West Bank


November 28, 2019

Addressing the Stigma of “Ex-Convict” Long After a Prison Sentence Ends

November 28, 2019

Museum of Tolerance to Open New Photo Exhibition, “Mutuality”: Palestinian & Israeli Women Building Bridges Through the Lens of a Camera

(Los Angeles, CA, November 7, 2019) The Museum of Tolerance will be holding an opening reception in celebration of its newest photographic exhibition, “Mutuality.”

The exhibition, by Swiss photographer Saskia Keeley, is a collection of photographs taken by Israeli and Palestinian women living on the West Bank in Israel, who have participated in Keeley’s photography workshops that seek dialogue and understanding between neighbors who have no other point of contact.

About the Museum of Tolerance:
The Museum of Tolerance (MOT) is the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, dedicated to challenging visitors to confront bigotry and racism and to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts. Since opening in 1993, the Museum has hosted close to seven million visitors, including three million youths. Close to 200,000 professionals have been trained in the Museum’s customized professional development programs. No other institution offers such a motivational mix of historical discovery and personal empowerment, fostering dialogue between the past, present and future, and putting a spotlight on the crucial social issues of the day. Holocaust survivors volunteer their time at the Museum up to four times a day to share their personal stories. They are the most effective ambassadors of memory, hope and tolerance.



November 27, 2019

Truly Seeing the ‘Other’

This article was originally published by Lois Goldrich on November 14, 2019, 09:58 AM on the Jewish Standard website. Click here to read on

Even people well-versed in their chosen professions can learn new things about their fields. Photographer Saskia Keeley’s “aha” moment came when she realized that a camera can help bridge the gaps between disparate groups.

On November 24, at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Ms. Keeley — who thinks of herself as a New Yorker after 32 years in the city, but whose Swiss accent still is strong — will use both words and photographs to exemplify her newfound respect for photography as a kind of dialogue. She’s used it to bring Palestinian and Israeli women together.

Saskia Keeley

“I spent eight years as a photojournalist for NGOs, documenting their work, I met Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger in Jaipur, India, in 2015 at an NGO conference. — Ms. Keeley 

Rabbi Schlesinger is one of the founders of Roots/Shorashim/Judur — The Palestinian Israeli Grassroots Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence, and Transformation — and he is its director of international relations. He also is the founder of the American Friends of Roots, a multifaith organization dedicated to supporting the work of the Israeli group.

During their meeting, Rabbi Schlesinger told Ms. Keeley that the organization, founded in 2014, was, for various reasons, having a hard time bringing women into its programs. He asked her if she could work with it, helping to create programs and activities where women from both groups could meet.

“Knowing my work, he asked if I would facilitate a photography workshop,” Ms. Keeley said. (She’s not Jewish, but comes from a Calvinist background, so she’s able to approach both sides equally.) She said yes, took up the challenge, and this summer she held her fifth month-long session for Roots. The first year, she did two workshops back to back, with about 14 women in each group. The maximum number of women who can participate is 20 — she has 20 cameras — “but the sweet spot is 16 or 18,” she said.

The project was advertised on the Israeli side through flyers distributed among settlers’ groups and on the Roots Facebook page. On the Palestinian side, Roots activists in each village identified women in their communities who might be interested. “Now it’s by word of mouth,” Ms. Keeley said.

Saskia Keeley’s workshops for Israeli and Palestinian women have produced remarkable photos on both sides.

Her mission, Ms. Kelley said, “is to create powerful visuals that raise both awareness and hope.” She tries to accomplish her goals in four sessions, that meet throughout June. Every participant receives a camera to keep for the month and is encouraged to take pictures of each other and of their homes and communities.

“They photograph what is perceived as the other, getting closer, getting more comfortable,” Ms. Keeley said. “They keep the cameras until the end of the project, taking pictures of their home environment and family. The photos are reviewed in subsequent sessions, allowing the women to truly see each other.”

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.— Dorothea Lange

“There are so many barriers between the Palestinians and Israelis,” Ms. Keeley said. “In the first session, the camera serves as a little bit of a shield. They start photographing each other and can choose any distance, any angle. They don’t need to engage. It’s such a great tool to ease into trust building.”

Looking into precedents for this kind of workshop four years ago, “I found nothing on line where cameras were used as a tool for dialogue and really seeing the other,” she continued. “There wasn’t much being done.” Her work, she said, is “intuitive in some ways. I’ve been a photographer for some time. It’s part of humanity to see each other.”

Ms. Keeley stands in front of a display explaining her workshop.

From the beginning, during their first conversation, Rabbi Schlesinger told her that there was no money and no cameras for the project. “But I was really committed to doing this, and I sensed that good cameras would make a difference, keeping participants motivated,” she said. To obtain the cameras — she ultimately decided to get only Canons — she did fundraising in New York. They’re a crucial part of the program, which depends at least in part on trust. The women know they can keep the cameras for the entire month “and I trust them to bring them back,” Ms. Keeley said. “It’s part of the theme of respect and trust.” In the meantime, Roots can use the 20 cameras for other projects when the annual workshops are done.

Ms. Keeley feels that her project is valuable not just in Israel but in other places where misunderstanding is rife. She has done workshops for formerly incarcerated women; when we spoke, she was in Los Angeles not just to exhibit her West Bank photos but to work with Muslim and Jewish high school students in the area. She also has collaborated with NGOs like the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles, the Women’s Prison Association in New York City, and S.T.R.O.N.G Youth on Long Island.

The workshops have changed her life, Ms. Keeley said. “I transitioned from a journalist working with NGOs to a life where I can connect people.” In fact, she keeps up with some of the participants from long-ago workshops, with them using email or social media. “I’m blown away by what we’ve managed to create — to empower and bring dialogue. This is what I need to offer to conflicted areas.”

Ms. Keeley said that not surprisingly, the photos vary in quality. “You can see quickly that some women have a great eye and really enjoy having a camera. But we always end up with beautiful pictures.”

She has not met resistance from any of the women, though one Jewish participant told her that her neighbors urged her not to be too trusting. “They’re willing participants,” Ms. Keeley said, noting that there is always some nervousness on both sides.

