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Volume 10, No.3 WINTER 2007
Celebrating IOCC’s 15th Anniversary

From Education to Cooperatives,
Building a Future for the Middle East

(left) Through more than $4 million in grants by USAID, IOCC has built and repaired public schools and community centers throughout the West Bank. Saed Mustafa/IOCC Jerusalem. (right) IOCC's latest initiative in the West Bank will equip families cut off from their farmlands to provide themselves with 25% of their food needs. Photo credit: George Malki/IOCC Jerusalem

Jerusalem, West Bank — “The okra, tomatoes, and cauliflower are ripe and ready for market. There is talk of getting a different breed of goats to produce better quality milk, and the possibility of teaching the village women’s cooperative how to weave wool into Scottish-style pullovers.” Nora Kort, Head of Office for IOCC’s operations in Jerusalem and the West Bank, speaks of the latest initiative to bring food security, new skills and cooperation among West Bank families. In this venture, funded by the European Community Humanitarian aid Office (ECHO) through IOCC Greece, over 300 families in five villages of the isolated Qalqilia region of the West Bank, who have lost access to their farmlands and sources of water due to the Security Barrier, are being trained by IOCC to cultivate house gardens and to breed their own livestock. The program’s aim is for families to be able to supply themselves with 25% of their own food needs.

The emphasis on sustainable development in the West Bank program is typical of IOCC’s work throughout the Middle East. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, programs target nutrition, education, skills training for women, and infrastructure rehabilitation.

In 1997, a conference was convened in Cyprus to explore the humanitarian role IOCC could play in this part of the world. One of the prime movers of the Middle East initiative was IOCC founder, Charles Ajalat. “I had always felt that it was our obligation to help the lands of the Mother Church,” says Ajalat.” He traveled to the Holy Land in 1997 to meet with Kort and Constantine M. Triantafilou, who was then serving as IOCC’s Director of Programs. They opened an office in Jerusalem and began with small projects to support local schools.

During this time, another staff member was also looking for opportunities to expand IOCC’s work from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. A Lebanese-Canadian national, George Antoun was serving as IOCC Country Representative in the Republic of Georgia. During his trips back to Lebanon he would explore different options for IOCC. In 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded IOCC a contract under its Global Food for Education program. “While other organizations were concentrating on single areas in Lebanon such as water purification or dental health,” says Antoun, “the USDA program was the first holistic plan for public schools that involved nutrition and health, training for teachers and administrators, and infrastructure repair.” IOCC’s program, which started with 80 public schools, has now grown to 243. IOCC Lebanon is also currently implementing a $4.7 million program from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to rehabilitate 200 public schools.

(left) IOCC’s USDA nutrition program in Lebanon was a landmark, says Regional Director George Antoun “because it was the first time that public schools were approached with a holistic plan that involved nutrition, training, infrastructure repair, and health.” Fadi Haddad/IOCC Lebanon (right top) The Orthodox Church, government and school networks that IOCC Lebanon had long cultivated were invaluable during its emergency response program during the 2006 war. Ziad Haddad/IOCC Lebanon (right bottom) IOCC’s latest program in the Middle East will provide thousands of Iraqi refugee children living in Syria with a chance at an education. Photo credit: Crystal Safadieh/IOCC Lebanon


IOCC would also work successfully in the areas of education and infrastructure in the West Bank. Through Hellenic Aid of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, community centers throughout the West Bank were built and equipped, and impoverished families of Gaza received medical care and infant formula. Through USAID, more than $4 million was invested in building public schools and community centers, and in providing jobs to construction workers.

Through its relationship with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, IOCC began working in Syria in 2002 to rehabilitate schools, hospitals and orphanages. IOCC recently received grants totaling $2 million from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM) to provide schooling and supplies to Iraqi refugee children and families living in Syria as well as to disadvantaged Syrian children.

One of IOCC’s most dangerous assignments was in Iraq, where IOCC opened an office in 2003. Working in partnership with local churches, IOCC provided emergency food and supplies to those who were most affected by the second Gulf War. George Antoun, now an IOCC Regional Director, remembers the precautions they had to take. “Most of the time we did not stay in hotels because all the hotels were targeted, so we stayed in the homes of our Iraqi colleagues until this became too dangerous. Eventually, we pulled all of our expatriates from the country. Today, all of our work in Iraq is done through qualified local staff,” he said.

IOCC continued its steady expansion in the Middle East in 2005 when it opened an office in Amman, Jordan. It has since provided millions of dollars in donated medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, sewing machines, blankets and books to Jordan.

While IOCC has focused on long term development work in the Middle East, there have been opportunities when the church and government networks that IOCC has long cultivated became invaluable in emergency situations. This was the case in Lebanon during the war of 2006 when IOCC staff created an emergency program for the thousands of displaced families that streamed into the Beirut area. IOCC then received a $3.7 million grant from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to help returnees rebuild their lives in southern Lebanon.

As for the future of IOCC’s work in the Middle East, Antoun says the organization will remain active in the countries where it is currently working while diversifying into other areas such as health awareness programs and agriculture. “We have positioned ourselves strongly in the area of education, but we also need to move into agriculture,” says Antoun. “Many small-scale farmers in the Arab world need technical and material support to improve the quality and quantity of what they produce.” As for the quality and quantity of the first harvest of the Qalqilia villages of the West Bank, Nora Kort looks forward to the day when she can network these villagers to the community of Taybah, earlier IOCC beneficiaries who have since gone on to initiate their own cooperative ventures. “These kinds of cooperatives are rare in the West Bank,” says Kort, “but I like to think that IOCC has proven to the people we serve that they are absolutely necessary for success.”

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