North Americans pair up with Gazans

Bob Atchison, left, and Tareq Abuhalima are part of the twinning of Manhattan Mennonite Church in Kansas and Youth Vision Society in Gaza. — Bob Atchison Bob Atchison, left, and Tareq Abuhalima are part of the twinning of Manhattan Mennonite Church in Kansas and Youth Vision Society in Gaza. — Bob Atchison

For five months, the world’s focus on Gaza has been intense. But North American Anabaptists have been building relationships with people in Gaza through a twinning initiative for over four years.

The idea began with Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian human rights attorney in Manheim, Pa. He wondered how U.S. Christians could help the people of Gaza, who have been under Israeli restrictions on food, electricity, fishing and internet access since 2007. He put forth the idea to pair congregations in the United States with nonprofit organizations in Gaza.

The Gaza twinning initiative — organized by the Mennonite Palestine-­Israel Network, or MennoPIN — is one response to Mennonite Church USA’s 2017 resolution, “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine.”

Twinning, which began in late 2019, establishes person-to-person connections between Gazans and people in the United States. They learn to know each other as human beings, Kuttab said in a Jan. 29 interview.

Kuttab’s original idea called for pairing North American and Gazan congregations. But in Gaza there are only three churches and about 1,000 Christians. Congregations were paired with nonprofits instead.

Congregations and organizations submitted profiles to get to know each other and then started regular Zoom calls. There were 13 original partnerships, and three have been especially faithful.

One of these pairs is Youth ­Vision Society in Gaza and Manhattan Mennonite Church in Kansas, twinned since December 2019. Youth Vision ­focuses on empowering women, children and youth, and also distributes humanitarian packages.

Tareq Abuhalima, project manager at Youth Vision Society and now a graduate student at Bluffton University, was the main host of the Zoom meetings. He and the organization’s director shared information about its programs. There was also cultural exchange. People at Youth Vision Society and Manhattan Mennonite would talk about their families and foods, holidays and music.

One goal of the twinning was to break stereotypes, Abuhalima said. Before he met people from Manhattan Mennonite, he got his information about people in the United States from movies. A common perception in Gaza is that all Americans agree with the actions of the U.S. government. Through the twinning conversations, Abuhalima learned this was not the case.

Through twinning, people in the United States learn about everyday life in Gaza. Dave Janzen and John Stoltzfus of Fellowship of Hope in Elkhart, Ind., appreciate Gazans’ determination to withstand difficult conditions.

“Their resilience is just inspiring and amazing, but it shouldn’t have to be that way,” Janzen said. Fellowship of Hope is paired with the Gaza YMCA.

Stoltzfus recalled a Zoom call in which a man talked about having to move his family from place to place during an airstrike. When Israeli bombs hit Gaza in 2021, the YMCA sustained damage. Fellowship of Hope sent funds to help with the repair.

Gaza YMCA and Fellowship of Hope had a call scheduled for Oct. 7, but the YMCA needed to cancel because of the attacks by Hamas in Israel that day. The twinned pair has not met again, and Janzen and Stoltzfus are not sure if the YMCA is still standing. Evidence indicates the Gaza YMCA building may have received a direct hit. Much of the YMCA’s work focused on trauma resilience through art, drama and sports.

The war in Gaza also affects Youth Vision Society, which cannot function because the director, Iyad El Ejil, is in another part of Gaza. Neither is the society able to distribute aid to families, because no supplies can enter Gaza.

U.S. twins try to keep in touch with people in Gaza. Michael George, a member of Landisville Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, receives intermittent messages from Mohammed Ramadan, who ran an after-school program with Landisville’s twin, Pulse of Peace Association for Community Mental Health, whose building was destroyed in December. Pulse of Peace and Landisville had been meeting twice a month since 2022.

Messages can be few due to Gaza’s limited internet access. George is worried because he has not heard from Ramadan since Jan. 1, and Ramadan has not responded to messages. Ramadan has lost several extended family members in bombings.

At Bluffton University, Abuha­lima is co-director of the Lion and Lamb Peace Center and working toward a master of business administration degree, with the goal of running non­profit organizations in Gaza.

Bob Atchison, a member of Manhattan Mennonite Church and MennoPIN, worries about Abuhalima’s future. He knows that due to the war, things will not be the same for Abuhalima, nor for Gaza twinning.

“We’re in a period now where there’s tremendous change afoot,” he said.

Abuhalima hopes it will be a change for the better.

“I hope after all this madness ends,” he said, “something good happens that compensates Gaza for all the suffering.”

Eileen Kinch

Eileen Kinch is digital editor at Anabaptist World. She lives near Tylersport, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two cats. She Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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