“I’ve learned that the camera is an incredible tool,” she said. “I’ve been so moved by seeing the humanity on both sides, and the willingness of both sides, even with the language barrier. When you truly give your attention to the other, they will show their authentic self. I have an incredible tool in transforming lives and stereotypes and visions.”


October 18, 2019

Brentwood Program Teaches Students Photography as Exercise in Togetherness

A collaboration between S.T.R.O.N.G YOUTH and Saskia Keeley Photography

A S.T.R.O.N.G Youth participant’s portrait.

This article was originally published by Zachary R. Dowdy on October 15, 2019, 12:25 PM on the Newsday website. Click here to read on

The images that 16 Long Island youth captured with digital cameras lined the walls of the Refugee Dream Center in Brentwood Monday night. But the mostly teenage participants said those portraits — of themselves, friends and family — reflected an indelible experience in a program bringing together young people whose paths don’t normally cross.

“It was a learning experience.— Steven Hernandez, 17, a student of W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury

Said Steven, at a reception culminating the joint project between Uniondale-based STRONG Youth and I Am Your Protector and Saskia Keeley Photography, both based in Manhattan.

The three-week program gave teenagers from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in Nassau and Suffolk a chance to take snapshots of each other and open windows into their lives through conversations.

By the program’s end, the participants related to each other and were more likely to become protectors of those who look different than them.

Teenagers came from Bay Shore, Brentwood, Hempstead, Central Islip, East Meadow, West Babylon and other communities. Their photos brought into focus aspects of their lives they would like to show off — a portrait of a close friend on the street where they live, a swing that represents lost youth, a younger sibling seated playfully in a shopping cart.  

And some images showed newfound skills taught by Keeley, a Manhattan-based photographer and documentarian. Keeley said the teenagers got comfortable over time working with cameras.
“It helped me express my emotions.

Hernandez said during the event, which looked much like the opening of an art exhibit, complete with live entertainment and a running display of the teenagers' hundreds of photos flashing above the stage.
“It helped me be more social and more understanding.

The program was designed to break down barriers erected by stereotypes, inaccurate media images and historical prejudices, organizers said. As an example, the program highlighted just how similar Alma Gaxiola, 13, of West Babylon is to someone like Bruno Zamora, 14, of Hempstead.

The intense conversations over three sessions, during which the young people spoke candidly about how they were perceived as well as their fears and goals in life, created an intimacy normally forged over many years, Alma said.

The chats between the youngsters documented their lives through portraits of their homes, schools, streets and houses of worship, and stripped away the metaphoric masks they wore to project identities and the distorted lenses through which they saw others.
“It brought out that we want to be connected.
— Olivia Ildefonso, a consultant for ERASE Racism, a Long Island-based anti-racism group, and the STRONG Youth board member who also brought the three entities together for the project.
Ildefonso said she hopes to duplicate the program in the spring.
“These stereotypes are dangerous and they’re not true.

The program allowed the teenagers to open up, said Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of STRONG Youth, a family and community development organization specializing in youth and gang violence prevention and intervention.

“In such a short period of time, they were able to let those guards down,” she said. "Ultimately we are not single communities. … All too often, the negative seems exciting, but this is exciting."

Bruno Zamora stood by his creation Monday night, proudly pointing to his portrait of Wilbur, a close friend standing on Terrace Avenue in Hempstead, a Hempstead Village police crime scene vehicle in the background. Zamora said he wanted to document his good friend's life before it's too late.

October 25, 2018

Photography Exhibit to Showcase Connections Between Israeli and Palestinian Women

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This article was originally published in UCLA’s The Daily Bruin by Lisa Aubry. Click here to read on the Daily Bruin’s website.

Over 100 Israeli and Palestinian women looked directly into one another’s eyes for the first time in their lives during Saskia Keeley’s workshops.

Keeley began hosting summer photography workshops for Israeli and Palestinian women in 2016 through a partnership with Roots, an Israeli-Palestinian initiative in the West Bank. She collected the photographic outcomes for an exhibition titled “Roots Non-Violence,” which is currently on display at UCLA’s Hillel until Dec. 20. She also will be delivering an artist talk, free and open to the public, to relay her workshop experience Tuesday. By offering a glimpse into the reality of Israeli and Palestinian womens’ perspectives on the world, the exhibition bears testimony to the ways the photographic medium can bridge gaps between women of both cultures, Keeley said.

“For many of these women, it was their first time ever meeting anyone from the other side,” she said. “I got to see very early on how the workshops were transformational for these women.”

Keeley said creating a same-sex safe space for the women is both crucial and rare due to a tangled history of violence, trauma, fear and bias in the West Bank. Palestinian women in particular face opposition from their community, she said, which forbids them from mingling with Israelis. Keeley said it was important the workshops promote cultural sensitivity.

Recruiters promote the workshops through Facebook, she said, and information spreads through word-of-mouth. Although participants attend the workshops out of a desire to be with “the other side” they do not come without hesitation and ambivalence, Keeley said. Therefore she structured her workshops to ease into advanced camerawork and then nurture deepened connections between the women.
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During early moments of their meeting, Keeley said the women gather in a circle for introductions to share short narratives, beginning to understand each other’s experiences. In later sessions, Keeley said each woman pairs up with a member of the other side to take portraits of one another. By the final session, she asks photographers to capture striking details of their subject’s physical appearance, like earrings or a hijab, in a process that allows both women entry into intimate proximity with one another without a sense of invasion.

“With the camera, you have to truly see each other to take a good photograph, and you have to allow your vulnerability by choosing to be the subject to somebody who is your perceived enemy,” Keeley said.

Although Shuli Elazar, an Israeli participant, said while she had already met Palestinian people through other peacemaking initiatives, the workshops offered a deeper level of physical connection where women observed minute details about each other.

