Most Sundays, Somia Hamdan visits her local park with her two friends, Amal and Laima. They sit on a picnic bench opposite one another and chat neurotically about Twitter and local gossip. Hamdan is there to socialize but also to supervise. “Since I created the space,” Hamdan said, “I like to take care of it.”

At 23, living in Gaza, Hamdan has been blighted by three brutal conflicts with Israel, decades of protests, a cycle of rocket fire between Israel and Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, and infighting between Palestinian factions. She faces one of the worst employment rates in the world, oversubscribed schools, and a territory in which movement is tightly controlled and more than half the population lives on less than $5.50 per day. Live concerts and movie theaters are rare, imports and exports restricted, and children often used, and killed, for smuggling.

Though Hamdan and most of her peers have mobile phones — a lifeline for connecting with the outside world — power cuts are relentless: Az-Zawayda, her home in Deir al-Balah of some 25,000, often has barely four hours of electricity a day. “There’s little to do here,” Hamdan said.

Before 2018, Hamdan had certainly never played a video game. That year, she learned to play Minecraft, the wildly popular computer game in which players make things out of blocks — but not purely for fun. In 2012, U.N.-Habitat, Microsoft, and Mojang, the company that made Minecraft, teamed up on Block by Block, a venture that aims to improve marginalized areas by actively engaging community members in public projects. According to the U.N., more than 17,000 people have participated in Block by Block initiatives in around 100 different countries — including three projects in Gaza — improving hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. 

Using Minecraft’s building blocks, community groups design a virtual public space, later made into concrete reality. From parks to beaches and even streets themselves, these spaces are a key indicator of the health and sustainability of cities. “If made safe, accessible, and welcoming, they can be drivers of civic cohesion, biodiversity, livelihood, and economic growth,” Christelle Lahoud, 30, a program management officer for U.N.-Habitat, told Rest of World. “If not, we tend to see more crime and pollution, reduced productivity, and general social disparities.” 

Participants in the Gaza experiment were selected by the Aisha Association for Women and Child Protection, an independent organization and project partner working to achieve gender integration in Gaza. Promising candidates were motivated, interested, and hungry for change. 

Hamdan was one of 42 others — young women, mostly — given the chance to imagine a virtually designed town center through the game. The project aimed to design and build a community garden for Az-Zawayda — a modest goal.

Fatma Zoqlam, 18, and her sister, Ghada, 17, also made the cut, much to the approval of their mother. “She was all, like, ‘You have to do it! It will improve your confidence! And communication!’” Fatma, wearing a floral hijab and bright-purple dress, told Rest of World over Skype. “Not that I needed persuading.” 

But Ghada, a tad more shy, wasn’t quite as up for it. “It made me feel nervous, working in a team with strangers,” she said. The first day, the group visited the space, which was only sand, ruins, and unlit roads. “I stood there and thought, This isn’t going to work,” Fatma said. 

The architects introduced the world of Minecraft. “Most of us had never played a video game before,” Hamdan said, “but it was surprisingly user-friendly.” They were split into groups of four. “We took turns figuring out the keys, playing around,” Ghada said. “Once I got going, I didn’t want to stop.” 

On the second day, things got heated. Keen to impress teammates, the decision-making adults in the room, and their family and friends, things got competitive. “I wanted to have the optimal design. … Because then my work could be reflected in the actual space!” Fatma said. She leaned forward, “I wanted to be able to say to everyone I knew, I made that!”

Az-Zawayda Community Garden officially opened on December 31, 2018. Photos courtesy of Project Team.

“I wanted technical approval,” Ghada said. “My group was, er, leader-heavy, though. A boy took charge. He was like, ‘We need to do this, this, and this.’”

What the group concluded was that protective measures were a priority. “We discussed safety a lot,” Hamdan said. “Me and my friends feel scared to leave the house alone. The threat of sexual assault is too much.” (Around 51% of women in Gaza are victims of gender-based violence.) They needed lighting, fencing, security (including a guard), and a separate area for women and families. “The fence was my input,” Ghada said. 

For Fatma, aesthetics mattered — plants, trees, a proud fountain. Her team also made a cafeteria and installed municipal Wi-Fi to keep residents connected, along with solar panels. 

Three female Palestinian architects brought the park to fruition. One of them, Tasneem Omar, 29, described the process as “genuinely eye-opening.” Despite Minecraft’s limitations — the game allows players to use only blocks, no curved shapes — the women’s 3D efforts made her job far simpler. 

As the workshop came to a close, Omar drew up a schematic for a park based on the team’s work and handed it over to a group of selected contractors. Save for the Wi-Fi — which was costly and might detract from the community experience of the park — they used almost everything in the team’s design.

On December 31, 2018, Az-Zawayda Community Garden opened. Representatives from civil society organizations in the Gaza Strip, local and international NGOs, local universities, and workshop participants attended the launch. “It was a great feeling,” said Hamdan. “I gave a speech, something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do before.” 

Since then, additional projects have begun in Kosovo, Nepal, Lebanon, and Guinea; initiatives in Mozambique, South Africa, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Kyrgyzstan are currently underway. The Block by Block Foundation is also supporting coronavirus relief projects in ten affected countries. 

For participants, the work is transformative. “We saw our work on the ground,” Fatma said, her eyes wide. “Nothing like this had been done before,” she added. “The municipality had never put us — the public — in charge.”

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