palestinians from Hebron struggle to live beyond the confines of the occupation, which the YDRC – a youth center in Hebron – has been working to challenge for decades.
Since 1996, the YDRC in Hebron, or the Hebron Youth Development Resource Center, has hosted children from the city, providing them with a wide array of resources that might otherwise be inaccessible to them altogether. As a recreational and educational center, the YDRC in Hebron has become one of Palestine’s leading youth organizations and a place of refuge for the youth of Hebron.
The YDRC in Hebron, however, like the rest of Palestine, suffers from the restraints imposed on it by the Israeli occupation. In spite of these challenges, the YDRC has continued to expand its scope of activities and has shot to stardom within Hebron and across Palestine as a hub that pivots around the city’s youth.
We speak with Anas Alsarabta, Program Manager at YDRC, to get a better understanding of the role that the center plays in Hebron and how the YDRC has grown since its inception.
Seed of the Fruit
Shortly after the first Palestinian Intifada, the YDRC in Hebron began operations in a rather modest facility. Initially established in 1996, the YDRC was the first place of its kind for Hebron’s youth to play sports, music and generally come together. For the kids of Hebron in the mid-1990s, a place like YDRC in Hebron was a place of refuge.
Unlike cities like Nablus, Bethlehem, or Tulkarem, Israeli settlers in Hebron live within the city itself, which is why the Southern West Bank city frequently finds itself in the crosshairs of violence from Israeli settlers in the city.
From 1996 to 2007, amidst major turning points in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the YDRC was the only place that Hebron’s kids could turn to. And in 2008, things began to look up for the center as a project they call Rowad took flight, becoming a turning point for the center. The project, which went on for four years, served hundreds of Hebron youths by offering programs focused on media and IT literacy and leadership activities.
With support from USAID, Rowad enabled YDRC to move into a bigger, two-storey facility and expand its scope of activities to accommodate the thousands of youths who came to the YDRC in Hebron. The growth of YDRC meant the center became a one-stop-shop for media, technology, and leadership programs.
Before the YDRC began running Project Rowad, the center catered mostly to the younger residents of Hebron and had more of a recreational focus. But as the center grew and as more funding funneled through, the YDRC was able to extend its services to youths from kids as young as nine to youths as old as 29.
Project Rowad also brought with it a number of partnerships with big names in the tech industry, like Microsoft, Cisco, and Intel, in efforts to make Hebron’s youth tech-savvy. On the third day of every month, the YDRC in Hebron organized a leadership program for 30 youths, culminating in a five-day conference in Ramallah.
Rowad transformed YDRC from a recreational, communal space to a space that provided services and resources. But despite its success, when support for Project Rowad ended in 2012, YDRC was left without any long-term projects to support it.
For one, the lack of funding meant that the center could no longer offer the wide array of resources and activities they had begun to offer Hebron’s youth. The space that the YDRC in Hebron had carved for themselves as a stronghold for support and leadership meant that Hebron’s youth needed the YDRC. And so in 2012, YDRC’s leadership team needed to make a call: “[We either] leave and find other jobs or stay and try to build the organization from scratch,” Alsarabta tells progrss.
A New Beginning
The staff at YDRC chose the hard way and stood their ground, working to keep the center running. Despite doing their best to keep their staff payroll running, funding dwindled, leaving them with close to nothing. Alsarabta, however, tells us that didn’t stop the YDRC in Hebron from continuing its work.
Soon after the end of Project Rowad, the center’s staff began applying for grants, until 2014, when USAID came through with another round of funding for a project called “Partnership with Youth” that was implemented with non-profit organization IREX. The project ran for four years from 2014 and 2018, during which time the YDRC received scores of equipment that helped the center enhance the services it offers Hebron’s youth.
With the expansion of its services, the YDRC has also become one of the few spaces with access to resources in Hebron. For its younger participants, the YDRC focuses on literacy and wellbeing, which serve as a pivot for their activities. For the older participants, the YDRC focuses on economic empowerment.