“That is sometimes not even something you do with people who are your best friends, to look very closely at small details, and it made us talk and laugh and feel free with each other,” Elazar said. “We looked closer and it made us closer.”
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A Palestinian participant wraps an Israeli participant’s headscarf in the hijab manner, all with light humour and good faith

The women keep their cameras for the duration of the two weeks, returning to their homes to fulfill photo assignments by capturing their environments, loved ones and daily lives. Keeley said the images are reviewed and displayed during following sessions, allowing the women to discover their shared values and common priorities in life.

The women bonded over family, motherhood and beauty – some even removed their headscarves and photographed one another without headgear, or rewrapped a Jewish settler woman’s headscarf as they would a hijab, sharing tricks for giving the illusion of thick hair underneath a headpiece. When Israeli women photographed the ritual candle lighting for Havdalah, Keeley said Arab-Palestinian women made efforts to inquire about the purpose of the Jewish holiday.

“By the end of the four sessions, there is a real willingness to hear more about the other side and what is important to them, and it is really beautiful,” Keeley said.

The best images of the 2017 summer workshops became one of four exhibitions in a larger exhibition titled “Love Thy Neighbor: The Refugee Experience,” organized by Perla Karney, the artistic director of the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts. Karney said the reception of Keeley’s exhibition has been powerful because of the photographs’ striking aesthetic appeal and deeply emotional dimensions. “Mother and Son” displays family members in tunics and headscarves seated on a doorstep, amusedly peering out at the viewer. “Havdalah” features a young Jewish boy performing the ritual of lighting the candle and looking at the luminous flame in wonder as his grandfather supervises.

For many, the intercultural conflict is a distant occurrence about which they formulate their opinions via media sources like CNN or BBC, Elazar said. However, she said media does not always accurately portray reality, and so she said she hopes viewers will be urged to rethink their opinions and stigmas to truly understand the complexity of the issue.

Students who choose to attend can glean value from the dialogue of conflict resolution the exhibition evokes, said Ben Greenberg, director of student life at Hillel. Although all artistic mediums can promote understanding, he said photography is especially impactful for its direct visual appeal.

“Universally, there’s a lot of misunderstanding when people ‘other’ one another, forgetting the humanity of the individual,” Greenberg said. “Something about photography can really highlight that basic humanity, which is an important message especially in politically contentious times.“

After interacting with the attendees of her six workshops, Keeley said she has decided to change her career trajectory. Previously leading a photojournalistic career, Keeley said she is now determined to focus on providing workshops in areas of conflict across the globe. She is currently writing about conflict resolution, which will include her experience with photo workshops in the West Bank that provides her first-hand insight on mediating such encounters.

“Many people have preconceived ideas about one side or the other and by the end of the exhibition, the goal is to leave saying, ‘I just got a glimpse into these women’s lives and they are not terrorists nor the horrible occupier, they are just trying their best,’” she said. “The experience transformed me as well, and made me realize what an incredible tool the camera can be for dialogue.”

October 24, 2018

Reflections: How Mirrored Humanity Dissolves Fear and Changes Bias

In a context where, for most observers, Israeli settlers and Palestinians are the last people who could be or should be talking to one another there are advocates for peace who try to create the necessary trust to bridge the divide. An unexpected encounter three years ago with one of these inspiring leaders changed the trajectory of my career.

“Come take part in our work. Run a photography workshop for Palestinian and Israeli women and girls,” exhorted Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger.

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Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

Rabbi Hanan is one of the leaders of Roots, a grassroots initiative dedicated to dialogue, non-violence, and transformation at the heart of the conflict. The idea that I pioneer a women’s photography workshop in one of the most intractable and contentious conflicts in the world with no prior experience was more than bold, and yet I immediately felt drawn to lead the charge.

The photo workshops for Israeli settler women and Palestinian women are an opportunity for women “from the other side” to interact with each other, for some, for the very first time in their lives. Many of the participants feel that to do this is to come into contact with their perceived enemy.

“Suddenly, we find ourselves in the same room with each other and the walls are gone. […] We have a chance, sometimes, to create a place of astonishing mutuality reminding each other how acceptable we are.”

– Gregory Boyle. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

The women keep the cameras for the duration of the two-week workshop. They return to their homes to fulfill photo assignments by capturing their environments, their loved ones, and their daily lives.

After the initial session, photos are reviewed in each gathering with a final compilation shared during the fourth class. The women diligently use the lens for the sheer pleasure of documenting their lives and what is close to their hearts. That is an amazing opportunity to get insight into their worlds, their homes, their families. The photos that come out of their assignments are striking and often touchingly personal in their portrayal of loved ones in intimate settings. Through the sharing of personal images, what emerges more than anything else is the similarities in their shared humanity, and in particular, the obvious love they all share for their kin.
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A grandfather holding his sleeping grandson in his arms.

A basic tutorial is given during the first session. We look at selected photos from prior Roots workshops to illustrate what makes a good image. The compilation is created around images that can communicate something both of beauty and substance. I talk about the power of photography and the significance to illustrate a life’s timeline filled with faces and places that we love. The review of striking photos is the chance to take in the experience of another person and to be receptive to what is being shared. The women bond over family, motherhood, and beauty.

This past summer I shared this short tutorial with a group of women. In the slideshow, there is a beautiful photo taken last year by Naomi, an Israeli participant, of her husband and grandson during Havdalah. They stand facing one another as the grandson performs the ritual of lighting a candle and looking at the luminous flame in wonder while his grandfather blesses a glass of wine. The dimly lit room with the candle as the only source of light, the composition, the colors — all are reminiscent of an Old Master painting.
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As in prior years, we move on to the carefully planned steps and exercises so that the women can start the process of getting to know one another, and begin to explore portrait photography. For the first time, these women have a real perception and concept of the other through personal interaction. At the end of this first session, the participants leave carrying with pride the cameras that will be theirs for the remainder of the program. We are to meet three days later.

The night before the second session an unexpected and painful incident disrupts the workshop. A threatening post on Facebook denounces my Palestinian coordinator for his connection to Roots, calling him an instigator and an organizer of “normalization” gatherings*. Other people react on Facebook, maligning him.

These condemnations can escalate into violence or other grim consequences. The second session is canceled. Instrumental in enrolling and bringing the Palestinian women, my coordinator is greatly distressed and the Palestinian participants are scared and decide that they will not return.

