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The InterVIEW

CRS feeds hunger for food, hope in Middle East

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Tom Garofalo never really wanted to go to the Middle East, but now that he is serving as Catholic Relief Services’ CRS country representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, he has become immersed in seemingly intractable conflicts and diverging cultures. He helps oversee an emergency services program that includes the distribution of about $14 million a year in food aid from the U.S. government as well as development and education programs targeted mostly at Palestinian youth. He also visits members of Congress to tell the story of the people he serves—useful information for congressional staffers, who are not allowed to visit Gaza—and speaks throughout the United States to try to educate Americans about Palestinian- Israeli issues. On a recent visit to the Chicago area, which included several stops each day to tell the story of CRS’ work in the area, Garofalo snatched a few minutes from his lunch break following a presentation to speak with Catholic New World assistant editor Michelle Martin.

Catholic New World: What does Catholic Relief Services do in the Palestinian Territories and Jerusalem?

Tom Garofalo: The three main areas are emergency services, youth development and education.

Emergency services is really delivery of material goods to alleviate poverty. Food is the main thing, but we have provided cash to university students so they can stay in school. Last year, when the U.S. had sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, and none of the civil servants were being paid, a lot of the students didn’t have money to pay tuition. So we provided cash for university students to pay tuition, and they volunteered at local NGOs in exchange.

In youth development, we are trying to help them be civic participants and be prepared to be members of communities as adults, with the values of community and common- good type ideas. That involves mainly youth from 15-25 years old, and others sometimes.

In education, we recognized that there’s not a lot of opportunity for students to test out some of the things they are learning about. The curriculum is full of ideas about democracy and leadership, but there’s not opportunity for people to experience these things or experiment with them in real life.

So in values-building education, they learn about their community institutions— they look at things like orphanages, homes for the elderly, what the mayor does, what the police office does, and they choose a problem to work on. It’s really an extracurricular democracy program. It’s in seven Christian and Catholic schools. It’s not in the public schools because the U.S. government banned all funds going to the Palestinian Authority, but we are working on ways to bring it to the public schools next year.

The food aid is funded through the U.S. government, and the rest is funded through private donations to CRS. This is all our own private money that is originating from people in the pews. We’ve had $700,000 in private CRS money last year. It’s much more than most country’s programs.

CNW: When you visit congressional offices, do they listen to you?

TG: The Catholic Church has enormous credibility. They don’t see us as pro one side or the other. We have to focus on the dignity of the individual and stay away from the politics, even though it’s all political.

They’re not trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to cobble together a policy that keeps their boss in office. It’s not like they’re opposed to doing the right thing. … What they want is to create policy that works for the greatest number of their constituents.

It’s hard for them to put their heads up on this issue, because there’s always someone waiting to hit them.

CNW: What is the right thing for the U.S. government to do?

TG: The U.S. government has a role to play in being positive with both sides. Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel have severe limitations in terms of being able to control all the voices on their sides, and both have extremists. Both need help rather than punishment to bring the moderate voices forward. Being a good fried to Israel doesn’t mean to accept everything Israel does without question. It’s not one side is good, one side is bad. We need to look more deeply into the context. We also need to look, first and foremost, at the poor and what their struggles are and why they are going through that.

For example, in the West Bank, they can’t work in any meaningful way with the closures and the checkpoints. Eliminating some of those would make them much more hopeful for peace, and much more supportive of moderates. They already are supportive of moderates. They know the end of the violent path is death.

CNW: How did you end up where you are?

TG: I never really wanted to work in the Middle East. I wanted to work in Latin America. I used to skip those two pages in the newspaper about the Middle East—even though you won’t get very complete coverage in U.S. media. I thought it was too complicated. If I can learn it, anyone can.

Educate yourself about the humanitarian crisis and issues affecting poor people. I tell people in Congress that we could feed people in the West Bank until the end of time, and they wouldn’t get anywhere. They would only get poorer— unless they can go to work.