In recent years, Hebron has become somewhat of an economic pariah in comparison with other cities in the West Bank, despite the concentration of financial capital in the city. In 2014, Hebron had the highest poverty rate across the West Bank with 32.5 percent of its population living below the poverty line, according to UN numbers. The same holds true for unemployment, which in 2014 stood at 20.6 percent compared to the national level of 17.7 percent.
To help fill in these gaps, the YDRC in Hebron focuses its economic empowerment programs around helping participants finding employment. Since 2009, the center has had an established internship program which 600 youths participated in. Following the end of the internship cycle, about 60 percent of participants were able to secure a job.
Alsarabta also talks about how Hebron has little to no safe, quiet, and productive spaces in the city for youth to work. The spaces that do provide similar environments, he says, are incubators that have limited resources. Thus, the idea to develop the Hebron Innovation Space, a coworking hub, was born. “We need to help [the youths] with their ideas; we needed to help the youth dismantle barriers,” Alsarabta tells us.
What could make it or break it
Although the center could easily charge participants for the resources and activities they offer, they have chosen not to. Only 20 percent of the center’s activities are income-generating while the remainder comes from grants and other funding. Funding, however, is not the center’s biggest concern; after all, Project Rowad ended and the center persisted nonetheless.
Aside from the obvious challenges that come with the occupation, clashes between settlers or the IDF and Palestinian residents often occur around the YDRC, since it’s located near the center of Hebron.
“Three years ago – [and this] happens almost every three years – we couldn’t go to the YDRC for a month. We had to walk between houses and other roads to be able to reach the YDRC,” Anas tells us. “People don’t send their kids to the YDRC because of the checkpoint. To be honest, it was a big issue for us for a long time.”
Aside from the occupation, Alsarabta tells us how Hebron’s conservative culture often poses an obstacle to the YDRC’s work. He also explains that Palestinian residents of Hebron tend to uphold more conservative traditions than other cities in the West Bank like Ramallah, for example.
Around 20 percent of of the center’s in-kind funding coming from their income generation activities like renting halls and some media and IT service agreements. With such sparse funding, the YDRC needs to make sure that they also have the city’s endorsement. According to Alsarabta, the YDRC in Hebron has faced difficulties in getting the wider community to support the work they are doing in the past.
“They used to talk about YDRC in the sermon on Friday [at the mosque],” Alsarabta tells us, implying that the YDRC in Hebron was frowned upon in the wider community. “But now things are totally different. People are [proud to be] sending their kids here; [we] built trust and ties with community. It’s much easier than before, but [challenges] still exist.”
According to Alsarabta, the Palestinian government usually supports the work that the YDRC does. He tells us that the Ministry of Youth and Sports in particular endorses the center and donated to the building the second floor of YDRC’s current facility.
Alsarabta, however, clarifies that the government does not support NGOs in the West Bank, but, rather, it is the other way around. NGOs provide services that the government cannot necessarily provide, which is what makes the governmental-NGO relationship critical for the future of Palestinian society.
The Future of YDRC in Hebron
Today, YDRC has managed to find new ways to not just persist, but also to expand – and, according to Alsarabta, they have no plans to lose momentum anytime soon. As YDRC has grown, so has its reputation in the West Bank, becoming the leading youth center among seven counterparts that have sprung up in Jenin, Jericho, and elsewhere in recent years.
As of recently, the YDRC has become a partner alongside Mercy Corps on a project that is planned to last five to six years and has partial access to a budget valued at $25 million.
Alongside the projects which the YDRC in Hebron will be partner to, Alsarabta and his team have nothing but big plans for the center. For him and those who have put their heart and soul into the organization, the YDRC has come a long way from almost going bankrupt to being one of the biggest youth-centered community organizations in Hebron and the West Bank at large. The YDRC is committed to keeping Hebron on the map of innovation and urban growth in the West Bank – in spite of the countless challenges that they face daily.