I retrieve the cameras that were in the women’s home for 48 hours. Half of them have erased all the images from the memory card. But in one of the cameras, I find a gem, an image that takes my breath away, a photo of such beauty, of such meticulous composition… is the mirror image of the Havdalah photo shown during our first session together.
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This anonymous photographer consciously and carefully re-created the setting of what she saw a few days ago. From memory, she replicated the image in all its aspects: subject matter, emotion, and composition.

In the first two summers I had singled out many photos with striking aesthetic appeal, but these two brought a new dimension that was deeply emotional: this place of astonishing mutuality that Gregory Boyle described. There had to be more images that would have their match in the “other’s” illustration, that would be the mirror image, and even more importantly, highlight the women’s basic humanity with shared values.

Upon my return to New York with more time and availability I return to the hundreds of images downloaded from all six workshops. It isn’t long before I come across images that have their match in the “other’s” illustration of her own life. As I scroll through the multitude of photos looking for the main elements that have commonality in subject, in composition, and in theme, it is with great excitement that I come to the realization that there are dozens of images that have their exact counterpart, a parallel where the sweetness of every heart can be found. There may be different religions, different languages, different cultures, and backgrounds, but these images show that we all belong to one human race.

Bringing out the humanity of others is the essence of the workshops. If transformation can happen in the intimate setting created, it is truly a gift beyond imagination. If these workshops can be helpful in global conversations toward peace the blessing is even more immense.

December 15, 2017

We Love Reading - Creating Brighter Lives for Syrian Refugee Children


Published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs: Photojournalism: Creating Brighter Lives for Syrian Refugee Children

I spent ten days documenting the NGO Taghyeer / We Love Reading initiative in Jordan. During my time on the ground, I met many hardworking and inspiring people from the We Love Reading [WLR} community - from support staff and coordinators to women (and a few men) training to become reading ambassadors.

WLR ambassadors foster a love for reading in young children living in indigenous communities and Syrian refugee camps across Jordan, with ambitions to spread across the Middle East and around the world.

Here is a short video I made introducing the work being done by We Love Reading:

Each and every one of those interactions was meaningful and poignant, a testimony to the great mission of We Love Reading.  Below, I chronicle my two days in the Azraq Camp.

"We read for ourselves, our children, our community, our future."

The instant I connected with Dr. Rana Dajani, the founder of the NGO Taghyeer / We Love Reading, I knew I wanted to collaborate with her.  A Jordanian molecular biologist, Dr. Rana is an Associate Professor at Hashemite University in Jordan. After spending 5 years abroad, witnessing the easy access to books and libraries, Dr. Rana came back to her country with a heightened awareness that instilling the love of reading wasn’t a high priority for most cultures in the Middle-East.  Through personal experience, she saw the positive impact literature can have and how children’s aspirations can be raised when they see the world through someone else’s eyes. So Dr. Rana set up her very first library in a local mosque more than ten years ago.
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Dr. Rana Dajani

The concept is simple: to foster the love of reading among children.

Make reading enjoyable and it will provide hope and an ability to dream.

Reading aloud regularly to children aged 4 to 10 helps them to discover their inner potential.  It seems so basic, this notion could easily be dismissed.  But the stories Dr. Rana shared about what We Love Reading offers in Jordanian neighborhoods and in Syrian refugee camps were truly inspiring.  As with many communities limited in resources, proper education is scarce in camps. In addition to providing literacy and an appreciation of written words, reading is also a tool for increasing well-being, promoting resilience and alleviating mental stress. It also helps to create a sense of community.

The We Love Reading (WLR) program advocates for child literacy. To date, they have mentored and trained 3460 people - mostly women - in techniques of storytelling.  The program empowers the adults who wish to better their own lives and the lives of those around them.  These efforts have led to the establishment of 1570 libraries throughout Jordan, enriching the literacy of over 15,000 children.

Beginning with weekly reading sessions in a local mosque in 2006, the program has since grown into an established NGO with libraries - meaning a place where the trained volunteers hold weekly sessions – in 33 countries. Based in Amman with a staff of 30 employees, WLR’s mission is to expand the program as far as possible, and to monitor and evaluate every library that has opened since its implementation.

The ultimate goal is to reach every child in every neighborhood in the world by 2020.

The opportunity I had to witness this truly transformative and purpose-filled program was beyond inspiring.  In all the Jordanian communities we travelled to—from Ma’an in the Southern part, to Irbid in the North, to Mafrak in the East—I listened to true storytellers reading to groups of rapt children.
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Reading sessions in Jordanian communities
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Those storytellers, called ambassadors, are volunteers who have finished the two-day training to become WLR readers. The groups of children I observed ranged in size from a dozen to more than 40. The ambassadors all shared their enthusiasm about the program and what it offers the children: a chance to dream, grow, and learn.

They also spoke about what they had gained by becoming committed participants. Majed Mohammad Qasham, an ambassador, said,
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Majed Mohammad Qasham

“Even if I vanish now, it’s all right, because the most important thing is that I brought help and support for people in need.”

The opportunity to spread joy and bring hope is precious, but it’s especially meaningful in a context often devoid of occupation and purpose.  The program is transforming cultures from the ground up and empowering individual change-makers who wish to make a real difference.

Possibly the most moving interactions happened during my two-day visit to the Azraq Syrian refugee camp. I accompanied two WLR coordinators—Ms. Sarah Shahin and Ms. Sukayna Anbtawi—to hear the latest group of ambassadors reading to the young in their communities. I was granted official permission to enter only three days prior, as camps are tightly restricted.

Azraq Camp opened its doors in 2014.  It now has 35,000 refugees, with space for thousands more.  To get to the camp, one drives an hour and a half, about 70 miles east from Amman. Looking out the window, the scenery is one of barren desert for most of the ride.  The striking landscape, with a whiteness of light and sand that stretches as far as the eye can see, gives off an eerie feeling of remoteness.  But even this doesn’t prepare the newcomer for the desolate vision of Azraq.  In the hot desert landscape, far from any urban area, the camp suddenly comes into sight.  From a distance, one can see endless rows of white steel “caravans”: hundreds upon hundreds of shelters, each family assigned to one. While clearly a well-planned and thoughtfully designed camp, enclosed in fences and barbed wire, it looks like a military camp.
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Azraq Camp

Only with governmental permission can one get an entry permit, pass the strict security gate check, and gain access to the “villages” that constitute the camp.  All visitors must be accompanied by a camp official, but there was even more security around our arranged appointments.  

