The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project


Sandra Whitehead, WISCONSIN MUSLIM JOURNAL, Feb 13, 2024

Members of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project protested Dec. 23 in Madison.

A small group of Madison citizens banded together in 2003 to forge person-to-person relationships with Rafah (a city in Gaza), raise awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and influence U.S. public policy to benefit both peoples. Now it aims to help families in its Sister City survive.

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project launches the year-long Grassroots to Gaza campaign tomorrow to raise funds “to provide urgent aid to children and families there who are suffering from hunger, cold, disease, dehydration and the constant threat of death and injury from Israeli bombing and shelling,” the charitable organization explained on its website.

Meanwhile, 1.5 million Palestinians now shelter in Rafah (six times the population before Oct. 7) as Israel airstrikes hit and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens a ground offensive. It will be a “bloodbath, and a stain on both Israel and those nations providing arms,” tweeted the Norwegian Refugee Council chief Thursday. “We need an immediate ceasefire to reach the women, children, families who are at a breaking point,” he warned.

Rather than call for a ceasefire, the U.S. Senate passed a foreign aid bill early this morning that includes $14 million in military aid to Israel. To be enacted, it would next go to the House, “where it is unclear when or whether Speaker Mike Johnson would hold a vote on it,” CNN reported.


Cassandra Dixon of the Madison-
RafahSister City Project

Madison-Rafah Sister City Project’s new fundraising campaign grew from “desperate feelings,” MRSCP member Cassandra Dixon said in an interview Sunday with Wisconsin Muslim Journal.

“This is such a horrendously awful time. The suffering there is incomparable to anything we have seen in our lifetimes.

“In order for people to try to remain in Gaza, it’s going to take so much,” she continued. “It seems insurmountable, especially when you consider the pulling of funding to UNRWA (15 countries, including the United States, withdrew funding from the United Nations Reliefs Works Agency, which provides healthcare, education and other assistance in Gaza, after reports of individual UNRWA staff’s involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. The decision was decried by Amnesty International.)

“You have to start somewhere,” Dixon said.

Grassroots to Gaza fundraising campaign aims for survival and sustainability

Helping the people of Rafah survive on their land “is one of the pillars of what we do,” MRSCP co-founder Barb Olson told WMJ Sunday. “During our first year, we raised money to contribute to the rebuilding of a well that had been bombed and destroyed. It was the well Rachel Corrie was guarding before she was killed (in 2003, smashed by an Israeli bulldozer).

“From the beginning, we have provided humanitarian aid but also worked to provide people with economic livelihood support,” she said. “The most fundamental form of resistance is the ability of people to remain on their land, even knowing that right now no one’s looking at sustainability, just survival.”

MRSCP’s Grassroots to Gaza fundraising campaign launches with its Valentine’s Day to Leap Year Silent Auction. It is free and open to the public. Bidding begins tomorrow at noon and runs until 5 p.m. Feb. 29. The group has already raised more than half of its initial goal of $5,000 through direct donations, yet “it’s a drop in the bucket” compared to the tremendous need, Olson said.

All proceeds go to the Middle East Children’s Alliance, “a trustworthy partner we’ve worked with for years,” Olson said. Although Israel severely restricts the entry of aid, MECA is still working on the ground there to provide for Gazans’ critical needs, Olson said.

“One hundred percent of all proceeds will go immediately to MECA for urgently needed food, shelter, water and medical supplies,” an MRSCP press release states.

Auction items can be viewed here. A wide variety of Madison businesses, restaurants and artists donated items ranging from gift certificates for coffee and fine dining to limited edition artwork and hand-crafted items made by artisans in Madison and Palestine, says the press release. “A local educator has donated an entire year of tutoring for a struggling reader, a local Mennonite author has donated a book and a talented local baker is offering a dozen feather-light scones baked just for you.”

Future Grassroots to Gaza fundraising plans include music events, a bike ride and a campaign to inspire anyone celebrating a graduation or a birthday, holding a garage sale or other appropriate events to invite their families, friends and neighbors to donate to the survival of families in Gaza.

