Madland: Madison-Rafah Sister City Project ambassador impressed by local youth facilities

Anees Mansour says he loves everything about Madison — except our winter weather.

Catherine Capellaro, Isthmus, 01/30/2014

I caught up with the 27-year-old Palestinian visitor at the Madison Children’s Museum on Tuesday (when it was -17° F) as he was wrapping up a weeklong visit to Madison hosted by the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRCSP).

“Every place I visited here is amazing, like the Boys & Girls Club. And I like this museum. It’s really lovely. But I don’t like this weather. I can’t imagine how you live here,” Mansour told me as we sat below the museum’s giant hamster wheel, happy screams echoing in the state-of-the-art children’s paradise.

Mansour is the director of the Rachel Corrie Cultural Center for Children and Youth in Rafah, a Palestinian city in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The center is named after Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old activist from the International Solidarity Movement who was crushed by an Israeli armored bulldozer in 2003 while attempting to prevent a home demolition. Mansour knew Corrie before she died; she helped teach him to speak English.

Mansour says visiting Madison from Rafah is a study in contrasts. “They call Gaza the biggest open prison in the world. There is no hope, there are no smiles,” he explained. “There is nothing, not like here.”

Madisonians Tsela Barr and Barbara Olson, Mansour’s escorts from MRCSP, explained that establishing a relationship with Rafah is difficult because Gaza is currently sealed off from both Israel and Egypt. More than 1.7 million people, many of them refugees and more than half of them children, live crammed together in extreme poverty. Barr says she traveled to Rafah in 2012 with other members of the MRCSP and was astounded by the living conditions. “We met Anees and I said, I really want to help. Tell me what you need. The center was basically empty.”

The sister-city group raised money here to furnish a library for the center — enough to purchase tables, chairs, bookshelves, and a computer. And they just exceeded their goal for a campaign to buy books for the library. MRSCP also collaborated with the Middle East Children’s Alliance on the Maia Project, which provides water filtration systems in schools. “They asked the children what they wanted, and they didn’t say games or electronics. They said clean water,” says Barr.

Before coming to Madison, Mansour spent three months in Olympia, Washington, as the first Rachel Corrie Foundation Leadership Studies Fellow.

“I don’t want to say that I am shocked when I arrived in the States, but I came from an unbelievable place. People there don’t really think about the future as much as they think about daily life,” says Mansour. “Everything is different. Everything is nice here. Everything works and it’s organized, not like under the occupation. Everything is electronic. Everything is available to you.”

Mansour says he has been impressed by the generosity of Madisonians. “I feel they really care about the Palestinian people. If I go back I want to establish something a center called like a ‘Madison-Rafah Cultural Center.’ In my opinion, we need to teach love. We need to teach people how to love each other. I want to connect people, especially the kids.”