As I am a photographer, and because this was mentioned in my paperwork, we were followed by a policeman throughout our two-day visit.  I learned early on that there were restrictions as to what I was allowed to photograph.  During the first day, the policeman asked to review photos on my camera’s LCD screen and made me erase all images taken up until then. The stated reason was to protect the displaced people but my perception was that they closely monitor the images and the reports coming out of the camp.

It is clear that the management of the camp is strictly controlled not just for visitors but, more critically, for the refugees inside, which limits mobility, and decreases opportunities for employment both inside and outside the camp.  It is challenging for residents to have any control over decisions as crucial as making a living, let alone finding ways to fill their days with meaningful activities.

There is a sense of temporariness to Azraq.  One has the feeling that time is suspended.  It is eerily quiet, with none of the life and noises we are used to in any typical large community: cars, music, the buzzing of activities or children playing. Most people seem to remain indoors. While it’s evident that the camp is not intended to be permanent, there is no avoiding the disquieting feeling that without a political solution, the suffering of Syrian refugees will continue and camps such as Azraq will continue to be more than just temporary shelters.

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Eerily quiet streets

At this stage, there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, representing almost 20 percent of the country’s population.

The Jordanian communities that host refugees feel the impact of providing for them. Mohammad Momani, Minister of State for Media Affairs, talks about “standing on high moral ground when it comes to aiding refugees,” but stresses the crucial importance of the international community in helping to shoulder responsibility in this crisis.

Many local and international organizations collaborate—such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), INJAZ, and WLR—providing large financial and technical support to the camps in Jordan, supplying basic needs such as shelter, sanitation, food, medical treatment, and education. But the sheer number of civilians in need of aid presents challenges to relief groups on the ground.

This is all part of what I experienced when I spent one day in Village 2 and the next in Village 6.  I saw the noble efforts of international organizations and the benefits that come from their generous support, I witnessed dedicated local workers on the ground who make the refugees’ lives more bearable.  But families coping with the stresses of life far from their Syrian homes can only adapt so much in a confined, highly secured and enclosed area. They struggle to provide for their families and to access essential services – including education for their children.

The initial worry was that a WLR initiative would be hard to get off the ground in a camp where refugees would be more concerned with satisfying basic needs such as food and shelter. Many children are not even sent to school, as there is little faith in what education can provide while living in a challenging setting and in a traumatized state.

Against all odds, WLR held two training sessions, the first in 2016 and the second, just a couple of months ago. They were both met with great success. More than 30 trainees became reading ambassadors and they all opened libraries: finding places such as their home-caravan, the school center or the mosque where they can hold reading sessions on a weekly basis. Some gather children even more regularly. Ismail Yasin Al Thaher, an ambassador who reads every afternoon in Village 2, says he has counted 150 children who come at different times to hear his stories.

Our two days in Azraq were planned so that I could document the reading sessions given by some of the newly trained volunteers, and so that Sarah and Sukayna could do the follow-up that takes place after every training program.

In the camp, storytelling occurs either in a “class” caravan or outside in an open-air area surrounded by caravans, making it an enclosed area.
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Ismail Yasin Al Thaher in Village 2

There is no doubt that I created a distraction as a tall, foreign-looking visitor equipped with photography gear. The children excitedly looked my way as I was setting up my equipment.  The reading ambassadors knew of my visit and welcomed me warmly.  They are proud of their storytelling skills, which attract dozens of children to come and listen to their every word, and provide an opportunity to step away from the grim daily reality.

They are also immensely grateful to have the opportunity to use literacy to bring meaning to the lives of children, as well as their own. Her own love of literature compelled one ambassador to the project, in order to help “build a generation of readers, an educated and civilized generation.”

I was deeply impressed by the way the sessions are structured and planned out, how they have become such an important part of any day’s activities. Many of the books are read over and over, but the children still love hearing about Jude or Amal or Samir, the protagonists in some of the stories.  They interject and laugh, they wait eagerly for specific moments in the narrative.  
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A new book that talks about the refugees’ plight

This visit to Azraq was all the more special: two new books were just published and printed by WLR and we brought them with us. They depict the refugees’ plight. These beautifully illustrated stories show Syrian families leading happy lives in their country. Then the war comes and they need to flee to survive. The bright and colorful pictures turn dark and grey, capturing the fear and anguish. The palette remains somber with the arrival in refugee camps and the hardship of adjusting to unfamiliar, restricted dwellings. The end of the story is hopeful, speaking of new beginnings and fresh possibilities in an environment that at first felt foreign and distant. Children paid close attention, a sort of quiet observation, to this new story. I sensed it is a narrative they know all too well.

For the ambassadors, reading aloud becomes an essential medium for communication between generations, a way to heal trauma inflicted by war.

When I spoke to them individually, with the help of a translator, they all mentioned the sense of purpose those reading sessions have provided them, a gift beyond anything they hoped to get from the experience. Najla Abdulla Sharah says,
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Najla Abdulla Sharah

“I wept profusely the day I participated in WLR.”

She sees this as an opportunity “to create a cultured, civilized, educated generation, literally a building block for the new generation.”

The second day was even more revealing. We listened to the first five ambassadors reading, each to their own group of children.  These sessions were all given within the physical structure of the school and the activity center for Village 6, a larger structure than Village 2.

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Reading session on the soccer field with Village 6 beyond the blue fencing

Over and over, I experienced the same dedication and passion coming from the volunteers and the same earnest attention from the children, as they leaned forward to see the illustrations of the book, to be a full participant in the storytelling.

Our last two sessions were in the Village 6 mosque.