MRSCP’s Grassroots to Gaza fundraising campaign with silent auction launches on Valentine’s Day.

Madison’s unofficial Sister City

MRSCP chose Rafah, an ancient city on the southern tip of Gaza, bordering Egypt, as its sister city. The ancient city dates back to the 8th Century B.C. and includes a number of archeological sites of past civilizations.

Before the current war, about 130,000 residents lived there, with over 70% of its people in refugee camps. More than 50% of the population is under 15 years of age. There are 43 schools in Rafah, with 26 supervised by UNRWA and 17 by the Palestinian National Authority. It had one health center and four clinics.

When MRSCP began in 2003 with a small but committed group of concerned Madison citizens, its first battle was to be officially recognized. A strong attack against their proposal ensued from the Madison Jewish Community Council, which wrote a letter to the mayor calling it “a thinly veiled mechanism to bash the State of Israel” and antisemitic.

“In a climactic vote, the majority of alders present voted in favor of the project, but by Council rule the proposal lost by one vote,” the MRSCP website states. “Mayor Dave Cieslewicz had announced in advance that he would veto the Council resolution if it approved our project, a rare occurrence in Madison government.”

Although the City of Madison denied Rahah official Sister City status in 2004, the group has continued to treat it as an unofficial sister city, Olson explained. MRSCP achieved a 501(c)(3) designation as a charitable organization from the Internal Revenue Service. Contributions to MRSCP are tax-deductible.

The tiny group (still between 8-10 members) punches well above its weight. “Everyone has a job to do,” Olson explained.

Since its founding, MRSCP raised funds for projects to directly benefit Rafah’s citizens, its website explains. In addition to contributing to the rebuilding of the well destroyed by Israeli bombing, it has collaborated with other groups to provide professional materials to the Gaza Community, build a playground, provide clean drinking water to five schools, contribute furnishings and books to a children’s library, support medical care for a child severely injured in an Israeli attack, contributed funding to a project to aid traumatized children and their parents and Gaza-made rechargeable household systems to power lights, fans and phones, and donated Back-to-School backpacks for children.

MRSCP also “protested against and raised emergency relief following repeated Israeli military assaults on Gaza,” its website states. The group has worked on the home front to increase “understanding of Palestinian daily life, society, culture and history, including how U.S. and Israeli policies and Israel’s regime of control have created a devastating situation for ordinary people throughout Palestine.”

It works with like-minded groups to engage in public advocacy “to hold Israel and the U.S. accountable for human rights violations against Palestinians” and engages in activities such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel in defense of Palestinian human rights. It recently joined Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine, a growing coalition of more than 60 diverse organizations that have called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Israel designated Rafah in a “safe zone” in southern Gaza.

Other Valentines for Gaza

In addition to MRSCP, other organizations are featuring February initiatives. The Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine has created a Valentine Day’s card that members will sign and deliver to their own elected representatives, detailing the devastating destruction in Gaza, said WCJP founder Janan Najeeb, also founder of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition. “We are mailing or delivering hundreds of valentines to elected officials, calling for a ceasefire and asking them to stop arming Israel.”

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that brings together “people of all faiths and backgrounds to challenge injustice and build peace around the globe,” launched an invitation to send a collective “message of love to Gaza.” It created a web page where you can download graphics (including Facebook profile pictures and zoom backgrounds) and a copy of a valentine to download for a photo shoot for participants holding the valentine. It encourages people to continue to post it through the month of February using the #LoveToGaza hashtag.

“All of us realize from the photos we see from Palestinians in Gaza living through a genocide today, there will not be the (Valentine’s Day) celebrations of past years in 2024,” an email promoting the campaign states.


Sandra Whitehead

Sandra Whitehead is an educator, nationally award-winning journalist and author of Lebanese Americans, published by Marshall Cavendish. She is blessed with a loving family–her husband Abdulaziz Aleiou and three children, Ali, Aisha and Adam.





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