This place of worship is an especially large caravan where our last two ambassadors read. The mosque is a half-mile away from the school center, and our assigned policeman relaxed the strict restrictions. He allowed us to walk, giving us the opportunity to go by home dwellings and spend more time with refugees.

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Walking with children in Village 6 (Photo available for purchase. Click image for details.

Curious children followed us as the women explained more about the structure of their communities and how to subsist when so little is available.  The rainy season is about to begin. The dry soil will turn into mud and the dusty air into a dampness that will permeate their homes. Winters are harsh and gas supplies given to families aren’t distributed often enough to keep the shelters warm.

With this unique opportunity to experience all that was around us, we ended up rushing to the last two reading sessions in the mosque.  The ambassadors and the small, endearing group of girls gathered quickly and efficiently.
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Inside the main room in the mosque

Being behind schedule, we moved from the main room to a smaller one when it was time for prayers, and men came in for the afternoon gathering.  One of the two ambassadors used to be an English teacher in Syria and it was wonderful, as well as heart-rending, to hear her account first-hand. Some of the vibrancy of such exchanges is lost waiting for translation by a third party.  The uniform account from all was how much this program has provided in terms of building hope, joy, imagination, and in promoting culture and education.  All of the ambassadors commended Dr. Rana Dajani and her NGO for a vision that has been life-transforming and salutary.

On the ride back to Amman, it was too early to sort through the overwhelming and conflicting feelings those two days had prompted.  Witnessing the level of adversity, the forced confinement, the extreme limitations brought about a concrete reality beyond anything imaginable. Even with the stark accounts and images on the news, the lives of refugees remain abstract until seen first-hand.

In the greatest humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century, hundreds of thousands are facing extreme hardships with no solution or end in sight. But the Syrian war has also given humanity a chance to act.  During my two days in Azraq Camp, I witnessed acts of human compassion countless times: in the kindness of teachers, in the aid and assistance of relief workers, in the dignity that can be restored through programs such as We Love Reading, in the uncompromising commitment and dedication of reading ambassadors. It is to those ambassadors—exemplifying virtue, spreading light, being moral beacons amid the darkness of a tragic war—that I dedicate this article.

If you enjoyed this article and wish to help please donate here, or purchase the photography below.  All proceeds go straight towards funding more humanitarian work that I conduct personally.
Syrian Girl in Red Dress
Portrait taken inside a mosque in the Azraq Syrian refugee camp.  The mosque is a white caravan, a larger version than any shelter given to families.

November 22, 2016

Using Photography to Bridge Barriers in the West Bank

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Published in The Fletcher Forum: Using Photography to Bridge Barriers in the West Bank

The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

an interview with Saskia Keeley

This fall, The Fletcher Forum sat down with Saskia Keeley, a Swiss-born and Manhattan-based photographer to learn more about her work with NGOs worldwide. We are pleased to feature a selection of images from her latest projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and The West Bank along with the interview.

The Fletcher Forum: What first drew you to international photography?

Saskia Keeley: From an early age I reveled in documenting my trips, spending countless hours cataloging my visual memories in albums that were then saved and stacked on shelves over the years. About a decade ago a family collaboration with a NGO in Cambodia led to our helping Khmer youth get sufficient education to advance themselves and their communities. My photography was one of the tools used to bring awareness to the efforts and successful actions taken by that NGO. A few years later, when I was ready to start a new chapter in my life, I realized that international photography and documentation was my calling. I experienced an especially deep sense of purpose by combining my photography, my love of traveling, and cultural interconnection when promoting the missions and visions of humanitarian organizations I admired.

I believe in the power of the visual.  

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FF: You have suggested that your “greatest passion is documenting people, events and cultures in ways that foster lasting connection, surprising empathy and occasional awe” – how does photography accomplish this in ways that other efforts cannot?

SK: Two examples illustrate: Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey and was carried off by a paramilitary police officer. That photo hit a nerve and became a symbol of the gross indifference of developed nations to a horrible plight on their own shores. Then there was the iconic image of the 9-year old Vietnamese girl running for her life, covered in napalm. Though taken 44 years ago, that photo is just as searing and instructive today. Poignant photos can cross cultures and impact consciences the globe over.

In my work I seek opportunities and moments for connection that go beyond words and happen within a split second. I try to capture the realities I perceive with objectivity while maintaining the trust and dignity of those who come under my camera’s gaze. This is a surprisingly delicate balance. What I have experienced over and over is the achievement of a deep emotional connection and a sense of belonging, even though I am "an outsider." Some element of common humanity has allowed lasting bonds to develop every time.

FF: The Forum recently spoke with Ellen Agler of the END Fund. Can you tell us about your work with them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?

SK: I was hired by the END Fund to document a specific project taking place in Idjwi, an island off the coast of Rwanda but a part of the DRC. The END Fund works collaboratively with Amani Global Works (AGW), an Idjwi and NY-based organization, to tackle fully treatable but otherwise neglected tropical diseases on this small island.
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FF: You're here at Tufts to talk about your work with Roots, an initiative led by a joint Palestinian and Israeli committee based in the West Bank. I understand you recently conducted photo workshops for mixed groups of Israeli and Palestinian women.
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In December 2015 a mapping program was launched to identify parasites that cause rampant intestinal worm infections in the vast majority of the population of 250,000 people. My assignment was clear. The END Fund wanted photos of the community health workers’ mapping program and the protocol and procedures it applied. I followed the lab technicians throughout their training program as well as in their visits to the local schools where they were assigned to collect samples. But my work also allowed me to document the tremendously inspiring and empowering work done by AGW and the END Fund. Amani Global Works paves the way for better health and education throughout Idjwi – providing daily a nutritional porridge to malnourished children, running a primary school that provides education for girls, and sponsoring a deworming program lifting the heavy long-term burden of living with worms.

SK: I met Hanan Schlesinger, Roots’ leader, in India while attending a seminar. I was deeply taken by his description of how his organization breaks down deeply embedded stereotypes and combats fear, anger, and hate by bringing the two sides together in a variety of forums.

Hanan mentioned a photography workshop for young Palestinian and Israeli boys taught by a man. Culture and tradition make it impracticable for women to participate, since it is led by a male figure. I offered to conduct a similar photo workshop for women and girls. It had never been done before. One critical challenge was retaining good-quality photo equipment. I sponsored a fundraiser and purchased 20 cameras that made their way to Roots in the West Bank.

My enthusiasm and commitment needed to be matched by Roots. I asked that they provide well-organized programs, with motivated attendees from both the Israeli and Palestinian communities.

FF: What challenges did you face there, and what successes did you ultimately enjoy?

SK: There were many sensitivities to take into account. Because Roots works within their own communities at the heart of the conflict there are unique dangers. It is generally a safe assumption that most of the participants coming to these projects are there out of a desire “to meet the other.” For the Palestinians, however, it is extremely hard to deal with the consequences: they could be accused of collaboration with "the enemy" and risk being ostracized by their friends and neighbors. Some Palestinian factions have engaged in what is known as the Anti-Normalization movement, which demands that all contact between Palestinians and Israelis be severed.

So that neither group would feel overwhelmed or underrepresented Roots planned to have the exact same number of participants from both sides. Both workshops had 14 women: 7 Israelis, 7 Palestinians. A crucial priority was to keep the trust of those who participate. Some of the women who came had their "first meeting" with Israelis in the workshops, and vice versa. The purpose of this first initiative—offering photo workshops to Palestinian and Israeli women—was about building trust and meeting on a personal level. For Roots, this was another small step in what is a very long but real process of promoting mutual understanding.
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Given the workshops could only take place in a safe environment for both peoples, 99% of West Bank locations were eliminated. We confined ourselves to the Roots compound for three out of four sessions. With great perseverance I managed to convince Ali Abu Awwad, the Palestinian leader, to allow us one session outside of the compound, in a secluded and discrete place in the countryside.

The collaboration we achieved was beyond my expectations. There was never a grandiose illusion that these photography workshops could end the conflict. But every journey begins with the proverbial first step - and then other steps towards humanizing and understanding become possible. Small and big moments happened within the gatherings over the two-week period. I witnessed a distinct change in the women’s way of looking at one another and interacting. I believe those changes will have lasting effect.

FF: Were you surprised by any of the photographs the women took, or their interactions with each other via this shared photographic language?

SK: Yes! In fact, I was astounded by many of the photos that the women and girls took! I am mentioning girls because there was a 12-year old Israeli girl who attended the workshop with her mother who was really gifted. I had moments of concern and uncertainty while assembling the program, but it was pure joy to see that the women were keen and enthusiastic learners. They took photos that were carefully planned out in their composition and lighting, including beautiful portraits. Because most sessions took place in a very small plot of land, they had to be quite creative. They did amazingly!
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Most importantly, the camera became a bridge, breaking down barriers and fostering contact. The fact that they had to take portraits of each required human connection. They truly bonded over the photos they took of one another, gazing at the camera screen together, approving and laughing.

Participants were also allowed to keep the cameras for the duration of our time working together. That allowed the women to bring them home and illustrate their own lives, environment, and family. I couldn’t wait to see what they had captured whenever we reconvened. The photos that came out of their home assignments were striking and often touchingly personal in their portrayal of loved ones in an intimate setting.
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FF: Do you think this model can be exported to other places, particularly other areas of protracted conflict?

SK: Absolutely! Developing artistic resources is a great tool not only for healing but for empowering. We know that art, music, and dance are all great forms of therapy. Photography allows an individual to be really seen and to have a potent form of expression. It fosters opportunities to reflect on and voice their own stories, and those of their surrounding community. That expression becomes dialogue once shared. Roots, for example, wants to expand that model and welcome more opportunity for that kind of assertion and expression. I will be returning to the West Bank this coming year offering more joint photo workshops. There will also be an opportunity to work with Palestinian women in places of frequent encroachment and struggle over land.
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Enabling photographic self-expression in regions of harsh reality and protracted conflict is not new. An all-girl media workshop took place in the Za’atari Syrian Camp in Jordan. It was funded by a few well-known NGOs. Renowned artist Reza traveled to a camp of Syrian refugees in Kurdistan in 2013 and established a photo workshop for the children in that camp. I would love to participate in this kind of empowerment in other places over time.


November 22, 2016

Roots: It Takes Two Villages


If an Arab and a Jew coexist in a forest – or a rustic compound in Gush Etzion – and nobody sees them, did it happen?

This seemingly random question occurred to me recently.  

Allow me to back up a bit…

I was invited to take a unique photography course.

The course was sponsored by Roots, an initiative led by a joint Palestinian and Israeli committee whose goal is to foster understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians. The four-day class was being given by world-class European photographer Saskia Keeley, in the Gush Etzion area, to local women, for free. By “local” I mean the Jewish Israelis of Gush Etzion and the Palestinian Arabs in the neighboring villages. Together.
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Depending on where you sit when you read this, you may react to that opportunity in a number of ways; from horrified to delighted to why is this even an issue? While Israel is a very mixed society with Arabs and Jews – and a healthy sprinkling of others – sharing parks, stores and universities, and in some places sharing neighborhoods, I live across that most irritating of invisible lines marking the area known as Judea, the “West Bank” or the “territories” depending on your perspective. Society mixing is somewhat more tenuous here.

My own reaction to the opportunity was, “Cool!” After all, I love photography, I love learning new skills, I love things that are free, and frankly I was intrigued by the idea of having an opportunity to interact – really interact – with local Arabs.

Others in my community were more skeptical, or even downright opposed. Whether they were scared (“What if someone pulls a knife on you?”) or against it for ideological reasons, there were those who voiced their objections. And to be frank, their objections for the most part weren’t irrational or unreasonable. Then again, no one has ever accused me of being overly rational or reasonable… I signed up for the course.

I arrived the first day with absolutely no idea what to expect. With a mix of apprehension and excitement I entered the rustic compound tucked away near Gush Etzion Junction, wondering how I’d never even noticed its existence before. I wondered: Would the Arabs be friendly? Would there be a major cultural barrier? Would it be insurmountable? What about language? Would they speak English, or even Hebrew proficiently enough for us to communicate? I was left wondering because, aside from the teacher, only Israeli women had shown up. We each made ourselves name labels written in English and Hebrew, with room for the Arabic that the Arab classmates we’d hoped would eventually join would add for us.
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With this note of disappointment, the class began.

The teacher showed us the basics with loaner cameras that she’d personally raised the money to purchase. As there were only Israelis at the moment, she had us pair up, wander around the compound, and take each other’s portraits. A great exercise, but sort of missing the “coexistence” point of the class.

Finally, on the second day, the Arab women arrived.
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The day went surprisingly well. While there was little communication, mostly due to the language barrier, it was tremendous fun to photograph each other.

Some of the Palestinian women were traditionally dressed, including head scarves, and others were in Western-style clothing, not especially distinguishable from secular Israelis. There were plenty of smiles, and we were all relaxed.

For my part, I was accumulating beautiful photos that would ordinarily be hard to capture, except perhaps on the street, where I am actually quite shy to photograph strangers. This opportunity was ideal! As I photographed, I envisioned the article I would write about the possibilities of coexistence and cooperation and all that… Perhaps it would be a photo essay! Maybe it would even be translated into Arabic! I was quite excited about it.

Unfortunately, the Arab women did not show up on the third day. It was disappointing to discover that one of them was actually paid to ensure the attendance of the other Arab women, and that they were not nearly as forthcoming in participating as the Israelis had been.

The last day, however, they were there, and on time.

We took a little field trip to a vineyard for variety and continued to photograph each other. It was a lot of fun, and I got some more great shots.
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I was starting to get really excited about my upcoming article. I figured I wouldn’t have to write much at all, as the photos would say all that was needed. I mentioned this to one of the Arab women who looked at me like I was insane.

What she said next devastated me: I had no permission to publish any of my photos of those women at all.

I was dumbfounded. Why take all of these photos if I was going to do nothing but bury them in a folder on my computer? What were we expected to do with these photos if not use them in the way I had planned? Then I thought beyond my personal disappointment: What in the world was the point of the class if we could not share the experience with our people? All of our people. My people would, at most, look at me with disdain. But many would see the possibilities.

And it might make people think… What about the Arab women? Couldn’t they see this? Why would they want to waste such an amazing opportunity? I pushed the issue and what I discovered was most tragic of all: they were genuinely afraid – some even for their very lives – should anyone in their communities find out.

It was ironic: the Jews were afraid to attend the course for fear of getting hurt there; the Arabs were afraid to attend the course for fear of getting hurt at home.
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I can vouch for the feeling of safety and comfort felt during the class. Unfortunately, no one can vouch for the safety of the Arab women who participated going public in their communities; after all, none of them were willing to chance it.

Was the class a success? I guess it depends upon your barometer. There was a sincere feeling of trust among the dozen or so of us. On the other hand, it felt artificial and like a dead end. What is the point of an experiment of coexistence if it cannot be shared? If an Arab and a Jew coexist in a photography class and nobody sees them, did it happen? Even I’m not sure, and I was there…

Maybe it’s just the beginning. Maybe it has to start slowly. In fact, I’m sure it does. There are possibilities.

We do live side by side, shop in the same stores, and occasionally take (secret) photography classes together.

I know other efforts exist as well.

We are too well aware of the domino effect of terrorism.

I’m not suggesting that these small efforts will eradicate terrorism. But perhaps it’s possible to have a domino effect of coexistence as well…

None of us are going anywhere; somehow we have to live with each other. We need to start somewhere. Perhaps just a few people, on both sides, can start small.

The key is that they can’t just coexist; they need the courage to tell the world.


June 5, 2016

IBTADA: Empowering Women Through Microfinance

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India, Issue 4 - June 2016, Issue 4

Ibtada, meaning ‘the beginning’ in Urdu, is a non-profit organization based in Mewat, India, that empowers local communities, especially women, to become active participants in the global effort to reduce poverty and inequality through microfinance and capacity-building initiatives.

Founded in 1997, it organizes women into self-help groups, known as SHGs, clusters and federations. The SHG members are sent to field-schools where they receive training in more effective planting, farming, and harvesting techniques, animal husbandry as well as hygiene and sanitation. They also learn negotiation skills with merchants, for example on how to buy seeds in bulk at a discount. The women then bring back this knowledge to their villages where they become community-resource persons and train the next group of women.

The respect and status of being a community-resource person and an active contributor to a family’s income have empowered many women to join forces to tackle social ills that have long plagued their communities but have been largely considered taboo, such as alcoholism among men, child marriage, or ensuring girls’ education. They also often work together to ensure fellow women get their rights in cases of domestic violence or inheritance disputes.

By all measures, Ibtada has been a huge success. Today, it has about 1,400 SHGs with more than 16,000 women members, 90 clusters and five federations, most of whom are wholly self-organized and financially self-sustained through member contributions.

More important, the women of Ibtada are breaking down barriers and opening spaces for themselves and their daughters so they can live a life of dignity and opportunity.


February 6, 2016

The END Fund: Eliminating Neglected Tropical Diseases in Idjwi


Feb 29, 2016 | Democratic Republic of the Congo, Issue 3 - March 2016

The END Fund  in collaboration with Amani Global Works are working together in the Congolese island of Idjwi to implement a public-health program designed to control and eradicate neglected tropical disease (NTD).

Using well-trained staff and a network of community health workers, the first phase of the Idjwi project intends to distribute generously donated drugs over the next three years to those at risk of the three most prevalent NTDs – intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and lymphatic filariasis. The project promotes school-based water, hygiene and sanitation education, advocates the use of bed nets, and empowers villages to become open- defecation-free zones. This collaborative project between the END Fund and Amani Global Works aims for sustainability, community engagement, and wider adoption of good practices.

Following disease mapping in 2014 and 2014, DRC continues to see increased attention as a high priority country for the NTD Community. In order to achieve treatment goals, the END Fund will continue to seek additional funding and implementing partners.

"My children motivate me. I educate them myself, I'm the one who feeds them, I care for them when they are sick. My children are my joy and treasure."